Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am—Celebrating a Prominent Woman and Writer

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.


My Body, My Choice: Anti-Maskers and the Appropriation of Language

by Hanna Carney //

The phrase “my body, my choice” is widely known in the U.S. as a reference to reproductive rights. This important slogan emphasizes that women and females have the right to control their bodies. Now, thinking they are witty, conservative individuals have appropriated the phrase for a new cause—refusing to wear masks. This appropriation of the phrase is far from clever. In fact, its new use is nothing but hypocritical. 

I first heard “my body my choice” used in reference to masks this summer.  A woman posted a long paragraph on Facebook, claiming those who identify as pro-choice are hypocritical to criticize anti-maskers. She weaponized the slogan, turning it on those who use it to support reproductive rights, implying their logic is flawed; apparently, if a female may exercise their right to abort a fetus, a person should be able to refuse a mask. However, to use the phrase “my body my choice” as a defense against mask mandates is unconducive to supporting the rights of individuals.

Some might argue against abortion rights based on the idea that a pregnant person is responsible for a human life. When reversed, some of these same people may refuse to wear a mask to protect real human beings—ones with lives, goals, families, a conscience. By not wearing a mask, they are putting their neighbors at risk, their neighbors’ neighbors at risk. To not wear a mask is to endanger the lives of countless people you do not know without their consent. It is to overwhelm hospitals. It is to take a hospital bed, a ventilator, away from someone who may need it. A person’s choice to get an abortion does not jeopardize their neighbor or affect their well-being. There are no instances where a high demand for abortions has taken a hospital bed away from someone who needs it. 

Not only are we responsible for the literal lives of others during this pandemic,  we also have the well-being of first responders to consider, who are taking mental, emotional, and physical tolls. If these people will so brazenly put the lives and well-being of others at risk during a global crisis, why would they care if someone chooses to have an abortion? According to this logic, perhaps someone who is pro-life would actually advocate for the wearing of masks.

In theory, the general phrase seems like a good sentiment: how can “my body my choice” stand for anything beyond protecting the rights of individuals? The opportunity for hypocrisy lies in the word “choice.” When you endanger the lives of others without their consent, you are inflicting on their choice, their individual rights, their body, due to your failure to consider the well-being of others. To use “my body my choice” in this contradictory way, you reduce the fight for reproductive rights and the right to choose in general. 

We must all be cognizant of the language we use. As words with certain histories are recycled, we must understand that our speech holds the potential to appropriate and diminish that history.