Some of the Things Toni Morrison Means to Me

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or abscond from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

Sula was a seminal text in my own development, as a writer, a reader, a person cultivating (and navigating) his own furious nonidentification. It was a time, during grad school, that I recall as at once intimidating and liberating: being open to all perspectives, gradually understanding — and accepting — that so much of my received wisdom was either wrong or…complicated. And while it’s during these formative years that so many are tempted to retreat back into their cocoons of conformity and familiarity, those willing to push through, be humbled, question everything, identify only with Truth (with a capital T) and those dedicated to the pursuits of justice and honesty (and what better outlet than Art, of course with a capital A, for this engagement, which, if you’re not careful, can become your life’s work). What I’m saying, among other things, is that Sula changed me. Toni Morrison helped me.

Toni Morrison, in short, was easy to recognize as the real deal, a writer I’d spend the rest of my life reading and trying to learn from, but as a twenty-something navigating info-overload and the siren song of Enlightenment (capital E, obvi), she helped me understand how very wrong and white so much of what I thought and read and repeated might be, circa 1990-something, and that I had a lot more work to do if I hoped to evolve in a meaningful way as a writer, a thinker, a human being. For this education, and inspiration, I’ll always be grateful.

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net

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