If, as Oscar Wilde said, we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars, my mother’s voice was a rocketship. Graduating from The University of Washington in 1973 with a major in African American studies and a minor in Latin American studies, Glennis Wilson was one of the finest literary minds I have ever heard or will hear. As an intellectual, she was great misanthrope, and like all great misanthropes, she was a broken-hearted idealist. She carried the scars of being excommunicated from progressive antiwar, black power, civil rights, and socialist movements for the sin of her occasional skepticism. Yet it was in literature, in the writers and likeminded people who represented democracy better than founders and most fortunate beneficiaries, where she found her true exemplars of the human condition.
I remember her sentences: rapid, clear, crisp, and so elegant that I wanted to record them. She modulated her kinetic tone to create particular moods. She could be rueful when telling how people mistook Hemingway’s suicide notes for boasts and instructive when talking about the best and worst of Faulkner. She could be erudite when talking about Margaret Atwood, and eager to listen to others and learn when it came to Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor. She could be gentle when talking about the women in the novels of Ernest Gaines and John Edgar Wideman and respond with fury when the subject turned to Saul Bellow. In every aspect of my formative years, it was her voice that dominated my inner life and gave me the idea of the written word having meaning.
In the mid 70’s she shelved her aspirations as a literary critic to support my father’s landscaping business, and-for a time-she was highly rewarded for that financially. By the time I was schooling age, however, my father’s crack habit had left her destitute. In between different section 8 facilities with my brother and I, my mother read and talked about literature as solace in her life and a way to pass on what she knew. In walks to and from food banks, in her new-old Chrysler, in the break room where she sold jewelry, in my aunties house, and at my grandmother’s, my mother gave me American literature at a very young age.
I was too young to know all of what she was talking about, but I learned enough to be classified as a genius child in the 3rd grade. What I knew more than anything was that no writer meant more to my mother than Toni Morrison. My mother taught me that she and Atwood were America and Canada’s answer to the boom writers (Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez), phenomenally schooled novelists influenced by Faulkner, Franz Kafka and James Joyce whose inventiveness was as distinct as their brilliant prose styles. She also taught me that Morrison was the clearest heir to the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston in bringing more in the vernacular, myth, ritual, ceremony and interrelationship dynamics of African American life.
A close reading of Morrison’s novels makes a case for her a Cordelia to Faulkner’s Corn pone Lear. (only this time the daughter didn’t die) Even his most gifted descendants fell privy to the drunken logorrhea of the oxford master’s later style. In Morrison; you saw a continuation of the aesthetic traditions that Faulkner brought to American literature: radical approaches to storytelling, a sense of lyric prose highly attuned to the human voice, and an ability to create narrative tension out of severe human fallibility. Most importantly, in this critic’s opinion, she expanded and gave a new dimension to his tragic sensibility on race (one that-for all his foibles-wasn’t present in any literature before him.)
She established this first with Sula, her novel within a city that has its Antecedents in Light and August. In detailing how every class and caste was emotionally revealed by an insanely troubled, racially ambiguous institutional man, Faulkner had created a symphony of compelling narratives about race that hadn’t been heard before. In Sula, Morrison both lowers and intensifies Faulkner’s gothic frequency in creating a three-dimensional portrait of Sula peace, an institutional woman who is shunned Morrison’s “Bottom” community(for the ‘crimes’ of her inability to comply with social morays and sleeping with other women’s men( In the end when Nel, the sensitive center of the book who has stoically carried being heartbroken by Jim crow, the men in her life, and Sula for cheating her husband, goes to the grave of that “institutional woman” and dissolves into a sorrowful “ Oh girlgirlgirl girl”, you read an ambiguity that-behind it’s pitiless surface-showed a tremendous empathy toward the human condition and people under duress.
Sula (and her first novel, The Bluest Eye) established Morrison as a writer of the very first rank. It was her next novel, Song of Solomon, that made her a national bestseller and a global literary figure. Where Sula was the novel of the community of the bottom, Solomon was the novel of North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and a headstrong, stubborn young man who tries to become a whole amongst his black community and a community at large. It is also a novel that bends the bible and infuses it with African and native folklore, all the while brilliantly dissecting narrative tropes about masculinity and the great migration.
Morrison got on the cover of Newsweek with Tar Baby, a sardonic yet poignant character study of interracial and Intercine tensions in the Carribean and the US. Morrison established her eternal place in world letters with Beloved, the most signature and visible work about slavery in the English language. Reading it again, I saw an aesthetic kinship with Jose Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (In that both books go at immense subjects in a different, slant way). In an irreverent retelling of the gospels, Saramago presents Jesus not as a holy man, but a wounded cad, with trauma’s, urges, and unholy thoughts. Yet is how he alchemizes them-by going against the phony old testament piety of his father(god)and asking the beyond for forgiveness when pops cons him into sacrificing his life-that makes Saramago’s Jesus so moving.
