10 Favorite Quotes of Toni Morrison That Will Shatter Your Illusions About Humanity
Toni Morrison is one of the most influential writers who narrated our sorrowful past excellently.
There hasn’t been any writer who touched my heart with her talismanically inspiring hands, which carried me through imaginary journeys where I lost myself. No writer has shed my tears with poignant stories.
For no author’s narrative, I sobbed during my literature classes. Freedom, self, womanhood, race have never become abstract concepts that tied me to humanity’s sorrowful well where despair, hate, anger, pain, and stagnancy merged inflow. But Toni Morrison.
Her novels caught me off guard whenever I followed her beautiful mind, soul, and storytelling. She reflected her fear, sadness, and frustration in such an authentic way that I couldn’t help identifying myself with her characters, their sorrow, and joy.
Though everyone’s reading taste differs, and I’m in no rightful place to insist you on reading a specific author, I urge you to swallow Morrison’s stories and take the privileged journey she granted only to those who are willing to listen.
Her particular gifted mind is the most important place to submerge to understand our complexity, regretful past, and hopeful future.
On this special day, Morrison’s birthday, when she’d have been 90 if she had lived, I’d humbly like to share my favorite quotes that came out of her magical pen.
1. On Writing
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” — Toni Morrison, The Ohio Arts Council Speech
I came across this quote much earlier than I decided to study literature and analyzed Morrison’s novel. At the time, I was too young to understand what she meant, but the quote stayed in my subconscious for a long time until I suddenly remembered it.
As an avid reader and a fragile human being, I became disillusioned with the scarcity of experiences that people like me had — women, non-Europeans, Muslims, and queers. The more fiction and non-fiction I read, the more my sorrow expanded, and I found myself asking: do I not matter in this world?
With its unexpected emergence in my consciousness, this quote has become my salvation, encouraging me to submerge in my story and tell the world what we, too, mattered.
2. On Freedom
“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” — Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
When I read this quote, I was so insecure about myself and unsure about what I wanted. I kept finding excuses for demanding something from life. I didn’t think I deserved the life I dreamt of. Very much of a teenage attitude, innit?
Yet, I realized my past failures and present insecurities couldn’t be obstacles for me to fly. The deeper I was stuck in my shit, the sadder I would be.
Hence, whenever I feel like my body is dragged out of the sky with what I failed in the past, I purify myself out of the toxins so that I can aim to fly higher.
3. On Self
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved
Beloved is a novel about a woman who escapes from slavery and gains her so-called freedom. However, she is so immersed in the traumatic traces of slavery that she can’t be free of her slave self. She can’t taste her new life and the range of possibilities it can offer when her past haunts her.
Reading Beloved over and over again reminds me of the futility of our lives. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic or underestimate our problems. Yet, when I read Sethe’s story, I realize how we take our lives and freedom for granted.
Reading about a harrowing story and knowing that it occurred in history shatters my beliefs about humanity. Slavery has affected our minds and how we perceive our fragile selves so intensely that we’ve kept losing what our identities meant.
We do not need to be chained to be slaves to others. If one captivates our mind, it will be impossible for us to reclaim ourselves — the selves before being enslaved.
4. On Love
“There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.” — Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Morrison always represents love as a complex entity that seems to heal us while harming us, that gives us joy while shedding our tears. In The Bluest Eye, she writes this quote to ask the vital questions that we need to wonder in our lives: how does one love?
In this novel, love is ambiguous and breaks trust. Love has the power of destructing the beloved. Love makes the beloved a stagnant being and gives the destructive force to the lover who rapes whom he loves. Is this love? Or, do we conceptualize love as something we dream of, a life that will make us happy, but joy is never the case in the abstract concept of love?
This quote has shattered my fairytale notions about love and how it could be easy. If love were effortless and straightforward, it wouldn’t stick in our hearts.
5. On Past Traumas
“Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved
Saying that we all have traumatic experiences and should find ways to cope with them would underestimate the poignant traces that these experiences leave on us. We all carry the burdens that our past lives left on our bodies and souls. Coping with them is extremely challenging, and our methods to deal with them are particular to each of us.
Yet, this doesn’t mean our traumas can prevent us from reaching our higher selves, loving ourselves enough so that we can forgive the persons who caused our traumas. With this quote, Morrison offers a striking metaphor because it’s not our trauma that has become a burden in our lives, but our reaction to it if it keeps us in our muddy remembrance. Staying in our past is burdensome; it restrains us from growing our wings to fly to other realms where we can start over. We always need tomorrows if we want to live a life we’ll cherish.
