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I Will Never Understand Toni Morrison. That Doesn't Matter
By Gretchen Gales
I was in 11th grade AP English the first time I was introduced to Toni Morrison. We were assigned Jazz as the next class book following The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby. I was most excited to read Jazz out of all of the required reading. The premise captured my attention immediately: a young woman is murdered by the hands of her lover and her corpse is attacked at her own funeral. I’m a big fan of true crime, so I was prepared for the carnage.
It became the only assigned book I never finished.
I was frustrated by the book. It seemed aimless. After the part about the attack, everything blended together in a confusing symphony. The words were beautiful, yet I couldn’t discern any of the themes and symbols I normally connect with.
“I don’t get it,” I sighed, exasperated. “Why is it called Jazz? There’s no jazz involved.”
Amused by my frustration, my English teacher chuckled. “Why don’t you give it a guess?”
“Is it because it’s set during the 1920s?”
“Is that a yes?”
Still confused and sick of not being able to make any clear connections with the book, I only managed to get halfway through before refusing to sit through any more of it. I managed to fake my way through the Socratic Seminars and other assignments knowing I wouldn’t be using anything from Jazz on my AP exams. I decided from that point on that I would never read another Toni Morrison book.
Even so, when I decided to pursue English as a major, I knew I would run across Morrison again. Of the many times I visited the conference room for a guest lecturer or event,
I admired the poster in the conference room, suddenly wishing I went to college that particular year just to hear her voice.
“Wow, I wish I had a chance to hear her speak,” I said aloud to a fellow classmate.
“I know,” she replied, “her work is so profound.”
“Actually,” I confessed, “I’ve only read half of one of her books. I just couldn’t get through it.”
“Oh, you didn’t? That’s a shame. You do need to try one of her other books.”
Breaking my own unofficial boycott, I nodded in agreement. I finally broke my unofficial vow during graduate school when I picked up The Bluest Eye at the university library. Before I read it, I prayed that I would finally get what Morrison was trying to say. The awestruck wonder I experienced while reading her debut novel was a relief. It was a profound testament to inherited trauma and skewed ideas of beauty. But even if I did not have a world-changing experience with The Bluest Eye or any one of her novels — ever — it didn’t matter. At all. More importantly, my opinion about her work, regardless of my stance, should count for absolutely nothing.
In an interview for The Guardian back in 2015, Morrison embraced the term “black writer” to describe herself. “I’m writing for black people in the same way Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14 year-old girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to [apologize] or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people].” Morrison’s work takes hold of the black experience in America, crafting a haunting and authentic narrative.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize my initial reaction — and subsequent decision — to not give Morrison’s work another chance was a knee-jerk reaction to being outside of my literary comfort zone. I was used to reading literature that still frustrated me, but had characters or concepts that I could easily recognize. After all, U.S. literature caters to white populations, starting from the very beginning of a reader’s journey. According to NPR, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that only 22% of children’s books included protagonists of color. More books with animal protagonists are published than books featuring characters of color — not surprising considering the amount of animal books I read as a child, too.
But Morrison’s legacy lights a path for more authors of color to find their rightful place in media as well, regardless of whether or not it appeals to white readers. May new authors and old publishers have the same fearless spirit of which Morrison based her career, beginning revolutions instead of following the status quo. As for readers, let’s challenge ourselves to read and respect literature unlike anything we’ve ever read, even if we can never fully understand the experience.
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