We Had a Shakespeare
People called her Toni
Toni Morrison died on August 5, 2019, at the age of 88. The correspondence below took place over the following days.
When I read the news, I thought of the time you told me you read the ending of Sula aloud to your intro to African American lit class, on the last day, and cried. I texted you and you told me you cried multiple times today and that you’re not a crier. I think that I should cry, but I haven’t.
Instead, I’ve thought a lot about her name. Her books are always concerned with names. In Song of Solomon, the father finds names for his family by flipping through the Bible. Another character explains that, after the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau wrote down the wrong name for his newly emancipated father; this mistake gave his family their last name. What last name did he have before those records? That of his master, the book implies. The names by which we call the descendants of enslaved people, Song of Solomon reminds us, are living records of slavery.
That she is so careful about names in her fiction is, I think, a comment about the novel as a form. In Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, he makes a little-discussed argument about how naming works in the genre. Because genres predating the novel focused upon exceptional people, characters in them were named after mythological or historical figures (Achilles, Richard III) or given metaphorical names (Everyman). But novels’ focus on ordinary people in everyday life required different names. The characters needed common names (Tom Jones) or their uncommon names had to be explained within the text (Tristram Shandy). The very notion of common names, Morrison implies in Song of Solomon, was unavailable to African American characters in novels. The centrality of naming to the genre itself differed for African Americans.
Her own name bore a curious homology to those of her characters. She was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, and her family name at birth was marked by slavery. She chose the baptismal name Anthony after Saint Anthony, known both for his knowledge of the Bible and for his care of the poor. She took the nickname Toni after her baptismal name because her schoolmates struggled to pronounce the name Chloe. Morrison came from marriage. The first and last name by which we know her are masculine, one made so by religious choice and the other by marriage. Though I take her name for granted when I refer to her or see it on a book, her own name had a history, one made by violent institutions and by her choices. In this, she was like one of her own fictional characters, her life like one of her novels.
So what will I tell young people — how will I refer to her — who do not know who she is twenty, thirty, or forty years from now? We had a Shakespeare, I would like to say. People called her Toni.
I’m not a crier. However, I am profoundly inexperienced at dealing with the deaths of those closest to me. Outside of the passing of my paternal grandmother, Gloria, and my maternal grandfather, Norman, I have very rarely thought about how the world changes when those who have affected it and me leave us. But every time I do, I recall a poem I wrote in the fifth grade that I recited at my grandma’s funeral. The prosody itself is painfully unremarkable (even for a 10-year-old), but were I to close-read it, I would say it deals with the lingering presence of those who continue to impact us after they are gone and our preoccupation with their safety once they move to the Great Beyond. I’ve thought about that poem since I woke up and heard the news of Toni’s passing. I didn’t know her personally. I never met her. But I hope that whoever cares for her essence now treats her nearly as well as she treated all of us, the Black people whom she wrote for and cared for deeply.
I imagine I feel much like Nel does upon her ultimate reckoning with the depth and breadth of the loss she experienced when Sula passed away. That loss defies language. Much has been written on the very collapse of language in Nel’s utterance that they “was girls together . . . girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” And yet their relationship is also defined by the ways in which nature responds to Nel’s understanding of what this loss has changed for her even twenty-five-odd years after Sula’s death. Ruskin writes that the pathetic fallacy — the trope of assigning human feelings to nonhuman objects — is a fallacy at least partially because it can be solipsistic. When we experience intense emotions like grief or ecstasy, the world around us changes because our perception has shifted so drastically from our normal way of seeing the world. But how can it be a fallacy when the orientation of the world itself has shifted with the loss of one of the world’s most talented observers of its inner workings and outer imprints? As I write, the leaves stir for Toni’s passing. The mud shifts upon her release from this world. The smell of overripe green things all whisper the name for Toni Morrison that they know.