by Hanna Carney //
Morrison wants us to read, write, think, and reimagine our lives through a different perspective and find agency there.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am recounts the life of Toni Morrison—Nobel-prize-winning writer, editor, and professor. The biopic is shaped by interviews with Morrison and her colleagues (such as Angela Davis and Oprah Winfrey) as they examine her life and accomplishments. Each interviewee paints Morrison as a thoughtful, striking black woman who knew how to move people. “Toni tells extraordinary stories that touch people in a very deep place,” says Walter Mosley.
It is only appropriate that Morrison’s words helped build her own biopic, as few can be considered her peers in eloquence and charisma. Viewers get to witness Morrison’s formation as a writer through the retelling of her earliest memories. Morrison looks back fondly on her sister teaching her how to read when she was three years old. The two of them would write on the sidewalk with pebbles only to have their mother stop them for copying a word they had found down the street, which turned out to be “fuck”—“Expanding our vocabulary,” says Morrison with a smile. She remembers that while her mother was reprimanding them, that word on the sidewalk had not once passed her lips. “Ultimately, I knew that words have power.”
When I came to this scene in the documentary, I thought, when did I understand the power of language? I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I could’ve known Morrison, so she could have imparted some of her wisdom on me. I can’t help but be jealous of the students who had the privilege of taking her classes. Morrison advised her creative writing students at Princeton, don’t tell me about your “little life… I want you to invent.” In one of her interviews, Sonia Sanchez asserts that Morrison’s emphasis on reinvention calls us to “reimagine us on this American landscape.” We must ask:
“What I must do now. How I must live, how I must rearrange… my vowels. How I must rearrange my toe jam. How I must rearrange my hair, my breasts. How I must rearrange my thoughts.”
Morrison wants us to read, write, think, and reimagine our lives through a different perspective and find agency there. Perhaps, only when we do this thinking and reimagining can we understand the power of language. Morrison does feminist work in her writing and leaves the sentiment to be found in the language itself. In other words, she is not a feminist simply because she wrote black women at the center of her narratives, or because she worked to overcome the white male gaze. Toni Morrison is a feminist because she truly wrote. She invented. She reimagined.
Although The Pieces I am serves as a wonderful glimpse into the life of Toni Morrison, it is just that—a glimpse. One cannot truly appreciate her innovation and brilliance without reading her novels, without praying with Pecola in The Bluest Eye, or mourning with Sethe in Beloved. Nonetheless, The Pieces I am compels us to question what it means to write, to read, to think, and, ultimately, to inspire.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is available on Hulu, YouTube, and Vudu. The documentary can also be accessed online through Cornell’s Library.