Arts·Point of View

The most valuable gift from the new Toni Morrison doc is time with the incomparable author herself

Amanda Parris shares four major takeaways from the revealing new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.

Amanda Parris shares 4 major takeaways from the revealing new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Author Toni Morrison died on Monday, August 5th, 2019. (Mongrel Media)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Toni Morrison passed away August 5, 2019 at the age of 88. This piece was written prior to her passing.

Toni Morrison's writing changed my life. In an undergraduate class called Black Women's Writing, I was assigned her novel Beloved — and while reading it in my bedroom, I had my first spiritual connection to a piece of literature.

Her words made history intimate and visceral. I remember needing to pause and take deep breaths. Beloved left an indelible mark on me and began my long love affair with her writing.

At 88 years old, Toni Morrison is one of the most celebrated living writers in the world. She's the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She has written novels, essays, plays and an opera.

I saw a documentary about her life last week, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. The film is primarily a praise song for her extraordinary career featuring interviews with her colleagues, friends and famous fans as well as artwork by Jacob Lawrence, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall. But the film's most valuable gift is the amount of time it gives us with Morrison. Through one-on-one conversations, she speaks directly to the camera about her journey, and she does it with comfort, confidence and a sly sense of humour.

Here are four things I learned from the film about the incomparable Ms. Morrison.

Toni Morrison opened the door for numerous Black writers...as an editor

Morrison was 39 when she published her first book, and I frequently come across reminders of that detail on social media. However, what is left out of that fun and vaguely inspirational fact is that long before she was published, Morrison was already paving a path for Black writers.

For 19 years, Toni Morrison worked as an editor at Random House. While there, she published Black women writers such as Gayl Jones and the late Toni Cade Bambara, and she is credited with convincing political activist Angela Davis to write her autobiography. She published Muhammad Ali's biography The Greatest and persuaded Random House to print the poetry and short stories of Henry Dumas after he was murdered by a transit officer. She was also behind a collection of writing on African Literature that included work by Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Athol Fugard.

In a 2003 interview with the New Yorker, Morrison discussed her Random House days: "I wanted to give back something. I wasn't marching. I didn't go to anything. I didn't join anything. But I could make sure there was a published record of those who did march and did put themselves on the line."

As a writer, Toni Morrison was determined not to centre whiteness

In the trailer for Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, there's a line that stands out. Talking about her career in publishing, Morrison says this: "Navigating a white male world was not threatening. It wasn't even interesting. I was more interesting than they were."

That steadfast belief and genuine fascination in her own story guided Morrison's aesthetic. Her stories were largely about regular Black people, often centred on Black women and the intimacy of their lives — their love and pain, their flaws and failures, their moments of grace and connection. White people and white institutions rarely serve as a primary force in Morrison's stories; more often, they are a peripheral presence.

That confounded many of her critics and peers. As Morrison explained in that same New Yorker interview: "I didn't want it to be a teaching tool for white people. I wanted it to be true — not from outside the culture, as a writer looking back at it."

"I wanted it to come from inside the culture and speak to people inside the culture. It was about a refusal to pander or distort or gain political points. I wanted to reveal and raise questions."

Toni Morrison on set for Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. (Courtesy of Mongrel Media)

Black writers gave Toni Morrison her flowers while she could smell them

When James Baldwin died in 1987, the Black literary community went into mourning. Their grief was matched only by a long simmering rage. While alive, Baldwin never received the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, and a group of Black writers decided that they wouldn't let the same "national neglect" happen to another literary genius in their midst.

So in January of 1988, just one month after Baldwin's death — and 18 years after Morrison had published her first novel — 48 Black writers and critics including Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez and Henry Louis Gates Jr. decided to mobilize.

These titans of Black American literature signed an open letter that ran in the New York Times. It paid tribute to Morrison's brilliance and denounced the institutions that had yet to recognize it. They wrote: "For all of America, for all of American letters, you have advanced the moral and artistic standards by which we must measure the daring and the love of our national imagination and our collective intelligence as a people."

Before the institutions and the committees, Morrison's peers recognized and appreciated her imagination, insight and genius. 

Haters gonna hate...even on Toni Morrison

As one of American literature's great authors, it seems strange to revisit reactions to her historic Nobel Prize win in 1993. Not everyone was happy to see her receive the honour.

Photos of the celebration in Stockholm show Morrison with a brilliant smile, arms extended in ecstatic joy. Behind her, an enviable entourage basks in her brilliance: Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Fran Lebowitz, Angela Davis and Susan L. Taylor are all partying in the background. But some second-guessed the committee's decision. They cast doubt on Morrison's merit and suggested that the selection was made for political rather than literary reasons.

Among the most vocal critical voices were several Black male writers. At the time, Charles Johnson — a former National Book Award Winner — told the Washington Post that Morrison was "the beneficiary of good will." Talking about her novels, he said: "Whites are portrayed badly. Men are. Black men are." He called her win "a triumph of political correctness."

In that same Washington Post article, cultural critic and novelist Stanley Crouch said: "I hope this prize inspires her to write better books."

"She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity."

In another Washington Post story, author Erica Jong praised Morrison's writing but suggested that she didn't win the Nobel on the basis of her craft: "I wish that Toni Morrison, a bedazzling writer and a great human being, had won her prize only for her excellence at stringing words together. But I am nevertheless delighted at her choice...I suspect, however, that her prize was not motivated solely by artistic considerations."  

It's strangely comforting to know that in spite of the vocal detractors and numerous institutional barriers, Morrison has lived to see her work ascend, receiving the critical admiration and appreciation it has always deserved. 

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. 119 min. Now playing.

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.