Toni Morrison Has Died at 88; When I Was 27, She Saved My Life

There was this woman. I loved everything about her in the same way that I still didn’t know how to love myself. Her caramel brown skin was pristine. I hated the acne scars that marred my own. Her smile looked like a Crest ad, and I hated the gap between my teeth. Her body was effortlessly curvy; mine lumped in the middle with a pouted belly and dimples at my elbows. I couldn’t understand what she possibly saw in me — far into my 20s, and still by all accounts awkward like a teenager. She gave me Toni Morrison.

It’s a vulnerable thing for a nerdy and book-ish black girl to say out loud, that I didn’t read Toni Morrison until I was old enough to know better. Most other black women I knew had committed entire verses to memory. They proudly rocked tote bags etched with her words or earrings made out of her image on and off Brooklyn subways and during our trips to Prospect Park, where we drank wine bought from Bodegas out of paper sacks and pretended to be classier than we were. By the time I finally read Toni Morrison, she was already more than a writer to me. She was a Patron Saint. Immortal.

We said our silent prayers to her in the black girl joy we scrapped together for our selves. In our stubbornness, in our eye rolls and pursed lips, the clicks of our tongues against the back of our teeth when we sucked in breath and said “Girl…”, the ways we held each other when it became too much on our own.

That sticky summer she handed me Sula. Nel and Sula were childhood best friends. They did almost everything together and completed each other’s sentences. “They ran in the sunlight, creating their own breeze which pressed their dresses into their damp skin… they flung themselves into the shade to taste their lip sweat and contemplate the wildness that had come upon them so suddenly.” I wanted to contemplate my own wildness with this woman, though not the kind shared by two young friends running in the breeze. Or maybe exactly the same kind.

I read Sula upside down on my bed with a small fan pressed against my sweat. I remember royal purple bed sheets and the faint yellow outline of a nicotine stain on my ceiling that must have been from my apartment’s previous occupant — I’ve never smoked.

Then she handed me The Bluest Eye, which to the this day is the only book that for me, has a sound. The Bluest Eye is subway cars roaring to a stop and muted announcers who sound more like Muppets characters than actual human beings. It smells like dank concrete platforms and handlebars you know better than to touch and urine. It’s awful, but also comfort. There was a time when that was home. “Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty… A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.” I didn’t get it. I never wanted to escape my blackness; I cloaked myself in it like armor.

That was never the point. I knew what it was to hate myself. Some days, I still do. I know the bloody raw flesh of crying silently when no one is looking and imagining clawing out of your own fucking skin so that you could see the world as someone else. Someone prettier, perhaps. Someone whom people smiled at. Someone who isn’t ignored or an afterthought. Bland. Ugly. Forgettable.

Toni Morrison laid bare the kind of secrets that we barely even whispered to each other, the shames that we buried underneath our quick tongues and sisterhood and fashion slays. She wrote for black women, and for that she is ours. There are going to be countless eulogies and write ups about the author and Nobel laureate. I assume that most of them will be a more thorough undertaking of her life’s accomplishments than the hazy rumination of one queer black girl about the summer of 2013. The thing is, Toni Morrison helped save my life. Today I wanted to make sure that she knew that.

In the closing of her Nobel address, Toni Morrison said, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the the measure of our lives.” It’s probably going to be the quote most seen across your social media today. Still, this morning I was reminded of another: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”

Toni Morrison was free. And in her freedom, she sought to give black women a taste of our own. We will be her legacy.

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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 532 articles for us.


    • This is a legacy: to extend words like strong hands that can pull you out, pull you forth. Words like hands that can shake you, that can make you. That can caress and hold you. That tear down walls, that create home for hearts which need them.

      Dr Carmen Phillips: you illuminate Toni Morrison’s legacy, and you are part of her legacy. In your own words that you hand forth, to those who need them too.

  1. “It’s a vulnerable thing for a nerdy and book-ish black girl to say out loud, that I didn’t read Toni Morrison until I was old enough to know better.” I feel you, because same.

    I appreciate this piece, I appreciate you, and I definitely appreciate Toni Morrison. Rest in power and peace <3

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