Pessimism is for Lightweights: Episode 10
Poet Salena Godden reflects on the life and passing of the inspirational Toni Morrison.
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language.” Toni Morrison
Iconic and prolific, the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison passed away yesterday at age 88.
Now, in the future when they ask me ‘where were you when your heard Toni Morrison died?’ I will tell you how I was sitting at my kitchen table holding a Crucifixion figurine in my hand. It was a plastic and tacky thing I just found in a market stall, all cheap and gaudy with pink plastic flowers at the feet of the Christ. I was trying to remove the plastic Jesus from the cross, so I could swap the Jesus figure to a She-Ra superhero doll on her period. I won’t forget I was doing that at that moment.
When I heard Toni Morrison died, I was immersed in making a new piece of art for an upcoming exhibition and replacing Jesus on the cross with a bleeding woman. The synchronicity and symbolism of that moment isn’t lost on me. I feel like I’m running out of saviours, losing alive and living superheroes.
For those that aren’t familiar with Morrison’s work, I’d recommend The Bluest Eye, Beloved or Sula as great books to start with and get you hooked in. The Bluest Eye is my favourite as I read it at a time when I was vulnerable. Sometimes books find you when you need them. This book affected me most profoundly as a brown girl born with light eyes. It gave me insight, it was the first book that had me examine my relationship with shade, with self loathe and self doubt, and belonging in the state of unbelonging. The weight I have carried of feeling I’m not enough and that I’ll never be enough, black enough or white enough or just enough-enough.
“You wanna fly, you got to give up the thing that weighs you down.”
Toni Morrison was significant and vital for over five decades. Black women were at the centre of her work and as an editor she elevated and encouraged new work and new black writers.
Toni Morrison was more than a deft writer, a successful and well-loved author. She was much more than that, she was a lighthouse in a stormy weather of rising division, inequality and racism. She sang loud to drown out the deafening silence of others. She was a symbol of courage.
And, for me, it was as if by magic Toni Morrison’s work appeared, it came from some glamorous desk in far-away America and somehow reached me. I loved my local library, I went there to discover others’ stories and to find myself in books. But I couldn’t find a story of a UK childhood like mine, the 1970s and 80s, and being the only brown girl in the school and living on Thatcher’s breadline and so I began to write Springfield Road. That childhood memoir took around a decade to write and fight to get into print, it was finally published by Unbound. I took Toni’s most famous quote quite to heart.
“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
As an avid reader I needed there to be Toni Morrison, a someone to look up to, a someone to try to be as strong as. I needed her shining there, unapologetically, just as I also always needed Maya Angelou and Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin and all the other working-class black women who came up through poverty and rose to use their craft and artistry as a passport to some freedom.
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
Thank you for all the work you did Professor Toni Morrison. Thank you for speaking up and speaking out. Thank you for blazing a trail and smashing through, thank you for showing us the path, thank you for making our stories heard and making us feel that our stories were worthy of being printed. Thank you for empowering brown girls like me with wild and unruly hair, wild and unruly passion and wild and unruly mouths to use that wild and unruly fury and not get distracted.
As we hurtle into the carnival of chaos that is the roaring 2020s, we will lose more and more of our heroes. This is a horrible fact. The 2020s already mirror the 1920s in so many terrifying ways, politically and economically, and so the roaring we do must be loud, resilient and resistant. And now more than ever, we must not get distracted from the work needed to lift each other, to help others to help others, to seek heroes in the every day, discover the undiscovered, make space and room for the indie and the underground, the others and the outsiders, the counterculture. Rise and raise up the work of black women, the visibility of the working-class and marginalised.
“Tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
So after you’ve all re-visited the entire life work of Toni Morrison, I’ll leave you with this quick recommended reading list of a handful of the UK’s powerful female writers, alive and living authors and poets from across the diaspora, please raise each other up, make some space, make some noise, buy some books, listen to the work of these women:
Reni Eddo-Lodge, Irenosen Okojie, Candice Carty-Williams, Mona Arshi, Patience Agbabi, Jackie Kay, Victoria Adukwei, Catherine Johnson, Hannah Lee, Vanessa Kisuule, Theresa Lola, Dorothea Smartt, Zena Edwards, Ysra Daley Ward, Selina Nwulu, Chimene Suleyman, Malorie Blackman, Vera Chok, Coco Khan, Imitaz Dharker, Kat Francois, Malika Booker, Kit De Waal, Bernadine Evaristo, Hannah Pool, Diana Evans, Patrice Lawrence, Sabrina Mahfouz, Lisa Luxx, Zadie Smith, Hafsah Aneela Bashir, 4 Brown Girls Who Write, Deanna Rodger, Warsaw Shire, Jane Yeh, Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke, and many more…
Please read and share and remember the golden rule: every good book leads to another good book, as every author leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that take you to the work of the author they read and every act of kindness and courage can only lead to encouraging others and more acts of kindness and courage and more resistance and hope.
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.”
Toni Morrison, Rest In Power!
Salena Godden is the poet laureate for Byline Festival. ‘Pessimism Is For Lightweights, 13 Pieces of Courage and Resistance’ is published by Rough Trade Books.