SURRENDER TO THE AIR
A few weeks ago, I intentionally travelled down a rabbithole of Cynthia Cooper highlights, eager to rewatch some of the most expert basketball I’ve ever seen played.
For the uninitiated, Coop is one of the most iconic basketball players of all-time and a personal favorite from my childhood, the dominant force on a Houston Comets team that won the first four (!) WNBA championships from 1997-2000. Cooper captured the Most Valuable Player award in the WNBA’s inaugural and sophomore seasons, led the league in scoring its first three seasons, and earned the Finals MVP in each and every one of the Comets’ four championship victories. To a Michael Jordan superfan like myself, the parallels between Coop and Mike were obvious if not impossible to ignore, and that made her brilliance in their fledgling league especially compelling.
Seriously, check out her footwork.
Her composure, even while crashing into larger bodies.
Never in a hurry. Moving at her own pace. Surrendering to the air.
With Cooper and her Comets winning, I repeat, the WNBA’s first four championships, five- and six- and seven- and eight-year-old me reasonably began to assume they’d keep winning titles until Coop retired, which wouldn’t be for awhile, right? Through a variety of mental gymnastics, I determined that because the WNBA was a new league, all its players were fresh out of college and young in their careers, knowing nothing about the slew of women forced to pursue basketball overseas because of limited (read: nonexistent) opportunities domestically. After winning that fourth title in 2000, Cooper did retire at age 37; suddenly, I realized she wasn’t as young as I’d initially thought. The Comets never won another WNBA championship after Cooper’s first retirement (she would return for a brief, inconsequential stint with Houston in 2003) and as I write this column, the WNBA hasn’t stationed a franchise in Houston in over a decade.
Six-year-old me similarly determined that this author whose name was wholly new to me — but whose book was so impressive that Oprah Winfrey was adapting it into a big-budget movie — couldn’t have been any older than, like, twenty-five. Thanks to literally every single woman in my life, I was already too familiar with Oprah and her communications empire. Toni Morrison? Not so much. So far as I could tell, the reigning queen of media was doing this emerging author a solid. Multiples of years passed before I learned this emerging author was actually fifty-six years old when Beloved was published, seven books into her illustrious career by the film adaptation’s 1998 release. Only after seeing Morrison’s most recent documentary The Pieces I Am did I discover Oprah’s dogged insistence on adapting Beloved; Morrison did Oprah the solid instead. I really hope I wasn’t the only six-year-old this clueless.
In my defense, I blame her pen name. Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Her pseudonym — an amalgamation of her baptismal name Anthony (which she shortened to Toni), and her married name Morrison — is frankly one of the cooler nom de plumes I’ve ever seen, way too hip for my pea-sized brain to ever consider she was born in the same era as my grandparents. Yet for some reason, no matter how many times I’ve read her Wikipedia (since 2005, more times than I can remember), or discussed her work, or personally reckoned with her legacy, I never registered her age in actual numbers. She published her first book at age thirty-nine. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction at age fifty-seven, and the Nobel Prize in Literature at age sixty-two. Morrison had already lived over half her life before I even knew she existed, but I learned of her just as she began to get all those accolades she so richly deserved.
Chloe Wofford passed away on August 5, 2019. But by her works, Toni Morrison is immortal. And by those same works, I believe she’s the greatest novelist in American history.
About halfway into The Pieces I Am, the documentary turns to Oprah, at which point she recalls dialing up Professor Morrison the first time she’d finished reading Beloved. The two weren’t yet friendly — Oprah admits she stealthily obtained Morrison’s number from Morrison’s local fire department — but Oprah, adorably unable to contain her excitement, clearly felt compelled to share her enthusiasm directly to the Professor. However, Oprah says she did express one small concern: she found herself returning to some of the prose, unable to proceed with the book until she was certain she understood even the densest portions.
“That, my darling,” responded Professor Morrison, “is called reading.”
That bit of wisdom was oddly reassuring, and only becomes more reassuring with each subsequent rewatch. I have long aspired to write like her (and James Baldwin, but that’s another essay), despite that aspiration seeming nearly impossible, if not wholly implausible. On essentially any first read, Morrison and Baldwin seem intent to confuse, generating a hurricane of words and emotions too heavy to initially comprehend. I’d be lying if I pretended that distinct tenet of theirs hasn’t intimidated me on more than a few occasions, stoking a specific fear that I’ll misinterpret their messages or outright misunderstand them.
During my sophomore year at Howard University (also the alma mater of Professor Morrison, further establishing that we are the greatest university this country has ever produced), the English department offered a Morrison-centric course taught by the department chair, Dr. Dana Williams. That course was hard, as I suppose it should’ve been given its design. And the stories Morrison sought to tell were hard, and even more heartbreaking. In The Pieces I Am, author Walter Mosley said it best: you do not want to be a character in one of Professor Morrison’s books. Strictly as a reading experience, her novels can be remarkably devastating, but could you imagine spending a day in the living conditions of Milkman and Guitar, or Sula and Nel, or Claudia and Frieda and Pecola? Beloved is based on the true story of an escaped slavewoman murdering her toddler in lieu of allowing the baby’s return to slavery. That happened, in real life. The darkest depths of my imagination cannot recreate what that scene must’ve been like in real time. Professor Morrison eagerly embraced that challenge, and messed around and penned one of the most celebrated novels in the history of American literature. Shows where bravery can get you.
