Blue-Eyed Jazz & Love: 3 Blackgirl Lessons I Learned From Toni Morrison

2 Jul

As a writer when I feel the pull of creativity it is as seductive as the lure of a would-be lover, arms outstretched with whispers in my ear as sweet as honey mixed with molasses.  It is enough to keep you up all night and daydreaming throughout the day imagining the next thing to say that will capture the feeling, moment and emotion simplistically.  It’s beautiful.  Soul-stirring.  Inspirational.  Like sex that is so good it makes you wanna  cook good eggs or make good coffee.  But then there are the times, most times, when the words don’t come and their absence lingers like the smell of a former lover, arms long gone, and words long silent.  Emptiness where hope was.

Sometimes the words are there but I don’t feel like sitting with them or jotting them down or typing them on a keyboard so I distract myself with mindless television, meticulous housecleaning, or unnecessary errands.  Sometimes I read.

Lazy days and late nights in June, hard earned from busy days and long nights for several months straight, led me to a renewed love affair with Toni Morrison.  I first read Toni Morrison as a pre-teen.  A friend of my mother’s loaned me The Bluest Eye and Beloved and I marveled at the fancy script on the covers but was soon disinterested because I didn’t understand what I was reading.  I was too little, at the time, to make sense of the grown up tensions of incest and infanticide.

It took me years to pick The Bluest Eye back up, as much for the image of the blackgirl on the front as anything else.  And when I got past the first difficult pages (difficult, I believe, for any teenager to fully comprehend) I read words that made me make sense.  The Bluest Eye didn’t cure my depression but it made me feel less strange for my own misguided misperceptions of why I was so unhappy, as if light skin, long hair, and blue eyes would be the end-all-to-be-all of my problems.  The book pushed me to see my black as beautiful, to see all black as beautiful.

When I read Sula I was nearly grown and appreciated Sula’s fearlessness, even though I didn’t understand her grown-woman choices.  It wasn’t until I was fully grown that I could understand her better, though never fully, and appreciate her, even admire her.  When she declares her independence to her grandmother, rejecting traditional expectations of women to marry and make babies, saying “I don’t want to make somebody else, I want to make myself,”  everything in me leaped.  Those words were powerful.

Jazz is a good read, but it is complicated and jagged, melodic but intentionally scattered like the music, which kept me from getting all the way through it the first or second time.  Third time’s a charm and I read through it in one night.  Identifying with Dorcas, a motherless daughter seduced by a grown married man or seducing a grown married man (depending on perspective), got caught up trying to feel wanted and important.  Her memory haunted his wife’s house like a ghost because the wife could not be young and beautiful again.

My re-acquaintance with these stories and others (Love is on my nightstand) reminded me of how and why Morrison’s brilliant prose has always served as a writing siren and a blackgirl call for me.  The characters are black and female, bossy and complicated and real.  They laugh, they cry, they lose their minds and put them back together, they fall in love, they resist love, they want to be seen, heard, loved, made love to.  They are mothers, other-mothers, wannabe mothers, bad mothers, good mothers, best friends,  sister-friends, girl children, married, single, left alone, wanting to be left alone,  young, old, promiscuous, chaste, saintly, judgmental, loud, quiet, masculine, feminine, sad, abused, raped, murdered, resurrected, talked about,  beautiful and ugly.  They love each other fiercely and men conditionally.  They dance, philosophize, and complain.  They are real—everything at once and nothing in particular.  They put me in the mind of so many women I have known and loved and myself.

These characters are enough in their own right… fighting against films that often depict blackness and femaleness as  one-dimensional or broken, and spoken out loud words that sometimes forget that there are wonderful stories written down.  When black women write blackgirl stories… they are filled with all of the possibilities and dreams and hopes in the world. They also tell the truth and give us a place to see what we look like on paper.

Looking back at the books and their lessons I have compiled a few things I (have) learned from reading Toni Morrison this summer. (NOTE:  This is NOT an exhaustive list)…


1.  Ain’t nothin’ wrong with resisting conventional labels and expectations.   Sula was a revolutionary, a rebel, a pariah. She didn’t give a damn what anybody thought about her.  She lived life on her own terms and resisted conformity.  She did what she wanted to do and what made her feel good unapologetically.  Though she had a problematic view of love and relationships, brought on by how she witnessed it in her family, she was faithful and loyal in her own right.  And that was  more than enough.


