As you probably know, Toni Morrison died this week. The world lost a literary giant.
I read every one of Morrison’s novels - mostly in college - and they frightened the hell out of me. I remember finishing The Bluest Eye and thinking, “Damn I’m never going to be able to write a novel if this is what novels need to be!”
Happily, it turns out that you don’t need to be as talented as Toni Morrison to have a publishing career.
Toni Morrison was also at the center of one of my most memorable academic achievements in college, including a question I have wanted to ask her for 25 years.
Now I won’t get the chance.
It was my second year at Trinity College, taking a class centering on literature by Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer. Over the course of the semester, I read every book that Morrison had published. Though it made for an intense reading list, I was enjoying the work a great deal.
We had just finished reading Morrison’s Beloved and were discussing it in class. As the hour was drawing to a close, questions about the ending of the book eventually arose. Specifically, the professor wanted to address the way in which the ghost of Beloved inexplicably explodes near the end of the novel. She explained that she had never understood Morrison's decision in this regard and hoped to one day meet the author and ask her about that ending scene.
The exploding ghost had seemed a little odd to me as well, and my classmates agreed. We ended class on that note, leaving the issue unresolved.
Fifteen minutes after class, with the idea still rolling around in my head, I had an epiphany. I was eating a cheeseburger in the cafeteria when an idea struck. In an instant, I thought that I understood Morrison’s decision completely.
The next day I came to class and raised my hand.
“I think I know why Beloved explodes at the end of the book,” I said.
Okay,” the professor said, sounding dubious. Why?”
“Think about Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred,” I said and then recited the poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore-- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
“Beloved represents a dream deferred. A murdered baby who never became the child that her mother wanted. Morrison is eluding to what might happen when a a dream like this is deferred. Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? No, says Morrison. It explodes.”
There was a silence in the class for a moment, and then the professor’s eyes widened. She smiled and said, “I think you got it. My God, I think you got it.”
Sadly, I’ll never know.
Whether or not I am actually correct is this assumption, it was a wonderful moment for me. I was six years older than any of my classmates and managing a McDonald’s restaurant full time while also attending Trinity College full time.
Even in year two of my Trinity career, I still didn’t feel like I belonged. It was ridiculous, of course. I graduated in the top 10 of my class in terms of GPA and was doing just fine in every one of my classes, but when you’re in the midst of people who are so unlike you, it’s easy to feel like an imposter.
A moment like this made me think that maybe I could do this work after all. Maybe I really did belong.
And it made up for all those moments in Feminist Literary Criticism when my four other classmates, all female, were talking about Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in lofty, literary terms and I was still unable to understand a single word of the damn book.