Neal Lester’s office at ASU, where he teaches English and heads an initiative called Project Humanities, is filled with a mix of paperwork, books, and objects that reflect his interest in how black people have been represented in American culture.
One piece of paper holds special meaning, Lester says. It’s a typewritten note dated August 20, 2015, signed by Toni Morrison, the renowned author who died in New York on August 5, at 88 years old. Lester, who's also a professor of English, met the author several years ago, during an event in Virginia that several ASU students attended as well.
Morrison’s short note praises Lester's work, and Project Humanities’ focus on human decency and self-empowerment, closing with this question: “What could be more necessary in our daily actions and interactions?”
Knowing the impact Morrison had on Lester, and countless others here in the Valley, we asked several local creatives to share their reflections on her work — and how it's touched their own lives. Here’s what they told us, edited for clarity and length.
Director, ASU Project Humanities
What I know about myself and the world has largely been the result of reading, studying, and publishing on black women writers. Among the most influential is Toni Morrison. A consummate storyteller, she continually takes her readers into a world that is both comforting in its familiarities and challenging in its complex realities of our (in)humanity. Toni Morrison unapologetically centered black people away from the “white gaze.” To experience Morrison’s work is to bask in the choreography of words that sing, soar, and spiritually satisfy.
Host, Poets and Muses Podcast
I remember reading The Bluest Eye decades ago, and I was shocked by the brutality it described. At the same time, I was becoming familiar with Spike Lee’s movies. These formed the basis of my early understanding of the prejudices African-Americans face in society – above all, color-ism and the perpetuation of trans-generational violence. But her characters were multidimensional, so I got a sense of the range of human experience within the African-American cultural context, rather than seeing people reduced to simplistic stereotypes. She paved the way for my understanding of the importance of representation, which is one of the main reasons I launched my podcast.
As a writer of color, the most profound word I can use to describe her influence on me is “freedom.” Freedom to see ourselves and our communities as complex, beautiful, epic. She was never afraid. Her many novels and essays never appeased, never bought into the myths that America continues to deal with. Song of Solomon taught me that the black and African-American experience wasn’t just a part of America. It was America. We live in a time when our ideologies and imaginations have become more apt to blame and dehumanize others. Now her work is more important than ever before.
Choreographer, BlakTinx Dance Festival
Toni Morrison left behind a path for the people in our community who didn’t have the platforms for speeches or protests. She magnified the voice of the common people in the black community. In The Black Book, Morrison shined a light on the everyday struggles of what it meant to be black in America. I personally believe that change has to start at the root and Morrison’s work heavily encouraged me to speak on what may seem like a mundane life of being black and living in America.
ASU Professor of English
Toni Morrison does nothing less than reframe American literature and American history as a whole. She de-centers the whiteness that pervades most of American culture. White identity, she argues, only exists in relation to those whom whites have defined as Others. Only by understanding African-Americans, she maintains, can whites ever begin to reinvent their toxic, racist culture. She rips off the polite masks that blacks have worn for centuries around whites, and spotlights the extreme heartbreak and resilience of African-Americans. She is the most powerful, most imaginative, and greatest of all American writers.
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As a black female writer and creative, Toni Morrison allowed me to better understand that I am truly a fighter in my own body. My mother is black, and my father is white; I grew up in Buckeye, which lacked representation of my personal historical backgrounds. I read A Mercy and Sula in college, which helped me grapple with my own identity crisis. Morrison’s work taught me that I must continue to fight against societal systems to achieve my goals. I always say there is no one true definition of culture and identity, and Morrison perfectly demonstrates that through the complexity of her characters. When I create my art, it is to help others who feel marginalized, so they know they are understood and not alone.
The two people most responsible for inspiring me to get my English degree, and work in the book business, are Toni Morrison and Michael Ondaatje. As long as I can remember, I’ve called Morrison “the great, the mighty, the eternal Toni Morrison." At other times, in other moods, I call her "Toni F—ing Morrison." Her work quite literally changed my life, and I will always be grateful. I loved her. I love her.