She Saved Me: My Profound Appreciation for Toni Morrison

By Khalilah T. Watson Muhammad —Guest Columnist— | Last updated: Aug 14, 2019 - 9:31:16 AM

What's your opinion on this article?

Khalilah T. Watson Muhammad
“I am writing for black people… I don’t have to apologise.” —Toni Morrison, The Guardian, April 25, 2015

“She is a friend of my mind a character. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”—Toni Morrison, Beloved

It is with a heavy heart, like the rest of the world, that I am reflecting upon the unfathomable and incomparable presence of Toni Morrison in my life. After Almighty God Allah, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, my parents, and my godmother as well as my Nana, then there was Toni Morrison. Smile.

After all, in the academic world, if you truly want to know what truly matters to someone, just read their dissertation. It is said that the dissertation is autobiographical. Most of my family, extended family, friends, associates, colleagues, and students, all knew that I was deeply in love with and extremely committed to her through my academic work.


In every aspect of my academic life, I strove to find a way to connect her writings to everything. First, there was the undergraduate experience, at Albion College, where I was one of the few Black girls in my African American Literature class, who often witnessed the ignorance that racism brought. I was first introduced to her by reading “Beloved” in this African American Literature class.

Then, there was my graduate school experience at Eastern Michigan University; I read “Beloved” again; realizing that Toni Morrison was a seminal writer “that had to be experienced” by all students in pursuit of a Master’s degree in English and Literature. Next, I moved to Atlanta, Georgia to work under the founder and the Advisory Board Chair of The Toni Morrison Society, Dr. Carolyn C. Denard. As her graduate research assistant, under her gentle and gracious guidance, while at Georgia State University, I submerged myself in “all” that was Toni Morrison. I found so much joy, comfort and love in her life’s story, her photographs, her newspaper clippings, her non-fiction essays, her speeches, her interviews, her novels, and even what others said about her. It is in these moments, that it was affirmed for me how Toni Morrison spoke to me in a very significant way.

For example, in my first semester, as a Ph.D. student, I read “Jazz,” finding relief in the unreliable narrator’s journey in Harlem and during the Great Migration. Also, it is this novel that brought me to tears, but it also gave me a source of ease, as it made me laugh out loud. I could relate to this text in a very special way, as it reminded me of my father’s journey, from Savannah, Georgia, to New York City, and ironically, he had passed some months prior to this first reading. I was grateful for Morrison’s characters: Joe Trace, Violet, Golden Gray, and developed quite an appetite for the music jazz.

After this Toni Morrison’s Jazz class, it was like the flood gates opened up. As I continued to study and take other Ph.D. graduate level classes, no other writer resonated with me, the way she did. In addition to the fact that I was able to attend the 3rd Biennial Toni Morrison Society Conference in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, and this is where my literary dream came true. I met Professor Morrison, on behalf of the Society, and I was able to put a corsage on her wrist, briefly talk with her, walk her to her seat, receive an award in her presence and observe her reading from her children’s book series. As the expression goes, “I felt like I had died and went to heaven,” if there is such a thing. Smile.

Here it was that I had received the ultimate inspiration. Henceforth, I ate, sleep, drank, and lived Toni Morrison. To this end, in my last Ph.D. coursework class, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison were paired together. The reading of “Paradise” was most thought provoking here, and in this class is where my dissertation topic was born: literature as prophecy.

In the process, every word that I read of and by Toni Morrison not only kept me inspired in the dissertation writing process but it also fed my soul during the personal trials that I experienced: loving, marriage, teaching, relocating, divorcing, contemplating and starting life all over again. Finally, after much research, writing, blood, sweat and tears, I was able to complete a single author dissertation on Toni Morrison: “Literature as Prophecy: Toni Morrison as Prophetic Writer.”

This grand achievement was one of the happiest and proudest days in my life. Years later, between more teaching, presenting, conferencing and publishing some aspect from my dissertation, I felt compelled to write her—not sure if she received it. However, that was not as important as my intention and my motivation for doing such— a simple thank you note.

And so here I am again, writing and feeling most thankful for Toni Morrison again. How-ever, this time she is no longer with us (and me) physically. She has made her transition; joining the ancestors. I must admit that initially this painful reality brought me to my knees, and the tears rolled down my face. I even received many thoughtful text messages and phone calls from my family, extended family, friends, colleagues and students regarding her passing.

Interestingly enough, she passed at the age of 88, and the 88th Chapter of the Holy Qur’an is entitled, “The Overwhelming Event.” This is an overwhelming event in my life—for sure. However, I am also reminded of Allah’s other words here, “Speak not of those who died in the way of Allah, as dead, they are alive, but we perceive them not.”

Therefore, as long as I keep reading her, reflecting upon her, and thinking on her, she is alive. Once again, embodying her words, that is most befitting now: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” I am going to continue to work: to teach. I will continue to speak her name, write her name, and “do language” as she has taught us.

With everlasting love and admiration … Khalilah T. Watson Muhammad

Khalilah T. Watson Muhammad, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English at Olive-Harvey Community College in Chicago.