In focusing on Sethe and Beloved, the human phantasm who-in her living life-was the child she killed to save from bondage, Morrison avoids the obvious message while keeping the legacy of slavery a fraction away from her haunting story. There are no easy scenes or pat saints or sinners in the book, nor are their stock scenes of pathos of retribution. The novel is a visceral, precise fictional account of the first generation of a family( Sethe, the daughter Denver, the mother n law Baby Suggs, and the boyfriend Paul D) trying to survive after slavery; and in making the reincarnation of beloved the dead child that seethe killed-and showing how she wreaks subtle havoc in her family-Morrison shows the visceral and metaphysical effects of slavery without telling you
Beloved (and the novels before it) made her the titular figure in American literature until she died. Also important to my mother, grandmother and aunts was that she did it while being one of them. She was a single mother raising two boys. She worked her ass off micromanaging her time. Writing brilliant books and being a dutiful editor, she showed a work ethic that they could relate to. To my mother, grandmother, and aunts, Toni Morrison wasn’t their hero. Toni Morrison was their secular north star
My discussions with my mother about Morrison’s are timestamps now. Being 14, newly in the suburbs and struggling to understand the prose and narrative tricks of Jazz. Starting as a freelance writer at 25 after years of being dysfunctional, yet getting cussed out by her when I parroted the proper conservative cliff notes about Paradise and Love (do you have anything in your mouth other than a fucking cliché?) Dedicating myself to be a serious creative writer and absorbing everything I could from her while I went over her body of work and the later novels (A Mercy, Home, and God Help the Child)
It took until I was 33 for us to even breach the subject of The Bluest Eye. She first refused to talk to me about it, saying (not without cause) that I was too young to deal with the intense subject matter. By the time I was 15, however, my uncles had openly expressed their suspicions about my father, and I had turned into an intensely troubled, deeply suicidal teenager, and to even mention the book was something that would make her cry. It was only when I was 33 and too close to the crossroads via a drug and alcohol overdose, where she made the trip to have the most intense conversation we would have in our lives.
I had come a significant from being a frail ghetto nerd and an insanely troubled teenager. With the knowledge I learned from hanging around my Uncle Moe (the first poet in my family), I published my first chapbook in 2008 and developed a name in poetry scenes. With hermit tendencies to this day, I was overwhelmed by the local response I got. I didn’t know that I was supposed to write slam poems were centered on talking to white people: (yelling at white people seemed rote and I wanted to spend my time making my aunts smile). I didn’t know I was expected to write ashy nationalist scrolls telling black women what to do, or pleasant gossamer post-racial ballads that watered-down who I was and made everything about my culture tailored for white people’s comfort. I wanted to write what I knew, what I felt and what I understood of my history; And suddenly I was in these places where I was this lightning rod who was pissing so many people in poetry scenes off.
I had also developed enough of a name to remind Black Tacoma of my father. Right when he sexually abused me, a month before I turned 9, I knew that I couldn’t tell anyone about it because of how loved Bob Lashley was by black men. In segments of high and low, the myth of my father as the wronged man was one that had tremendous power. He owned Lashley Landscaping, a black business in the pacific northwest that, in its heyday, employed a lot of black people. He won a civil rights case against a marine base that had discriminated against him and ended a broken addict of a man because of it. To a lot of brothers, Bob Lashley was a fallen black king and they did everything they could to put him back on his throne until he showed them that he didn’t want to be anything to but a monster to anyone.
What broke me, and what sent me into hell is when it became public knowledge. 5 years later, when a sex worker found out what he was doing to me, and let people know, the response was a brutal indifference. Because I wasn’t masculine, because I stuttered and stammered, and because I was awkward, I got it from a lot of people in the places between 23rd and Ash and 23rd and G. “Give me your chain you little bitch. Give me your wallet your little faggot.” And on several occasions with one person, Suck my dick. I’m going to make you my girlfriend, you little cunt”. It was in a desperation-a move that fit the prototype of Judith Butler’s definition of Gender Performativity-that a became a boxer, a profession that I would have probably made my career in if not for my burgeoning addiction to alcohol.
And when, a decade and a half later, I had got recognition for my potential as a writer and began to move along “respectable black circles”, “good white liberal circles” and “pleasant poetry circles”, some of the voices about my father were not that much better. Oh, this isn’t something that should be talked about. Focus back to on what a great man Bob Lashley was and the wrong done to him. Find Jesus. Don’t be too dark. Smile. Deal with it yourself and it will be alright. We don’t want to hear how it was that bad. It did not matter that it was that bad. I didn’t matter that I was thrust in these places that were demanding me to tell me life without truthfully processing it for a second. They needed me to smile. They needed me to tell them it wasn’t that bad for their entertainment liking
By late 2011, I couldn’t do that to their entertainment liking anymore, and these groups were all but finished with me. By 2012, I was finished with life. A downstairs neighbor had done a concern check on me, and if she didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this essay. I remember coming home from the hospital with my uncle being woozy and dopey, telling macabre jokes until I saw my uncle in tears praying to a god, he never believed in. I spent the next two days delirious with guilt in bed. I felt I had hurt my loved ones in my sad boy suicide ideations even more than when I was a troubled kid. I didn’t want to die at that moment, but I didn’t want to be a coherent, cognizant being.
