What comes to mind for the Steiny Road Poet after seeing the two-hour documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is what a role model Morrison is for any writer, any woman, any African American.
Here is a writer who paid her dues by hard work—she was a crack editor, a senior editor for Random House shepherding the work of such celebrity writers as political activist Angela Davis and boxer Muhammad Ali; a professor at several universities—Texas Southern, Howard, and Princeton; and she raised two sons as a single parent.
While the film documents that it took her three books published to say in an unqualified way that she was writer, she was clear about claiming her due for the ability to write well.
She said she started reading and writing at 3 years old and offered a funny story about how she and her sister went around writing on the sidewalks. One day the sisters came across a word they didn’t know and began copying it—F-U, until their mother came running out the house and stopped them, asking if they were crazy?
She was assertive as a professional working in the publishing world. When she found out her male colleagues were all getting paid more than she, she confronted her boss. She didn’t say you are discriminating against me because I’m a woman or because I’m black. She said I’m the head of household just like you. She repeated this until her message sunk in and her boss gave her the raise she deserved.
Important to know is this film is not a biopic. Important aspects of Morrison’s life are left out, like the fact she lost her son Slade at the age of 45 to pancreatic cancer and what happened (e.g. how she reacted) when she was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer for Beloved, a novel which was passed over in 1987 by the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In a statement published January 24, 1988, in The New York Times, forty-eight black critics and writers protested that lack. While the film mentions this protest, Steiny and her friends walked out of the theater thinking that Morrison had never been recognized for her exceptional work on slavery, lynchings, the human condition as experienced by African Americans since slavery, or more bluntly racism, until she received the Nobel Prize in 1993.
Seeing her talk about her reaction to Sonia Sanchez calling Morrison to say she (Toni Morrison) had won the Nobel Prize was a moment of high comedy. Morrison thought Sanchez was drunk. After all, the Nobel Committee didn’t call for hours after Sanchez contacted Morrison with news heard on the radio. When the Nobel representative called, Morrison asked them to fax her a confirmation. Why should she believe them? After all, she was the first African American and the first black woman of any nationality to win a Nobel. The footage of Morrison in Stockholm talking about selecting the clothes she would wear and then appearing among all the dignitaries who would see her receive this high honor was both intimate and majestic. Steiny, as filmgoing audience, felt that no more questions about how she experienced getting this prize were necessary. Film director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders made the
experience viscerally clear, even down to Morrison convincing a friend that he should go to Stockholm to see her get this prize because he was never going to get such an invitation again.
What is still shocking after all these year since that Nobel was awarded is hearing the snide comments from the critics, especially the white critics who said such things as the award was politically correct, implying the award was not deserved.
Much is made of her first novel The Bluest Eye in Greenfield-Sanders’ film. The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, focuses on a little girl who prays for blue eyes, which she thinks are the standard for beauty in the white world. The child has exceptionally black skin and brown eyes and had been made to think she is ugly. Steiny would like to point out that the first chapter of this book is a Dick-and-Jane tale with all the emphasis on Jane. In this chapter, it is told three times, first with punctuation, next without punctuation, and lastly with all the words running together (i.e. lacking typical spacing). The effect of this is much like Gertrude Stein’s very long novel, The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress, which starts out with the parable of a son dragging his father by the foot and then proceeds in straight forward storytelling
until it gets toward the end where chaos takes over and some of the words run together. Like Stein, Morrison also wrote books for children, and both included the youthful point of view in some of their adult literature.
Morrison has the ear of a poet and lucky enough for us, the filmmaker has the poetic eye repeatedly showing his audience the idyllic place on water where Morrison writes. The United States is blessed to have this writer of such integrity living and working in America at this time when racism is rampant and when ethics and democratic government are under such assault. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a testimony to exceptional talent, integrity, and reason.