My friends an I had come for Ms. Morrison specifically. She was famous, after all, a big star in the literary world. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, a Medal of Freedom recipient. As most, I was familiar with Ms. Morrison's work. I can't say I was a super fan, but I understood how good those words were. How she could take prose and make it fly from the page, make it land hard in the heart, make it memorable. I suppose I wanted to know her secret. How do you create flight in writing? How do you reach out and touch hearts? How do you fill words with such power, the power to shift the interior landscapes of people from all walks of life?
What I discovered was this. It is both simple and it is complex. Much like Ms. Morrison herself. What I found was a truly human human being, an older woman by then, up on the podium on that stifling hot August afternoon. She spoke about her own life and her struggles. She made it personal and in so doing, made it universal.
She talked about how the Bluest Eye came to be--once upon a time, a long time ago, she had a young friend who wanted blue eyes. Now, Morrison went on to tell us, blue eyes would have looked terrible in the young girl's black face, like a piece from the wrong puzzle. And the little girl had a beautiful face, with lovely brown eyes that fit perfectly. But blue eyed girls were better, you see. Blue eyed girls were beautiful and loved. So the little girl prayed to God each night that he give her blue eyes. And each morning she woke up, looked anxiously in the mirror and was disappointed. Until she decided that she could no longer trust God, because he wasn't giving her what she most desired.
The simplicity of this story touched me, a woman with blue eyes. I don't understand what it is to be black, but I surely understand what it is to want something you covet and cannot have. A stick thin twiggy-like willowy model of a figure would have been my wish when I was younger, something I could never have achieved without resorting to Anorexia and growing a few inches. I knew what it was to have prayers unanswered and my faith shaken. And, in telling the story, Toni Morrison allowed me to connect my own wants to that of the girl in the story. I understood blackness just a little better because of it, and the sadness of wanting so hard to be something you are not. Because the something you are is not is valued more than the something you are.
This is the heart and soul of good storytelling. Taking the specific and making it universal is an art form all in itself. It is a goal worth striving for. It is the art Toni Morrison perfected over her lifetime and we are all the better for it.
Toni Morrison died Monday, at the age of 88. A daughter of the great northern migration, she lived through segregation and civil rights. Her words flew into our hearts and into our minds. Where they will remain for a long, long time. God speed, Ms. Morrison. You once said that to fly you had to let go of all the shit holding you down. You're free now. Fly on.