2. Love that is desperate (even when deliberate) is dangerous.  Dorcas died in Jazz because of the lust-inspired love of a man who could have been her father (and the disdain of her new, younger lover who was more concerned with the blood stains on his shirt than her bleeding and dying body).  This love and need to be loved is sometimes too much.  Manic love can never be sustained.


3. Internalized self-hatred distorts our views of beauty.  Pecola Breedlove saw herself as others did and took on all of the bullshit of the world and put it on herself.  I don’t think it was Pecola that was ugly, but rather what she witnessed, experienced, and endured.  Society has done such a number on little blackgirls that it feels like all we need to be happy and acceptable is to be entirely different.  Not black, not a girl, not poor, not vulnerable.  Pecola’s peers knew the truth—that blue eyes and black skin would not make her beautiful, but rather odd.  Strange.  Pitiful.  And pitiful as she was, her fragility and naivete, her young body made mature too soon by a figure that should have protected it, led to a mental breakdown and deep emotional blues.  Blackgirls are not unbreakable (or unbeautiful).

These stories offer commentaries about love, friendship, black culture, black girlhood and everyday experiences often hidden behind closed lips and closed doors.  Morrison is brave enough to tell unspoken truths and to teach her readers remarkable lessons about living and loving.  I cherish the stories she tells and will be re-reading Love this week, and ordering her new book Home when I am finished.

What is on your summer reading list?  What is your favorite blackgirl story?

Please share your own thoughts, insights, and lessons from black or browngirl stories in the comments.

19 Responses to “Blue-Eyed Jazz & Love: 3 Blackgirl Lessons I Learned From Toni Morrison”

  1. Asha July 2, 2012 at 9:47 AM #

    Thank you so much. I am thinking about black girl stories too and I love all the ones you’ve listed here for the lessons they teach. Another of my favorites is Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara, a short story collection that I believe Morrison edited. Hazel (and all the other names the same girl goes by in the collection) is my favorite black girl of all time. I also love the speaker in Eve’s Bayou, though that’s a movie, not a book. I’m looking forward to seeing other people’s favorites. And I want to know what you think we can learn from Junior in Love. Thank you for this!!!

    • rboylorn July 2, 2012 at 10:01 AM #

      Yes! Toni Cade Bambara is like magic. I have not read Gorilla, My Love… but it is now going on my list 🙂

      When I finish Love (it has been a minute since I last read it so I have to get re-acquainted with the characters) I will check back in about Junior. Stay tuned ❤

    • rboylorn July 19, 2012 at 9:45 AM #

      I re-read Love a few weeks ago but wanted to sit with it before responding about Junior. She is a complicated character (like most of Morrison’s blackgirls), but I do think there is a lesson embedded in her story. What reads as nerve and audaciousness on the page, I think, translates to spirit and fear in real life. I think Junior’s character is industrious and brave. I also think she was young, naïve, selfish, and troubled. Junior Vivian with an “e” was trying to find herself and figure out who she was supposed to be… her identity was lost long before she went to search for it.
      She represents the part of us (blackgirls) that reads more grown, dangerous and put together (to outsiders) than we ever really are. She was a chameleon, trying to be what others expected/needed/wanted and losing herself in the process, just trying to survive, and feel love/d, and important. I think she can teach us by calling forth moments, or stages in our life when we should give ourselves permission to make mistakes, and forgive ourselves in retrospect for the choices that we make out of desperation, need, and growth. She reminds me that there are two sides to who I am, and most of the time I hide my flaws and secrets the same way she covered her feet with socks and/or shoes. And most importantly, I don’t have to be ashamed of who I am or what is sometimes, oftentimes, hidden from public view.

  2. lordamaru July 2, 2012 at 10:16 AM #

    I must say I still tend to read more theory and history than lit, but I am still nursing a 20 year love affair with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The narrative of Janie Crawford’s transformative life experience has always been enlightening to me. As a man, I would say that I would sometimes find myself delving into the thoughts (or my imagination about them) of the men she encountered, but I loved Janie’s willingness to defy convention for the reality of herself and the search for love in her life (be it with someone or from herself to herself). Also, the town’s constant judgment of her spirit, character, and even her body was a brilliant parallel to how society views/judges Black women.

    One thing I will say though, I’ve found, is that although these stories of Black women finding themselves are liberatory for anyone than appreciates the self-sacrifice of change and growth, such things in “real life” can leave your heart in a blender after dealing with someone going through such changes. But maybe Richard Pryor was right after all, …”you don’t become a man until a woman breaks your fucking heart.” 😉 On the real though Rboylorn, excellent piece! I will look out for the next!

