When I learned of the passing of writer Toni Morrison on August 6 at age 88, my first feelings were of loss. Who would tell Black folks’ stories with her care, honesty and diligence? Then I remembered that less than two months prior, the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”—which was largely crafted using her own words—had premiered in theaters. Thinking about the timing, I couldn’t help but wonder if, just as she’d done with her work when she was alive, Morrison had intentionally left behind this film as an added layer to her legacy, like a visual epigraph, a layer that wouldn’t have existed without her putting words to it. So I watched it again.
“My grandfather bragged all the time that he had read the Bible through five times, from cover-to-cover. I thought, Why does he keep reading that book? Then I realized there weren’t any other books and it was illegal in his life to read,” Morrison says at the start of the Timothy Greenfield-Sanders-directed doc. That realization gave the young Lorain, Ohio-native a new understanding of language. “Ultimately, I knew that words have power,” she says. This film is the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s origin story; the tale of how Chloe Ardelia Wofford became the Toni Morrison.
To many writers, especially to Black writers like me, Morrison is an icon. Even though her eleventh and last novel, “God Help the Child,” was published in 2015, no one would have dared call her irrelevant in 2019. In fact, on May 22, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded her the Gold Medal for Fiction. Its highest honor, it is reserved for artists who have achieved eminence via their entire body of work. Even as an octogenarian, Morrison still made news as a voice worthy of being sought out and meditated on. So when she says in the film that she knew the power of words because of how much pride her grandfather took in knowing them, it was a strong reminder that narrative control matters and that it should be taken seriously.
The film opens a window into Morrison’s thinking, and her clear devotion to her craft resonates. Months after I watched it, I couldn’t forget how she said her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” materialized as a result of her rising before the sun to write at 5 a.m. daily. After writing, the single mother would care for her two young sons, then tend to budding Black writers as an editor at Knopf Publishing. Feed yourself first, was Morrison’s understanding, and it was how she worked for decades. “I’m very, very smart early in the day. Later on, I… what?” she chuckled. “But early, I’m very good. Very centered.” Such dedication to what she had to put down, which she did in longhand in college-ruled steno pads, could not wait. As Morrison says in the doc, her debut character Pecola Breedlove was born because as a little Black girl, “no one took them seriously, ever.” But she did. As a result, she made the world look and read about Pecola’s truth.
That wasn’t typical of the books on the market. “The assumption is that the reader is a White person and that troubled me. They were never talking to me. Even Frederick Douglass, he’s not talking to me,” Morrison says in the film. “I can feel him holding back and I understand that because the people supporting him were abolitionists, White people. Sometimes he even says it. ‘These things too terrible to relate, like rape.’ He didn’t talk about it. Same thing I felt was true with Ralph Ellison was true with so many great writers. ‘Invisible Man,’ invisible to whom?”
But Morrison had no interest in storytelling through a White male gaze—her characters existed and spoke their truths whether or not White people were looking. “The point was to really open a book that’s about Black people, or by a Black person, me or anybody,” she told The New Yorker in 2003. ”In the sixties, most of the literature was understood by the critics as something sociological, a kind of revelation of the lives of these people…. I said, I’m going to make it as readable as I can, but I’m not going to pull any punches.” That no holds barred approach to storytelling, coupled with the poetry of her words, was everything.
As she wrote, she also spoke. She was sometimes serious, always thoughtful and hilariously honest at the same time, “The Pieces I Am” is a loving reminder from the Presidential Medal of Freedom-holder that Black stories, her stories, mattered. “Navigating a White male world was not threatening; it wasn’t even interesting,” Morrison quips in the film. “I was more interesting than they were and I wasn’t afraid to show it.” And not one of the featured interviewees—including Angela Davis, Hilton Als, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, Farah Jasmine Griffin and Oprah Winfrey—says otherwise.
Greenfield-Sanders, a longtime friend of Morrison’s, incorporated archival video and photos from the author’s days as an editor, where she ushered in life-affirming and canon-crashing work by some of the country’s most influential leaders, including Muhammad Ali, Toni Cade Bambara and Davis. We see also get to see Morrison’s saucy side. In a gray curly Afro and burnt orange suit jacket, she shuts down the notion that being labeled a “Black writer” is somehow problematic. “I prefer it,” she says. When that same interviewer assumes she would be tired of the term, she corrects, “Well, I’m tired of people asking the question.”
In reflecting on “Paradise”—whose very first line reads, “They shot the White girl first”—Morrison says the Texas Department of Criminal Justice banned the book in its facilities for three years “because it might incite a riot.” She confesses through a giggle, “I thought, How powerful is that?” I thought, how funny was she?
Her books —“The Bluest Eye” (1970), “Sula” (1973), “Song of Solomon” (1977), “Tar Baby” (1981), “Beloved” (1987), “Jazz” (1992), “Paradise” (1997), “Love” (2003), “A Mercy” (2008), “Home” (2012) and “God Help the Child” (2015)—countless awards and a fan following that rivals pop stars’ made it clear that she is someone to be revered. But the intimacy of “The Pieces I Am” shows me that Morrison is also someone I could hang out with and shoot the shit.
To hear Morrison retell her history with such unabashed joy, to see her rocking pant suits with flowy blouses and big bouncy curls, to witness the bemusement in her eyes when she affirms that she wrote for Black people, is to see the real person behind the literary god. It’s sad that Morrison had to leave us this year, but I imagine she did it the same way she lived and wrote—on her own terms and in her own words.
More of Jamiyla’s Favorites:
TV Show: “Euphoria”
Movie: “Toni Morrison: The Pieces That I Am”
Podcast: “The Daily”
Meme/Gif: The Nancy Pelosi Clap Back