After three days of being a basic vegetable, being sentient only to eat and go to the bathroom, I wake up one afternoon to see my mother in my writing desk. We hadn’t talked for a while and she had taken the train up to Bellingham from Tacoma without telling me. She wore her usual earth-toned cardigan, mom jeans, and a scarf to cover the toxic burns she got when trying to throw away one of my father’s freebase kits. I had put my mother through enough as a teenager, and I was so frightened to tell her that I had put her through more. More than that, I knew her mental health was failing due to a lifetime of the trauma she kept in.
I started in to say “I’m so..I’m so..I’m so sorr…” but she put her index finger over her mouth. She proceeded to tell me the straight story that she had only spent flashes touching on before. She told me of being 19 years old and coming from a house that wanted to give her away for adoption since she was three, how she tried so hard to fit in with her family, and-when she realized she couldn’t fit in-dreamed of college and writing as a refuge from what she knew. Then she told me of trying to talk books with English students, and constantly trying to defend her right to live( “Bobby, Steve Cannon, Amiri Baraka, Chester Himes, and Eldridge Cleaver might have had differences with Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Jerzy Kosinski, and Norman Mailer, but the one thing they had in common was that they wanted women like me raped and murdered”) She told me that she developed the majestic, hellraising, contrarian literary street fighter persona, the one I had bragged to my friends about in order to look cool, was one she developed to survive.
She paused, took a deep breath, stayed silent a few minutes, and put The Bluest eye in my hand. “I wasn’t in her shoes, Bobby,” she said, “but when I read Toni Morrison, I read the first writer in college who didn’t want me to die”.
My mother died five years later, due to dementia and complications from a fire. Her death was agonizing, protracted, and very painful. She lived to see me publish two works, The Homeboy Songs and Up South, become small press bestsellers. Though she was in-firmed, she also lived to see me be nominated for a Stranger Genius Award. She was also very proud that I became myself as writer, a fire breathing heretic with no bullshit barometer, a misanthrope who also happened to be a broken-hearted idealist, a ghetto nerd schooled in the classics and willing to make every word work on the page. I am wild, creative, different, irreverent, and I am those things because my mother taught me.
Did she have her flaws? Yes, but we all do. If you gave her a choice between a concert hall of people who truly loved her and a balcony of people across town who didn’t, she’d take to try to convince the balcony. It broke the 2-decade bond with my adopted aunts who wanted her to go to Seattle to be the next Elizabeth Hardwick. Given the circumstances of her life, however, the hellish, hellish traumas she had to go through as a child and with my father, my mother was one of the most wonderful and decent people I have ever known. When I needed her to be a mom, she was the best mom I could have had, and my only regret that I wasn’t a better son as a teenager.
Re-reading The Bluest Eye, I am still as emotionally gutted as I was the weekend I first read it with her. I wasn’t in Pecola or Claudia’s shoes, and wouldn’t be as possessive as saying I was them. But the aesthetic achievement of the book-of making the nightmare of a community that accepts abuse into art- made me feel less alone for reading it, and at a time when I direly needed to. I’m also kind of shocked that the book wears the crown of the most shocking black book of its age. My momma was dead-ass-on about the books of the time: Morrison deals with haunting, haunting shit in it that moved me to tears, but it wasn’t as traumatically evil as Cannon’s pedophile bestseller( Groove, Bang, and Jive around) Cleaver’s commands to rape white women as political act and black women as practice( Soul On Ice) or the cocktail snuff works of Bellow( Mr. Sammler’s Planet) Mailer( An American Dream) and Baraka( Almost too many to fucking count).
What makes it even more of a powerhouse of a novel is that-in this environment- how she alchemized all this agony into one of the most inventive structures I have ever read. A key to understanding Morrison in this book is to read as a response to Jean Toomer’s Cane. Published in 1923, Cane was also a series of linked vignettes centered around black people and black women in the south, and it still reads powerfully in how it evokes both the beauty and conflict of black people trying to make it in difficult environments. For its time, it’s remarkably humanistic, Toomer had breathed as much life and poetry into the women in distress trope as one could, and the book is one of the most important in the history of African American literature because of it. The Bluest Eye is structured in a somewhat similar loose linked way that can serve as a meta-commentary on Cane. using broken fragments of sentences as transitions in her vignettes, and focusing on the internal cost that the distress puts on black women, and how black people hurt black people, reads like her saying “ this is the beauty and distress you are talking about, deal with all of it.”
Morrison’s alchemy is why I am crying as I write this, and crying much, much more than I thought at the passing Morrison. Writers before her have written brilliant books centered around black life (Hurston, James Baldwin, and the recently departed Paule Marshall). Others have been remarkably gifted and innovative stylists and storytellers (Wideman, Edward P Jones, and the imposing, inescapable Lear of African American lit, Ralph Ellison). However, no writer did more or carried more weight as an artist make black people free, to express themselves freely, and to do so even if they were in the castes that-to this day-continue to be dammed in America. Toni Morrison’s novels made a strong case for her being the most gifted and inventive writer of fiction in the history of modern English. They also show that she didn’t want so many of us to die. And because of her, we didn’t. And because of her and my momma, I didn’t.