The first book I ever read twice was “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. My mom gave it to me right when I was on the verge of adolescence; she said she thought it was a book I would need. At the time, I was unsure of what she meant. But I knew I loved books and I loved my mom, so I took her word for it. It was my introduction to an author that would influence me like none ever had before. Toni Morrison entered my life through the hands of my mother, and I have held on to her since.
I started reading “The Bluest Eye” in a hair salon while I was getting my hair blow-dried. It was a time in my life when I wanted to tame my coils into something God never meant them to become. I wasn’t prepared for how revelatory the book I was holding would be for me. While I flipped through the pages, I found so much of myself in the book’s main heroine, Pecola Breedlove.
Her story was one of the most tragic I had ever read. I first noticed our similarities when she would fervently pray for blue eyes; I recognized that devotion toward hating yourself. Except, instead of blue eyes, I wished for white skin and straight, long hair. At the end of the book, I remember how tears welled in my eyes when I found what happened to Pecola Breedlove. Due to the failure of her community to support her, Pecola became completely lost in her hatred of herself. She endured many other tragedies that I did not, but the hold internalized racism had on that young girl’s heart was an exact match to mine.
The book changed me. I saw how Pecola’s story ended and how the self-hatred of those around her consumed them completely. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and realizing just how much it was consuming me too. Reading Toni Morrison’s novel was the first step I took toward dismantling that self-hatred.
It also encouraged me to read more of her work. I delved deeper into her complex characters and unflinching honesty and fell in love with it all. She wrote as if she was on a mission to solely tell the truth, no matter what anyone else would have to say about it. Laced into the fabric of her prose was a dedication to portraying Black people as something I had rarely seen: human.
They were not caricatures. They did not exist only to support other characters, left with no story of their own. They were clever, bold, heartbreaking, funny, shameful, flawed and beautiful. Growing up, it was so unusual for me to see Black people written with such rich complexity.
Her novels were non-linear tales with interwoven narratives from different characters. They usually did not follow a single plot; rather, they focused on the journey of the people within the book and their struggles. Toni Morrison examined race with an enduring frankness and care that would enrapture anyone who listened when she spoke. I think that is what I loved about her the most. With each novel she crafted, the underlying message I received was to not yearn for how the world should be, but be brave enough to write it as it is and what it does to the oppressed.
Toni Morrison did not publish her first novel until she was 39 years old. She studied English at Howard University. After a period of lecturing at universities, she worked as an editor at a publishing company. It took her decades to decide to write something of her own. In her own words, she wrote her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” because “It was a book I wanted to read, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. So, I began to write it.”
I’m not sure if she anticipated that the years she spent with “The Bluest Eye” would propel her into literary stardom, or that it would set her on the path to inspiring a legion of writers and artists alike.
Former United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith wrote in The New York Times that when it came to Toni Morrison’s voice, “Hers was surely the most formidable melding of mind and spirit, of conscience and voice, of intelligence and insight, of justice and reason, of life- and reality-creating Logos that America had ever seen.”
For the Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis wrote that the literary icon’s writing was “a stunning oeuvre of optimism, a testament to the human capacity for love, connection, and triumph even against unfathomable suffering. Her words, and the ripple effect they created in literature throughout the decades of her career, live on.”
Burgeoning novelists and thinkers look to her books, essays and lectures to realize the power that language can truly have. Toni Morrison was a prime example that I could be whatever I wished. There are no limits to what the world could hold for someone like me; I just have to let myself be open to discovering it. Not only that, but I can also use writing to express myself and help other people, like her words have so often aided me.
I think that in every one of her books, she approached her writing with the same personal urgency. They were all books that she wanted to read and stories that she needed to be told. As I held her books in my hands, I could see how the love she dutifully gave to her characters had saturated the pages. She manifested her ideas of this world into fictional characters, placing them into the hands of millions who would love and cherish them as she did.
The second time I picked up “The Bluest Eye” was a few weeks after I learned that Toni Morrison had died. I remember standing in shock as the news alert popped up on my phone: “Toni Morrison, Seminal Author Who Stirringly Chronicled the Black American Experience, Dies at 88.”
She was gone from a world that she influenced tremendously. Even now, over a year since her passing, I wonder if she knew how far her words had reached people. I wish I could have told her how she had reached me.
Years later, as I am on the verge of adulthood, I now know why my mom gave me “The Bluest Eye.” I think she saw how I was struggling within myself and knew it would help me. What I am unsure of is if she knew just how much it would shape me.
I never got to meet the literary legend that was Toni Morrison. But her impact on my life is something I will never forget. She was a beacon of light that showed me there are no limits to what a writer could do with her pen. She may be gone now, but the lessons held within her words will live on for the rest of time.