As she walks the pier during the early morning wind, she also races against time, against the sunrise. She watches the horizon, “I have to beat the sun,” she says. This is her home. The majestic scene sets the tone of a remarkable story and debuts the compelling journey of Toni Morrison, the writer who transformed the American literary canon forever.
On Monday, November 25, the last screening of “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” (2019) directed by Timothy Greenfield Sanders, was hosted by the Clark University Film Screening Society (CUFSS). The documentary explored Morrison’s inner world and her battle against “the white gaze.”
A brilliant writer, a bookworm, an early bird, and unexpectedly, a great carrot cake baker, we automatically understand the kind of person Morrison is.
“As a kid… I thought segregation was physical stuff… a joke,” Morrison says, smiling, marveling at the memory.
Throughout the documentary, Morrison describes her journey growing up, her childhood experiences—some which inspired her career as a novelist—her struggles in writing as a single mother, and later, how she won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. It was endearing to see Morrison’s roots and how her career evolved from teacher to editor to later, a full-time novelist.
Her groundbreaking novels center African American life and drama. These works include “The Bluest Eye” (1970), “Sula” (1973) “Song of Solomon” (1977), “Beloved” (1987), and “Paradise” (1997).
Interviews and appearances by literary figures, civil rights leaders, activists, scholars, and Morrison’s former colleagues contributed their pieces describing how Morrison impacted them and transformed their lives.
Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey (who adapted Beloved as a film), David Carrasco, Farah Jasmine, and many others appear to discuss Morrison’s uncanny ability to transform and heal through writing and how she used her imagination to address race issues and break stereotypes.
Morrison addressed a “riskier reality,” the American reality. She focused on reconfiguring how stories were told and how they featured black women who are underrepresented in literature as protagonists of their own stories.
Morrison emphasized, “If you don’t understand the history of African American women you don’t understand the history of America.”
In her desire to tell stories about black women who are historically underrepresented, as female protagonists of their own story, Morrison had to address the oppressive forces. It is the master narrative, “an ideological script that is being imposed by people of authority,” like young black girls preferring to play with white dolls and the assumption that the narrator of a story is a white speaker addressing a white audience.
According to Morrison, “Our lives have no meaning without the white gaze.”
It is a singular narrative that does not tell the whole truth about American life and denies the African American experience. Morrison adds, “I spent my entire life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant opinion.”
When it comes to writing, “Sometimes you are nudged and sometimes you are just searching to make it interesting,” Morrison said. “Such is writing… I have to explore all the characters’ attitudes. I gotta know,” she simply said. “I have to know, and the only way is to write it. And then we read to know.”
But there is a silver lining. “I must find out why that is,” she said. Even when, “They were never talking to me,” referring to the white gaze and the narrator, the white dominant voice.
Like an angel or a devil on the shoulder, “[It] checks out everything you do and say.”
She laughs and expresses her desire to be free from it, “Now I own the world. I could write anything… I don’t have this white judgmental eye checking everything and approving.”
Morrison later recounts, “I wanted to read a book about my experiences. I wanted to read a book that I wanted to read.”
“You read Toni and you cry but you gotta laugh… she got us all that time,” Sonia Sanchez said referring to Morrison’s first novel “The Bluest Eye,” “If you don’t laugh you can’t survive.”
Morrison writes stories about people living everyday lives. Oprah Winfrey adds, “She is teaching us all the time.”
Morrison reimagines the past and reasserts humanity in black people. She does this by questioning perspectives and existing social structures, writing words on page with the power to transform people. Power which transcends beyond the page.
Although her writing transcends race and language, Morrison does not, “… want to speak for black people. I want to speak truth. [Because] it’s us. I wanted to be among.”
“It has nothing to do with who leaves the words… my sovereignty and my authority as a racialized person had to be struck immediately with the very first book,” she said. “… history has always proven that books are the first plane where certain kinds of battles are fought.”
The documentary concludes with the metaphor of flight. “Human beings need allies through flight,” Morrison said. Flying is a powerful symbol in “Song of Solomon,” reminiscent of enslaved people in their desire to escape, in their desire to fly back home and the yearnful hope to be free.
Overall, it is a documentary about self-discovery and humanity. The film like Morrison reminds viewers of human connection, compassion, and perseverance against systems of oppression. These are the embodied pieces of Morrison and the people she impacted.
In recognizing her brilliance, she showed us the magic of the world and continues to remind us of our humanity, “If there is life on Mars, they are reading Toni Morrison to find out what it is to be human,” said Farah Jasmine, one of the guest speakers.
Toni Morrison passed away on August 5, 2019. May she rest in peace and may we honor her legacy.