As I sit in my office, trying to finish the breakfast I stopped eating when I received the news, I’m wondering, “how do I write about one of the greatest writers in the world?” There is no way to succinctly express the impact that her words had — and will forever have — on my life. But with the words of Octavia Butler and Gwendolyn Brooks lingering in my head, as a fellow writer I know in this moment I must have the audacity to at least try whether I feel like writing or not.
“Write. Write every day. Write whether you feel like writing or not… don’t give up. Learn from everything.” — Octavia Butler
“I am a writer, perhaps because I am not a talker.” — Gwendolyn Brooks
I live for a good quote. My office, my house, and journal are all filled with quotes by Black women — writers, educators, activists, mothers, aunties, sisters, entertainers, directors — who inspire me and motivate me to show up as myself every day. Toni Morrison is one of those women whose words will live on. The best way I can process this moment of grief right now is through a handful of her quotes.
“When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
I am contemplating whether I should leave work, head to E Street Cinemas, and catch one of the last showings of The Pieces I Am. I’ve already seen the documentary but seeing it again seems right.
I struggled for years to find space where I could hold onto my identity as a writer and an advocate/activist. I thought that I could only choose one to pay the bills. Black women writers prove otherwise. Our words are our activism. We can’t have one without the other.
Before seeing The Pieces I Am, I had known about Toni Morrison, the writer, since I was young. However, I knew very little about her role as an editor. At one point in her life, she felt as though she wasn’t doing enough to address racism during the height of the Black Power Movement. She used her platform as an editor at Random House to amplify the work of other writers and activists, like Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara. I walked out of the theater after seeing the documentary proud and Black, proud and woman, fearless, inspired, and in awe. Maybe seeing it again will console me. Maybe it will ground me and remind me that my words, or leveraging the work and words of others, also plays a significant role in fighting for gender and racial equity.
“As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.”
I think when we dream, we release fear. When we dream, we release traditions. When you’re in a position of trust and power, you are likely expected to take people, institutions, or movements into a new phase. You are likely expected to be an agent of change. Change does not come with a blueprint and is impossible unless you dream a little. I read this quote often and I must ask myself, “what can I do differently yet authentically?”
Toni Morrison, in her position of power, could have found contentment as the first Black woman senior editor in her department. Instead, she chose to dream and manifest beauty and justice. She chose to dream and become one of the greatest literary composers of the Black experience. She chose to dream and speak and write the truth. She chose to dream and carve out her own path and march (or write) to the beat of her own drum. She chose to dream and write explicitly and exclusively in a way that shouted, “Black women, Black girls, I see you. I see us.”
“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.”
The most difficult thing about writing is shutting off the enemy in our heads named, Perfection. Each and every time I’ve let my pen and thoughts roam freely, or took the time to edit, or decided to have the audacity to pitch or self-publish an article, I discovered that I was not the only one waiting to read my words.
I hope Toni Morrison knew this as well. She might have wanted to read The Bluest Eye or Sula or Beloved or Song of Solomon, not motivated necessarily by the impact it would have on other Black people or other Black writers. But her obedience to her craft inspired us. Her obedience and discipline — to wake up religiously at 5:00 am to write — is admirable and knew no limits. Her obedience and fearlessness will forever fuel many Black women with a confidence that society tries so desperately to silence.
There is something beautiful and selfless about being a writer and sharing your words, whether through a book or other medium. As writers, when we leave this earth, our words will live on. Our thoughts will still take up space in this world. I am grieved because I missed my chance to meet one of my literary heroes. Yet I don’t grieve without hope.
I am hopeful because I know I still have until age 39 to publish my first book. I am hopeful because I know that it will come with time, on time, and on purpose. Last, I am hopeful because I know that I have Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks, and other incredible Black women who have led the way holding my shaky hand as I join them in writing our way to freedom.
Rest in power.