Tuesday, March 28, 2023

How to Read and How to Live

February 18 is the birthday of Lorain, Ohio native writer Toni Morrison. After she died in 2019, February 18 also became Toni Morrison Day in her home state of Ohio. To celebrate, the King Road branch of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library will screen a not-to-be-missed documentary about Morrison, on Saturday, February 18 from 2-4pm. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am was directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and released in 2019, just a month and a half before Morrison’s death.

The storyteller

Morrison was a great storyteller – many of her books are featured on high school and college curricula: Sula, The Bluest Eye, Beloved and Song of Solomon, to name a few. She also taught writing – most notably at Princeton University from 1989-2006. She was also the first Black woman editor at Random House, where she worked for 19 years. Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1987 for her novel Beloved. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

By the time she became a book editor, the Black Power movement was in motion. What can I do where I am, Morrison wondered. “I thought it was important for people to be in the streets, but they couldn’t last. You needed a record. It would be my job to publish the voices, the books, the ideas of African Americans, and that would last.” Authors she published included activist Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton and more.

The writer Hilton Als summarizes one of the key puzzles of Morrison’s success. “I don’t know where this woman’s energy came from, to raise two kids, to bring other people of color to the party, and to also write these novels. She said, ‘It’s not as if I’m doing a lot of different things. I’m doing one thing, which is I teach books, I write books, I edit books.’ And I think that if you can think of it that way it’s a lot more manageable,” said Als.

The look of the documentary is striking – the title sequence shows the artist Mickalene Thomas making collages from abstract shapes and photographs of Morrison’s face. In a segment talking about her book The Bluest Eye, a written excerpt from the book is shown on screen and the dots of all the i’s in the passage are blue, barely distinguishable from the black of the rest of the passage. It’s a detail that passes quickly, and leaves you wondering “did I really see that?”

Enlightening and uplifting

Morrison told great stories in conversation as well, as demonstrated in this documentary. It seems that every anecdote Morrison recounts sheds light on writing, society, culture and people. Each story enlightens and uplifts us in a way that demonstrates Morrison’s gift.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will be screened Saturday, February 18 from 2-4pm at King Road Library, 3900 King Rd. in community rooms A&B, which have a capacity of 75. The screening is free and open to the public. The film is also available to watch on Netflix and several other streaming video services.

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