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As we get older, so, too, do those who have had great influence on our individual lives, our cultures, and society at large. Death is a part of life but it doesn’t make it any less impactful when someone transitions onward. The weight of someone’s passing affects each and every one of us differently. Even when the person who dies isn't someone you knew personally, there is still a connection because of the way their work lived within you.
I believe for myself, and for many others, the passing of Toni Morrison is an example of this experience — of mourning a life that helped shape and mold us through her contributions to Black women, the Black community, and the world. Morrison is no longer with us physically, but the power she had and bestowed upon us with her words feels stronger than ever.
Toni Morrison was in a league of her own. She was a Black American novelist, essayist, editor, teacher, professor emeritus at Princeton University, and most importantly a beacon of light to so many Black women for whom she was a constant champion. Imagine your very first published novel was The Bluest Eye and then you follow it up with Sula? The power that has — the power it still has. Morrison never pulled punches when it came to her written works or the words she spoke. She proudly reminded those who questioned her writing lens that she was writing for Black women, making sure our experiences were not only shared but humanized.
Her 1987 novel, Beloved, is her most celebrated piece of literature. It won her the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, and it was later made into a feature-length film directed by Johnathan Demme starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Kimberly Elise, and Thandie Newton.
Beloved is Morrison’s retelling of a true story of an enslaved Black woman named Margaret Garner. She had escaped from slavery and, when faced with being returned to that life, killed her 2-year-old daughter and would have taken her own life had she not been captured before getting the chance to do so. Morrison reimagined this story, bringing the dead child back as a restless ghost who returns to haunt both the mother and family. It’s a work of fiction with a story and characters that aren't watered down to be more palatable to audiences who are non-Black women. It incorporates several themes — mother-daughter relationships, the psychological impact of slavery, the definition of manhood, family relationships, and pain. There are no white saviors or feel-good encounters with someone white who finally saw humanity in Black people. This a story that centers around Black women and tells the story through their lens.
I rewatched the film Beloved after Morrison’s passing because, next to Sula, it’s one of my favorite of her works. Beloved the film was my introduction to Toni Morrison. I remember my first viewing filling me with anger and hurt. I was only 10, but by then I understood enough about slavery and the overall treatment of Black people in America to grasp some of the themes I was introduced to while watching. I later sought out the novel and was even more blown away by the story and the fact that, even though it was fiction, it was still steeped in very real history. My history.
I didn't see the film again until the news broke that we'd lost Morrison earlier this week. I felt compelled to rewatch it, this time as a 31-year-old mother of a 3-year-old, a child just a year older than the child Sethe killed because she didn’t want those 28 days of freedom to be the only days herself or her children knew. She’d already experienced hell and had no plans of returning. Even as a mother now, I still can't even begin to wrap my mind around the amount of psychological trauma experienced by those enslaved people, especially an enslaved mother — a mother who could bring herself to kill her own children lest they would be caught and taken back. It's a generational trauma experienced not just by Sethe herself, but also by her mother-in-law and her daughter, Denver. The beautiful aspect of Beloved is that it shows Black women dealing with this trauma and also helping one another when the burden gets to be too much — the burden, in this case, being Beloved herself, the soul of the restless child manifesting herself into a young woman to torment Sethe and Denver.
As that physical manifestation of Sethe’s pain and guilt, Beloved drives away her lover, Paul D., a man who was fine with being around until he learned the truth of what Sethe did and then fell weak to his own carnal urges. He tells Sethe her love is too thick, a love he had no problem with until he learned the truth and couldn't understand why she would do what she did — even though he knew what life was like at Sweet Home, the plantation they both escaped from. Sethe later passed on her trauma to her daughter, Denver, who was scared of their own front yard. Denver was still in bondage at the hands of her mother. As the burden of Beloved and Sethe’s need to make things right with the child she killed intensifies, her life spirals out of control.
Morrison masterfully depicts how Black women draw strength from one another in one of my favorite scenes from the film. After Beloved rips the blanket off Denver’s grandmother, Denver picks it up, weeping. She’s about to let the trauma of Beloved swallow her up whole when the spirit of her grandmother appears before her on the bed. Denver crawls into her lap as her grandmother gives her words of encouragement, reminding her of her history and the power she has. Denver finally ventures beyond the yard and, by doing so, sets the wheels of healing in motion.
I loved this scene the first time I watched Beloved, and I love it even more today because it reminds me of the strength in knowing our history and the comfort we can find in it, even its ugliest parts.
Toni Morrison never softened her tales of our histories, letting us know that there is still beauty even with scars of our past. Black women can be our own healing and help one another to heal in our safe spaces — spaces that Morrison created with her words, spoken and written alike. Perhaps that's why I felt so compelled to spend my time mourning her by engaging with her work. Morrison left us with works so powerful that they themselves have their own manifestations.
There will never be another Toni Morrison, but there are so many us of who will go on to do great things in our own right because of the path she forged.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.