It’s hard coming to terms with the fact that those who mold and shape us won’t be with us forever. The world is mourning the loss of Toni Morrison, but none so much as the black women who were buoyed by her words and coaxed into self-assurance, radical love, and a monumental duty to give black women of the future more: more options, more community, more freedom.
Here, nine black women take the time to reflect on just how much Morrison meant to us. May it offer you solace in knowing that her work and legacy will forever live on through us, the women who owe it all to her.
“Toni Morrison wasn’t just a gift, she was a prophet. She talked about the coming of a new way, a new god—a new perspective that would lift us beyond what we’d ever known. She was a levitical priest who served redemption and foreshadowed a very real, very holy structure, one where you need to know and understand who you are and where you come from in order to truly free yourself. That you didn’t have to appropriate the insecurities of those who truly rely on racism. You don’t have to avoid bass nor brass. In fact, it was mandatory that you developed love for your community and its problems, your pretty brown eyes, and certainly, sometimes, the trash on your street, the heat swelling around your room, and the nights swallowing your friends.
A simple gospel to believe in: that Black people could save themselves through flight, wings billowing with love of self. Morrison unfurled our difficult existence in so many sentences in such pretty ways; she documented that burst of fresh air we breathe in just before stepping outside and right after stepping in—when you hear the loud bang followed immediately by an explosion of confetti. She assured us that our great-grandparents lit the fuse. And that the momentum is meant to lift you up. Up and away.” —Aspyn Johnson, outreach assistant at ActBlue
“With the welcoming of Toni Morrison as our new ancestor, me and all the black women in my life feel a responsibility to walk in our unapologetic truth and pick up the mantle she has left behind. Toni Morrison’s work spanned history showing us the power, trauma, and healing in knowing where we come from. And she didn’t stop there — she then gave us the blueprint for where and how to take our collective story moving forward. It’s both inspiring and nerve-wracking to accept this call but Mama Morrison wanted us to know the full possibilities living in our DNA. In the voice of every black mama ever, she wants, no needs, us to ‘act like we know.’ ‘Freeing yourself is one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self is another.’ (Beloved)” —Brea Baker, director of programs at Inspire Justice
“Having to confront the mortality of my idols feels like a shock to the system. I was heartbroken by Ms. Morrison’s death, but also energized. Now is the time to be writing and reading and creating and doing everything in my power to fill up the world with the works of Black women. We can’t allow a void to form in the absence of giants such as Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Maya Angelou. We owe it to the young women who still desperately want to feel seen and heard. We owe it to ourselves.” —Luria Freeman, host and producer at NowThis
“I can’t remember a time when Toni Morrison’s words weren’t so deeply threaded throughout my life, my experiences. Those words gave me license to be proud, to be vulnerable, to be soft and immovable. In consuming her sentences, hungrily for the first time through Pecola Breedlove’s view, I was introduced to nuance and the complexity of what it means to be a Black woman in America. It was through The Bluest Eye that I met self-worth and esteem. I know that the deepest, most sacred relationships I will have with anyone on this earth will be with Black women from Sula. I experienced our history through Beloved. And I saw terrible, gutting, and beautiful love in Song of Solomon. I carried Toni Morrison through my life. I carried her into my marriage when I spoke Hagar’s words—’He’s my home in this world’—to my now-husband. I rose in love. I understand language and its power. I am who I am and know who I want to be because of Toni Morrison’s literature. And in this great moment of sadness, all I feel is gratitude that I was able to spend this lifetime with her earth side. How lucky am I? Are we?” —Chrissy Coleman, director of millennial and influencer engagement for Cory Booker 2020
“As a Black girl growing up in Richmond, Virginia, I wrestled with (feelings of) placelessness and estrangement in spaces that refused to recognize the wonder of my blackness and womanhood. I didn’t even recognize I was battling with these things until I read Toni Morrison. Her work stripped me and left me naked, forcing me to critically interrogate all that I had been layered by. The Bluest Eye shook my 9th grade world, but it didn’t leave me there stripped and shaken up. It empowered me, charged me to find my voice and actualize the power of my Black girlhood. Morrison took up space in ways that charged me to move through the world differently. My work with Justice for Black Girls stands on her shoulders.
Her death has forced us all to experience what we experienced the first time we read her work all over. Her work not only saw, but demanded literary space that allowed us to be seen. May we honor her legacy through work that affirms Black girls everywhere as our beloved, who both dream and define.” —Brianna Baker, founder of Justice for Black Girls
“The beauty of Blackness. The wholeness of our lived experiences. The responsibility to ourselves and the culture. You emitted words on a page that were eloquent yet familiar. I’m sure you recognized your words would help, but did you know they would save?
Save little black girls who struggled to see their worth in the world that intentionally collected overtime pay to diminish their existence. Save the little girl with words inside of her but found herself silenced due to the deafening sound of whiteness. Saved this little black girl and grown black woman by reinforcing her passions and instilling the belief that the function of my freedom is to free someone else.
Thank you for your art. Thank you for your passion. Thank you for your resistance. Rest Honorably.” —Denisha Monet, behavioral analyst and activist
“I feel the loss of the iconic Toni Morrison so deep because it was through the pages of her books that I found who I wasn’t and who I had the potential to be. I saw my face in the characters she depicted; I saw parts of life jumping from the stories she told. It was though that journey that I understood what it means to be a black woman in America, a reality that even to this day often fills me with more fear than joy. Toni Morrison gave the black woman complexity that honored her struggle but refused to make her a victim of it. I thank her, I love her and will continue to celebrate her by sharing her stories and showing up authentic, black, and woman.” —Jamira Burley, activist, speaker, and youth strategist
“In seventh grade. Pecola Breedlove made me realize I shared the weight of having darker skin. As a young adult, Sula taught me the power of owning my demons and celebrating friendship and forgiveness. I was away in the Hamptons working on novel edits when I received the news that Ms. Morrison had transitioned. I sat and cried. She was unapologetic in reflecting black life on the page. She was a craftsman editor, sculpting the words and careers of black literary giants. Although I have sat under the smothering weight of grief since her passing, I am consoled to know that her words will continue to nurture me through writing and black womanhood. I also accept the responsibility to tell our stories, as flawed and nuanced as they may be. I can only pray that I write with a fraction of the eloquence, precision, grace, depth and honesty of the legacy Ms. Morrison leaves behind.” —LaParis Hawkins, writer
“My introduction to Miss Toni Morrison’s work began as a solitary spark when I read The Bluest Eye. I was 26 years old and, by most standards, late to the realization of her potent genius. But I was immediately in awe of her ability to build stories with poetic wisdom as her primary tool, and each book and essay I read thereafter gradually electrified how I see myself in the world as a Black woman as well as how I see myself in the industry as Black woman writer. Consumed by the heaviest sadness upon learning of her passing, it occurred to me that I believed (or wished) she was immortal. She was the perfect example of what it looks like to continue keeping on, and she possessed an uncanny grace that revealed the portrait of a woman who is both strong steel and soft silk. She held us accountable, charged us with the duty of sincere and impactful effort, and still fostered our confidence and invested in our entitlement.
There’s a saying that goes, ‘Word is bond.’ For Black women who knew of her, Miss Toni’s words will forever be our bond. Her work, whether written in books or instilled in other writers emerging under her guidance and mentorship, is alive and moving all around us. For that, I still believe Miss Toni is indeed immortal, and I personally am forever grateful for her demonstration as unapologetic sunshine in a society that prefers moonlight.” —Shantel Pass, managing editor at SaintHeron.com