By Jessica Salfia
This is my first post for the Best Practices Blog in a while. Usually this time of year, I try to craft an inspirational back-to-school post with tips and tricks, a little humor or inspiration for a new year (i.e. the infamous barnacle goose chick post of last year)—something with a resource list or ready to go activities. I started working on one those this week—a new school year post filled tools and tricks and commentary on the events of the last year.
But then, Toni Morrison died.
I closed my laptop lid and drifted to my book shelf. I began absentmindedly thumbing through my copies of Song of Solomonand The Bluest Eye. I am ashamed to say that until two summers ago, I has only read Beloved and that had been in African-American literature class in undergrad almost 17 years ago. I had passed all the way through high school and two years of college without a teacher mentioning Morrison’s work. I was 20 years old before a teacher assigned me Toni Morrison.
Two summers ago, I had decided that it was unacceptable that I had a blind spot where one of the most important American writers should be. As a teacher and a writer, what I knew about Morrison wasn’t good enough, and I put myself through a 3 week long Morrison intensive on my own. I read Sula, The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon back to back. And the while I was drenching myself in the richness of her language, I was researching her remarkable life and her activism. In those three weeks, I marveled at all I had missed. I devoured her work. I am a writer, and I had never read The Bluest Eye.How can that be? I was ashamed and awed. The day I finished it, I called my best friend and said, “all I want to do as a writer is someday write lyrical prose that sounds like The Bluest Eye. God, to write like Toni Morrison.”
This week after Morrison died, I couldn’t muster up an inspirational back to school post. It was all too much: trying to grapple with the back to back mass shootings, preparing myself and my children for back to school in this climate of fear, and then…Toni Morrison died. Instead, I spent most of the rest of the day on Twitter, reading tributes and articles about her incredible life and her contributions to American culture and literature.
But I had a deadline to meet and a blog to write, so I reopened my laptop that night and began working on a post about the state of education in West Virginia. I was grieved and I tried use that to write about struggle.
For two hard years, West Virginia teachers have battled for the soul of public education in our state, but some of our state lawmakers continue to push for privatization while disrespecting and demoralizing public educators. I had just gotten news that since May my district alone had had over 80 resignations—many of those teachers leaving West Virginia for Maryland or Virginia school districts. It is clear that not just the significant pay increase bordering states can offer, but also having to continuously defend public education from constant attacks had worn many good teachers out and sent them in search of greener pastures. West Virginia teachers have had to go on strike not once, but twice in the last two years.
I started outlining a back to school post about the struggle of public educators in this state. And then I thought about the words I had hung behind my desk just before I walked out of my classroom to stand on picket lines for 9 days in February of 2018.
“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” -Toni Morrison
I have had trouble articulating what if felt like when West Virginia teachers unified to close schools in every county in our state for 9 school days, 13 total days. It was electrifying and empowering and terrifying. The day I walked out of my classroom, not knowing if I would ever walk back in, all I could think was “surrender to the air.” I wrote Morrison’s words on a scrap of paper in my boldest handwriting and thumbtacked the paper to the board behind my desk. I ran my fingers over the words that day, and many days after. It hangs there still.
Morrison wrote books about the Black experience for Black audiences. I know this.
But some truths ring universal.
I sighed and stopped outlining.
There was nothing else to write about but Toni Morrison. But as selfishly as I knew I wanted to write about Morrison and her influence on me, here’s the thing I kept coming back to: Morrison wasn’t and isn’t mine to write about.
Morrison revolutionized literature, the canon, and let’s be honest, America, but her impact on Black writers, Black America, and Black culture is her most important and powerful contribution to the world.
And it is not my place to write about those things.
My job as a white teacher and writer is to read, listen, and learn what writers of color have to say about Morrison’s impact on them and their work. My job is to listen to and learn from my colleagues of color when they talk and write about how Morrison has influenced their lives and their classroom pedagogy. My job is to make sure my students have access to those reflections on Morrison with my reflections as secondary. We, white teachers, need to direct our students and colleagues to resources by Black writers and Black teachers that illustrate Morrison’s impact on the African-American community.
It is my job, our job, white teachers, to be allies. To yes, share how Morrison changed our own writing and teaching, but also to know that Morrison’s light was not shone for us. We may have walked in that light, and it may have lit the way for us as well. But remember that that light was lit for others.
And above all it is our job to make sure no student passes through our ELA classrooms without having read Toni Morrison.
This past spring I wrote about how West Virginia teachers need confront the lack of diversity in our curriculums and classrooms.You can read that post again HERE. We must not only confront the lack of diversity in our curriculum, but we must also start purposefully and powerfully engaging in anti-racist teaching and pedagogy. This is more important now than ever.
Start doing that right now by paying tribute to one the greatest of American writers in your classrooms. Start by reading books by Black writers, specifically Black women writers. Start by removing yourself from the center of the narrative. Start by considering what Toni Morrison meant not to you, but the rest of the world.
Surrender to the air this year.
And since it is back to school season, here are 5 resources to get you started:
- This essay by Morrison was written in 2016, but it also could have been written this week after the El Paso shooting.
- This extraordinary tribute on Morrison’s legacy: “Toni Morrison Will Always Be with Us”: Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni & Sonia Sanchez Pay Tribute
- This video of Toni Morrison calling out a racist interview question and white privilege in real time.