Toni Morrison was our greatest literary writer.
It is, as a general rule, inadvisable to speak in absolutes in matters of artistic rank, but sometimes a thing is so obvious, you have to call it what it is. A literary talent like Morrison’s is akin to a celestial event, a comet that burns across the sky once every few generations and is remembered in poetry and song. Today, we lost her at 88. She was the best we had.
The awards bear that out, dozens of them throughout her career as a novelist, editor and educator. She became the first (and so far, only) African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the last American for 23 years until Bob Dylan won the prize in 2016.
She was beloved by President Barack Obama, who in 2012 awarded her the highest civilian award in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Obama cited “Song of Solomon” among his favorite books, recalled reading it and “not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think.” That statement, more than any other I’ve read, gets to the heart of Morrison’s legacy. She didn’t merely educate, and she didn’t entertain. To read Morrison was to enter a dialogue with history, with the very universe. If you didn’t emerge changed, you didn’t read closely enough.
I first encountered Morrison’s work when I plucked “The Bluest Eye” from a non-mandatory high school summer reading list – not because I had any grasp of its importance, but because I liked the title. I did not know the blue eye in question was the one sought by Pecola Breedlove, a black girl so abused and tormented, one made to feel so ugly in her black skin, she longed for traits of socially revered white beauty.
“’Please, God,’ she whispered into the palm of her hand. ‘Please make me disappear.’ She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away.” Did I stop breathing the first time I read that, like I did just now? It’s possible; that section is underlined in careful blue pen. I know I stopped breathing a few years later when I picked up “Beloved” and can recall being knocked winded again and again by a dead baby’s restless spirit as Morrison grappled with an America that had not yet grappled with its original sin of slavery.
In four years of public high school, I was assigned exactly zero books written by African American authors. My honors English syllabi were bursting with Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William Shakespeare – reams and reams of dead white men, the whole world examined from the top of the social food chain. Going to school in a country built on the backs of slaves, the only book I was assigned to read that dealt directly with racism was Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A fine book, to be sure, but one written by a white woman.
The pages of my paperback copy of "The Bluest Eye" are only a little yellowed at the edges. They’ll be getting more wear in the coming days, as I revisit her works. I suspect like all the greats, Morrison’s work will only get more, not less, relevant with time.
There will be other towering talents, other literary masterworks that get to the heart of the black experience in America (Colson Whitehead’s recently released masterpiece “The Nickel Boys” deserves to be part of that conversation). We’ll keep needing them. And we'll need to teach them, discuss them and share them with one another if we're ever to learn how to be and how to think.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Toni Morrison was our greatest living writer, and our most essential