6. On Longing
“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.” — Toni Morrison, Sula
When I read Sula, although I highlighted this quote, I didn’t quite grasp its meaning. How can you miss a person when s/he is still with you? I remember thinking. Once I had an opportunity to look at a person’s eyes and thought how much I missed our moments already, I realized I’d fallen into the trap.
Longing for a soul when it left you is a familiar feeling that most of us have experienced in our lives. Yet, the pure rarity of longing for someone when s/he is still by your side is so remarkable that you want to cherish every tiny molecule in the atmosphere that witnesses your synergy at the moment. You want to memorize every detail, even the ancient coffee machine that stays on the stove or the dirty rug on the floor.
It’s this time you realize how sublime your shared moment is, and it’s the time when the sheer good fortune hits you.
7. On Loving Yourself
“You’re turning over your whole life to him. Your whole life, girl. And if it means so little to you that you can just give it away, hand it to him, then why should it mean any more to him? He can’t value you more than you value yourself.” — Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Giving enough value to myself was a challenging issue for me. I defined myself according to the commonly accepted beauty standards that only included models, my intelligence according to the institutionalized education’s principles, and my feelings according to society’s wishes.
I took a hard line with loving myself, giving my identity away as if it were a separate entity that I had nothing to do with. As if I’d be more myself and happier when someone else took care of it.
The unfortunate thing is that many of us believe in the idea of someone else taking care of ourselves, and we build our relationships according to this idea. We merely realize it when our feelings or relationships have already seized our selfhood, which in turn effaces our value.
8. On Racism
“If I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out. And all you got is your little self, and what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions. Part of it is, ‘yes, the victim.
How terrible it’s been for black people.’ I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one… if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.” — Toni Morrison, An Interview with Charlie Rose
African-American literature has been enriched with the ways and metaphors to dismantle racism, colonialism, slavery, capitalism, and patriarchy. Many works deal with the ways to cope with slavery, its illegitimate child, racism, and subsequent psychological effects. But, the way Morrison addresses racism is more about how the abstract concept has been constructed internally. And, it’s very vital to learn about a problem’s essence before coming to dismantle it.
Like any other social discourses, racism has become a dress that many people have put on to hide the inferiority that lies under their skin. Racist people couldn’t make other people seem unintelligent because of the shape of their skulls, nor they could prove that black people were uncivilized due to their skin colors.
So, they went for the only thing that would justify their violence and make them feel superior — lowering down what they couldn’t stand. And, the beautiful way of resistance is to refuse to be a victim.
9. On Language
“The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. […] Sexist language, racist language, theistic language — all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.” — Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture 1993
Morrison often emphasized the importance of language not only because she always dealt with it, but she also drew attention to its being an oppressive tool to justify racism. Indeed, patriarchal, racist, dictatorial regimes used language to create binary oppositions and put the Other in an inferior position.
Every time we use the racist discourse, we pave the way to subjugate a group of people without even realizing it. We alienate their bodies and harm their souls. Language always has a default — male, heterosexual, Christian. And it estranges those who don’t meet the definition. Language makes us even adopt an identity that doesn’t belong to us. Language confines our souls into the corners of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race.
To deconstruct the power struggle, Morrison pays enormous importance to change the way we speak and write. Only then we can talk about equality.
10. On Why Your Story Matters
“Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald.
Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly — once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.
You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.” — Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture 1993
This passage gathers up the other quotes and presents us with an inspiring take. Morrison is one of the influential writers who shaped African-American literature, and her narratives play vital roles in curing racist people and diluting racism, if not dismantle it.
We often believe that our stories don’t matter. Why would others want to listen to me? I used to think. But, even listening to other persons’ stories grows empathy and love inside my heart. We go through such sorrowful events in this life that only writing about them heals us.
We don’t realize how many people experience similar things until we narrate our stories. If we heal ourselves and help others through our words, why staying in doubt? I haven’t seen a person who writes and doesn’t reach at least one soul. If we have an urge to write, there is probably someone who needs to hear what we have to say.
Buse Umur is an M.A. student of European, American, and Postcolonial Language and Literature at Ca’ Foscari University. Her research covers the female and postcolonial identity in contemporary English literature. She also writes about equality, culture, and feminism on Medium (@buseumur)