Toni Morrison speaking in New York City at a tribute to Nigerian Writer Chinua Achebe - 50 years after the release of his novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. (Photo: Angela Radulescu)

“Make a difference about something other than yourselves.”
– Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

Dear Sista Toni, 

I met you (used loosely here) almost 10 years ago. It was very brief. I was doing PR for the National Black Writers Conference. Amiri Baraka was there as well. I couldn’t believe how blessed I was to be in the presence of those I admired so much and for so long. 

As your voice wafted through the crowded room, every single person listened intently to your every word. I now wish I had captured it on video. But it was 2010, the pre-dawn of social media, camera-phones and such.

I wish I had said more to you. But what was I going to say that wasn’t embarrassing, awkward or untoward and flat out crazy? I wanted to be cool so badly! 

What words do you say to a woman who has all the words – from simple, poignant truths to flowing, beautifully crafted narrative prose? Nothing! Which is what I did because any one of those wacky outcomes would have been a possibility with my nerves being bad.

 I was just thankful to breathe the same air. I was walking in rare air, as a matter of fact! That is one of the memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

As you continue your ascension, I am penning this letter of gratitude to honor a life lived well. We are owed nothing on this side. You left it all on the world’s table, bequeathing the gift of your wisdom, lived experiences and profound, honest storytelling to generations of black girls and women and writers to follow. You fought the fight in words and in deeds and in the most exquisitely positive way. 

Your words strutted defiantly across the page, telling stories of our pain, trauma and rage. You were a truth-teller and soothsayer, realist, pragmatist and dreamer. You gave shape and form to things unspeakable, emotions untouchable. Things that needed to be seen, heard and shared, pulling the covers back on the ugly truths that could or would lead to our individual and collective healing. 

You spoke unapologetically and intentionally to and for black women. Your voice and your words gave us –black women – permission to talk about us, our stuff, selfishly and unabashedly. You spoke to the struggle of being a black girl/woman/mother/protector/provider/savior/lover/bed wench/beast of burden/healer/all things to all people. 

The impact you made was undeniable. The imprint you left, indelible. The hug of your words stretched so far and wide. You’ve influenced people without them even knowing it. 

I remember seeing Whoopi Goldberg’s standup act on TV years ago, where one of the sketches was both a sad and funny nod to “The Bluest Eye.” That had to have brought thousands of new eyes to your work, not to mention how it lifted the veil of invisibility off of what it means to grow up as black girl in a white world. You saw us and we saw you! 

And that was just the beginning. 

As you know, in recent years words such as erasure, inclusion and representation have become prevalent in our lexicon. We are marching forward and making baby steps toward progress. We are defining and determining our own beauty standards. 

We’re still jacked up no doubt, with miles to go before we sleep; but we are better. We are resisting. We are rejecting monolithic portrayals and tired tropes. We are healing. And, perhaps most importantly, we are writing our own narratives; telling our own stories.

We thank you for being a part of that early movement. I thank you for that. 

I pray the spirit guides and ancestors were with you and awaiting your arrival.

Rest well Sista Toni. We got this from here!

With love, 

Joy

President Barack Obama talks with Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Toni Morrison in the Blue Room of the White House, May 29, 2012. The beloved writer and activist also earned a Nobel Prize in Literature and a Pulitizer Prize for Fiction. She died following a short illness on Monday (Aug. 5) at age 88. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)