  3. Kalima July 2, 2012 at 10:37 AM #

    Favorite black girl story- The Kindred. Always.

  4. Binty July 2, 2012 at 12:17 PM #

    Sula taught me to be brave, audacious, bold but Janie Crawford (Their Eyes Were Watching God) taught me about living about love about freedom. Janie will forever be my heroine

  5. M July 2, 2012 at 12:37 PM #

    “Blackgirls are not unbreakable.” Yes. Thanks for those just right words today.

  6. S. Mandisa Moore July 2, 2012 at 3:20 PM #

    YES!!! One of my fave books is The Color Purple. Aint nothing more real to me than the gospel according to shug avery! And the story of the love of black women over decades and continents. Ive also been consumed by Ntozake Shange’s newest book, “Some Sing, Some Cry”-written with her sister Ifa Bayeza.

    P.S. Does anyone else notice in a post dedicated to blackgirl stories a black man can still find a way to make it all about him and write the longest comment? @lordamaru-I see you.

    • lordamaru July 2, 2012 at 3:33 PM #

      Lol! I thought it more authentic than to describe my connection to it as a black girl!

      • S. Mandisa Moore July 2, 2012 at 4:51 PM #

        lol-I sorta get that.

  7. Thomasena Farrar July 3, 2012 at 7:29 AM #

    I have The Bluest Eye on my nightstand right now, as that is one of a couple of Toni Morrison novels (almost embarrassed to say) that I’d never read. What I also would recommend, for anyone who hasn’t read, is her novel Paradise. I plan on reading that again this summer (for a fourth time!). Thanks for sharing post, very great read.

  8. Kisha Hughes July 3, 2012 at 11:01 AM #

    This was such a wonderful post. I’m still fending off the goose flesh! Since reading “The Kid” by Sapphire and seeing how it was practically tossed away by critics while The Help was being lauded (I know it isn’t a black girl story, I’m getting there), I became obsessed with reading black female writers. In my quest for black women telling black women’s stories I came across Tayari Jones whose latest book “Silver Sparrow” sent me on a hunt for her previous two books. All three were amazing and I love how she spun tales about everyone from children to adults in her stories about the lives of people in and around Atlanta, Georgia. It really made me realize that there is a part of me that has avoided telling my own blackgirl story because I never felt “authentic.” Jones does a wonderful job of telling the stories of black girls who are just like me…I never had that growing up, so I am thankful to find these books now.

  9. CBS July 3, 2012 at 4:56 PM #

    Thanks for this post. I’ll only speak about Sula and The Bluest Eye because if I start, I just won’t stop! Sula taught me about friendship. Sula’s inability to see why Nel was trippin’ over her sharing her husband, especially since they had shared everything else. What made “man” so different? When I read that, I dropped the book on the floor; like, damn Toni, for real? Your gonna break up the capitalist imperative behind our claims to monogamy, just like that. Hood salute for real, because most of us can’t handle that sort of sharing. In the Bluest Eye, the scene where Pecola’s father, wondering why his young daughter is so unhappy, decides to rape her to alleviate her pain….Whoa, I still grapple with that and the whole “Sambo” complex and how often we hear “just give her some and she’ll be good.” This is an extreme of how far that seeming innocuous discourse goes….but that’s why I love her, she forces you to go there.

    Ladies, I know it’s the summer time and folks are just trying to chill, but please continue during these months. I don’t know how else I’m going to temper writing chapters, obsessively checking facebook and the black gossip websites.

    Great post!

  10. Evelyn N. Alfred July 4, 2012 at 11:02 PM #

    I had The Parable of the Sower on my summer reading list. I finished it about a week ago and now I would include it as a Black girl story. I also plan on reading Oreo by Fran Ross, I don’t know what to expect from that one.

  11. Anna Renee July 5, 2012 at 3:20 PM #

    Damn! Where’s that post on asking for sex? Imma have to go to Google cache?

    • crunktastic July 5, 2012 at 4:05 PM #

      We took it down for the time being. Will repost it later.

  12. Larae July 5, 2012 at 6:25 PM #

    The one thing I love about literature and all art really is that it’s so universal and so personal. I read Rebecca Walkers “Black, White and Jewish” and love it.

  13. helenkosings July 11, 2012 at 8:53 PM #

    What Looks Like Crazy…. by pearl cleage. i love her love of black women and language and her humor. this reminds me i need to re-read it. and everything by octavia butler….


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