Written by: Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
It’s been an upsetting couple of days.
Several mass shootings in one week.
And then this morning came the news that Toni Morrison had died.
As I tried to catch my breath I remembered another August when the world didn’t make sense and I had to stay above water and just keep going.
In 1991, I finally graduated from high school. Two days later, I enrolled in community college. I decided on three classes: Freshman English, Political Science: An Intro to American Government, and Women in Literature. I was ready for my academic life to begin. I knew I had to take math and science classes, but that was for later. The first book I had to read for the Women in Lit class was Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I bought the paperback and got the academic show on the road!
Here’s the thing: I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on in the book.
Okay, I knew it was set right after the Civil War. Got it. I knew it was about a former slave named Sethe. All right. She had a young daughter, Denver. Check. But there was something else…a ghost? Who was she? And what did Sethe do in the cornfields with Denver’s dad, Halle? Where was Halle? Why couldn’t they get married? And why was the house referred to as “124?”
I felt incredibly intimidated. This was Literature with a capital L.
I kept thinking of my guidance counselor, who, when I told him my choice of community college said, “You might want to go to the school in Pittsburg. It’s not so academic, and it might be easier.” I dealt with his type all my life. I did what I always did. I sat up straight in my chair, then pretended to be confident when I was scared. After reading Beloved and having no idea what was going on, I started to wonder if he was right. Maybe this was too much for me. Maybe I was in over my head. But I had to finish the book for class.
My dad told me to buy the CliffNotes. “You’re overthinking this,” he told me.
“Dad, that’s cheating. I’m not buying the CliffNotes.” I didn’t want to tell him that I checked the library and the CliffNotes were already checked out.
“Morrison is a hard read. Don’t kid yourself.”
My mother was more direct. “You have to finish this book.”
“I have no idea what’s going on in the book. Why can’t she just say what she means?”
“You think every book you’re going to read in college you’ll understand? You won’t. That’s why you’re in college. You have a choice: You can read the book, then go to class. You might have to reread it to understand it better. This is college, babe.”
They were both right. Morrison was a hard read. But Morrison herself admitted that her books were not to be read for five minutes before the person went to bed. She also said something that changed my reading life: you have to reread regularly to understand what the writer meant. Not only does it make you a better writer, but it also makes you a better reader.
So I read Beloved and I showed up to class. I didn’t understand all of it, but I checked my ego at the classroom door. Thanks to my teacher Jessica Barksdale Inclan, I found out that Beloved is Sethe’s daughter. Beloved was killed by Sethe so she didn’t have to go back to slavery. Marriage between slaves wasn’t allowed. And the cornfield scene? Well, forget Love Island. Sethe and Halle had Love Cornfield!
Toni Morrison taught me tenacity. Jessica showed us an interview she did with AS Byatt where she said: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Right now I am working on a memoir involving a cold case and spirituality, and it’s funny. I’m writing it because I think the world needs to laugh, and have a little hope as well. When I think how I’m going to be fifty when this book is published, I also remember Toni Morrison was fifty-six when she won the Pulitzer for Beloved.
In Song of Solomon, a character declares at another character’s funeral “and she was loved!”
Seeing my Facebook/Twitter/Instagram flooded with Toni Morrison tributes, the same could be said about her.