Toni Morrison and Sharing Freedom

Janna Zinzi

In the onslaught of social media posts and outpourings of love dedicated to Toni Morrison, one of our African-American queens, innovators, and divine guides, I keep coming back to this quote about freedom. Freedom has been a theme for me this year particularly during my international travels, the hatred and violence stirred up by politics here in the United States and all over the world, and my age/gender/marital status/income.

I may get my Black feminist card revoked (sigh) but I haven’t read as much of her work as I should. However I’m no stranger to her storytelling. I’m embarassingly terrible at reading fiction, I start and never finish because I feel like I should be reading to “learn” facts or news. I know it’s colonized thinking but I also realize I’m low key afraid of the emotional journey it will take me on. I’m an empath! But for real no more excuses. Especially because this copy of Beloved I took from my mama’s house has been staring at me like “Get your life right!” Instead I first learned of her from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” which was a staple in my household. As I got older, I was more drawn to her personal story (she wrote her first novel at 40!) and clips of interviews I’d watch on Twitter or YouTube. You knew she was going to say what’s on her mind…with unwavering poise.

The timing of her passing feels crushing considering the current state of the world. America’s 45th President is a racist, misogynist bigot who actively uses his platform to incite white nationalist violence. In the last few days, two young, male white nationalists killed dozens of people in racially-charged mass shootings in Ohio and Texas. The shooter in El Paso specifically went to that location to terrorize Latinx families and named 45 in his last online rant. Kashmir is under occupation by Indian military stripping them of their land rights and political identity, essentially claiming the state no longer exists. Phone and internet is cut off and there are mandatory curfews while tanks and police patrol the streets. Thousands of protestors in Hong Kong have been and are still being arrested and attacked daily as they demand democracy. People in Sao Paulo, Brazil are protesting government corruption and cover-ups of state-sanctioned murders. It’s like we need our icons more than ever, and the world feels less stable and more frightening without our elders.

Seeing Toni Morrison’s quote about freedom on Twitter today juxtaposed with global chaos asks me to consider what freedom means to me. Am I free? How can I be even more free? How can I free others? Can someone else free me? What is freedom in a world that is constantly strategizing our subjugation?

art made for me by my sis (and travel inspiration!) Ray

Like Morrison, I am a Black women writer living in the United States. I love telling travel stories particularly via arts, culture, spirituality and feminism. I am privileged to move across borders relatively freely (except when the TSA assaults my hair). Travel writing has been a dream of mine for years and I’ve just recently left full time public relations work after over a decade to focus on being a creative entrepreneur. I’m freeeeeeeeeee! (ish) I’m almost 40 and sometimes feel like I’m drowning in this world of social media metrics and algorithms. Maybe because social media used to be fun! Now being an influencer is a legit job and everything has to be curated to perfection and on-brand. I know I sound old and cranky (wahhhhhh) but what about days like today where I feel sorrow, or anger, or frustration? If I’m going to write about travel then I can’t ignore the way hatred and oppression is manifesting globally. We are all connected and we can learn from each other’s struggles. I get some people need uplifting content to escape but I don’t want to post a picture of me on a beach in a bikni with some trite quote about self-love to keep my numbers up. I want to rage, or cry and curse. I also want to share. I want people to see what’s really happening around the world, and not just in the United States or on some pretty tropical resort. I also want attention because dopamine, right? Mostly I want to be honest and emotions aren’t perfect.

I ranted about this yesterday on my IG stories and appreciated friends sharing their struggles and offering encouragement to wrestle with this. Why am I so fearful? This is what I’ve been working towards my whole career. I “played the game” doing PR and social justice communications over the years. Now I have the freedom to be authentically me, to be honest, to be so free that I could show up with all of my complexity and layers and not give a fuck. Because now I’m only representing Myself, Inc. But is that what sells? Can I make a living?

As I was reading obituaries and emotional honorary social media posts about Morrison today, I was reminded how intently she followed her heart to speak for us, Black women and African-Americans. She was told “no” by publishers and critics claimed she was race-baiting and “sensational.” She was asked when she would write more stories about white people. Yet she wrote specifically for us, she asserted there were important stories within us to be told. Her freedom to weave multidimensional and evocative narratives gives us permission to be free to share our own messiness and our own magic. It’s only what she would want, right?

Twitterverse wisdom

I’m reminded that my frustration comes from placing too much value on other’s desires and perceptions and my own interpretation of such. (I’m a Leo rising and I’m doing my best.) Why am I sitting here not believing in myself, my voice and my experiences? It’s fucking annoying and egotistical to be worrying if my contributions are falling on deaf ears because my number of “followers” and “likes” are unimpressive? I find myself getting caught up in the perfectionism of what is most marketable but being discouraged because that’s not the story I wanna tell.

Enough with the pity party.

I came across this from today’s Los Angeles Times obituary: “‘What Toni and Maya showed was a willingness to fight for their vision and the courage to create themselves,’ said (Nikki) Giovanni.” I’m reminded it’s brave but critical that we dream big and to show up for those dreams every day. Baby steps with consistency make a difference. Also that I should write a vision statement to help guide me when I feel lost or pulled by others expectations. Being purposeful and true to myself even when it’s for the ‘Gram feels grounding and courageous. I cannot give away my power nor my voice so easily.

In the Oprah interview I watched today, Morrison shared that her turning point as a writer was when she asked herself: “what I thought if I didn’t do I’d die.” That’s a serious writing prompt. She says she came up two things, “1. Mother my children, 2. Write books.’" And then she did a bit every day. Morrison also affirmed: “I’m very comfortable with my flaws and very comfortable with my gifts." As my sis Melissa says, “no one can beat you up with your own truth” so even on the Internet where everything is eternal we gotta acknowledge our shadow and keep it moving.

So check it. I’m here to tell stories from around the world where readers will see themselves in others and recognize our shared humanity. I’m proudly here as a nerdy and rowdy traveling Black American womxn with big hair who is damn near 40 and single and doesn’t own a home or these “life markers” but is creating a life she loves on her own terms. I did not expect freedom to be so scary sometimes. But in a world where people are literally persecuted for freedom of expression or their race or religion, I have a responsibility to be loud and I am grateful for this gift. I’m fortunate to be in a supportive loving community of Black women and non-binary writers. I want to model for the youngins to push boundaries like our ancestors and elders did for us. Our spirit of liberation is something we must pass down.

Thank you Toni Morrison for courageously loving us so much. I just put Beloved by my bedside.

via Getty Images and @blackwomenradicals

Janna Zinzi

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Covering arts, culture, health and spirituality with a travel lens. On Twitter: @JannaZinzi and on Instagram: @goddessjaz

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