That course was essential in my evolution as a storyteller. My absolute favorite Baldwinism is that he self-identified as a “witness” instead of any other, more self-indulgent honorific. Baldwin unquestionably and repeatedly undersold his significance to the artform and the culture. Yet by doing so, he effectively highlighted the essential truth: he was simply reporting the facts. It wasn’t his job to make you comfortable; instead, he took on the duty of being completely honest with you, and sometimes that truth is going to hurt. I think Professor Morrison strove for that same level of honesty and transparency, evinced through her desire to strip the “white gaze” from her novels, to prove our humanity as black and brown folk has never been contextual.
I definitely didn’t exit that seminar a Toni Morrison expert (I did earn a B, for what that’s worth), but I’m also certain her books aren’t to be completely comprehended on their first read, or the second, or even maybe the third.
And hey, even Oprah struggled with the good professor the first time around. I feel no shame.
Writer’s block is … debilitating.
Beyond my schoolwork and freelance gigs, I haven’t consistently written anything for sport in ages. I joke that I give all my best material away in Twitter threads nowadays, and I’m honestly too flippant about most topical current events to be an incisive cultural critic. I have twenty-four unfinished essays in my Notes app dating back to June 2017, and I’ve truthfully been struggling to finish anything since the beginning of that year. Nothing feels good enough. I’ve tried motivating myself countless times to get started, only to determine that this doesn’t need my perspective, really. I even joked about writing a piece and titling it “I Don’t Know How to Write Anymore,” just to get my fingers working again. I vividly remember reading my mom the Riot Act when she stopped writing; how could someone with such a clear talent just not use it? I loved to write. Adored it. Wanted to spend everyday of my life doing it. I enrolled in that Morrison course my sophomore year as an English double-major, literally preparing for a life — or at least, a career — of non-stop composition. Now, I completely understand how people lose their enthusiasm for this. The dread of opening a new document and seeing it completely empty. Not knowing how you’re going to reach your word count. Fretting it won’t be any good once you do. All of it is debilitating. And eventually, you’d rather save yourself the frustration of feeling like you can’t do it anymore.
It sucks that Professor Morrison’s passing was the spark I needed to write for myself again, but I’d be a hypocrite considering her a role model and mentor while continuing to be so passive about my truest passion. I know I’m a damn good writer, because I wouldn’t have launched this project if I didn’t. That’s partially why I chose that picture of Professor Morrison for the August homepage. It’s definitely eerie but in the best possible way, like she’s staring directly into my soul, demanding I snatch control of my destiny. I can’t be a writer if I, er, don’t write. The plainest truths are often redundant that way.
Song of Solomon has always been my favorite of Professor Morrison’s novels. I immediately connected with Milkman, Solomon’s lead protagonist who dreads becoming the worst version of his emotionally detached, capitalistic father. Milkman initially spends the novel’s final third on a craven quest for hidden gold; the gag is the gold doesn’t exist, but along the way he begins to find himself, a discovery worth far more than the hidden treasure he seeks. Human flight, literal and metaphorical, is one of Solomon’s overarching themes, bookending both the novel and quite possibly the lives of Milkman and his brother-slash-antagonist-in-arms, Guitar. Still, Morrison writes Solomon’s resolution to be ambiguous, only leaving the reader with this haunting reminder: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it. Nothing fails but a try, and there is always a non-zero chance that you will fail. But how willing are you to surrender to the air? To stop being apathetic, allowing your fears to hinder your progress? Because should you choose to, you just might fly. And it’s guaranteed to exceed your wildest dreams. That’s where bravery can get you.
Over these past eighteen months, I’ve frequently wondered how Professor Morrison handled her own bouts of writer’s block, should literary geniuses be occasionally prone to those. Luckily for me, every quote ever exists on Al Gore’s internet, and here’s her take on the concept from a 1994 interview with the New York Times’ Claudia Dreifus:
I disavow that term [writer’s block]. There are times when you don't know what you're doing or when you don't have access to the language or the event. So if you're sensitive, you can't do it. When I wrote Beloved, I thought about it for three years. I started writing the manuscript after thinking about it, and getting to know the people and getting over the fear of entering that arena, and it took me three more years to write it. But those other three years I was still at work, though I hadn't put a word down.
Those other three years I was still at work, though I hadn’t put a word down. And here I am, a mere eighteen months in, panicking that I’ve forgotten how to write.
Be kinder to yourself. Don’t rush your process. Surrender to the air. You could ride it.