Toni Morrison: Our Saving Grace By Barbara Christian I remember the first time I held a Toni Morrison novel in my hand. In 1970, I had read a review of a book called The Bluest Eye by an African American woman writer. It ran in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, so unusual an occurrence that I immediately bought the book. Stunned by this lyric tale of a Black girl who desires the bluest eye, and by the author's chorus of African American women's voices, I instinctively knew that a previous -- heretofore unknown -- tradition of Black women's writing existed. I recognized the way the story was told. It was the shape of my mother's storytelling -- a simple story becoming increasingly complex, mythic, beyond solution, yet teaching me a lesson I needed to know. For the next decade I would work on a book about the tradition of African American women's writing, while everybody in the academy and the publishing world, and I mean everybody, told me no such thing existed. I was not alone. Others, many of them friends who seldom read "serious" literature, passed The Bluest Eye from hand to hand. When Morrison's second novel, Sula, possibly her most controversial, was published in 1973, we argued with each other on the phone. Here, Morrison juxtaposed two characters, Nel, the traditional nurturer, and Sula, the woman who insisted on "making herself," in a tale so much about African Americans history of displacement that some of us were provoked to self-revelatory anger. I remember one of my friends telling her husband that he had to read Sula because while she was a Nel, there was in her, as well as in every other Black woman, a touch of the supposedly selfish and terrible Sula. Long before Morrison got the Nobel Prize for literature last week, "regular" African American women were calling her our writer. "Toni" (as we called her, because we all felt we knew her) sang to a world that, being neither white nor male, we African American women had to invent ourselves. To us, she had already won a Nobel Prize. By 1975, I was teaching a class on African American women writers. By now, not only women of different ethnicities, but also African American men rolled Morrison's words on their tongues. Sometimes uncomfortable with the way she placed women at the center of her stories, they nonetheless loved her sound -- one student called it the "language he dreamed in," a feeling intensified for him by her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977). Yes, Morrison was a woman writer, but yes, she could imagine the lives of men, their desire and resistance to flying -- her metaphor for the capacity to surrender, even under the madness of capitalism and racism, to communal love. Morrison's diasporic novel, Tar Baby (1981), ignited international response. As I write this piece, one of my ex- students -- Gurleen Grewal, a South Asian who wrote her dissertation on Morrison's works -- has just called me, jubilant about Morrison's receipt of the Nobel Prize. To her, Morrison is the writer who dug deep into the intricacies of post-colonialism as no other living writer has done. As reams of literary criticism are being written about Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987), some of us know it to be not just a novel, but a prayer, a healing ritual for our country's holocaust of slavery. Still others are poring over Morrison's revisionist take on the Harlem Renaissance in her most recent novel, the supremely artistic Jazz (1991), which edges literary experimentation into the 21st century. Her book of essays, Playing in the Dark (1991), on race the literary imagination, has set many an English professor's teeth on edge, while ethnic studies scholars like myself see it as the foundation of an entire rehauling of American literature. Literary criticism aside, my most riveting memory of the power of Morrison's work is when I conducted a workshop with emotionally disturbed Black patients using Beloved. For them, the novel was not difficult in the way so many "sane" readers found it. The supposedly "fragmented" quality of its narration -- which mirrors the country's fear of remembering, for remembering is painful and dangerous, as well as freeing -- was visceral, and quite normal, to these readers. As we circled the novel, distinctively a folk opera, I recalled Morrison's sense of herself as a writer, as one who should be of service because of the saving grace her folk have with language. It is a grace that has led her to explore a world in which claiming freedom, and therefore the power to love, is dangerous, risky -- but always blessed. How bereft we would be without Toni Morrison's liberating sound! How fortunate to have lived at a time when we can dwell in, and heal, through her language! Barbara Christian is professor of African American literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition (Greenwood Press, 1980) and Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers (Pergammon Press, 1985) She is currently writing a literary biography of Toni Morrison as part of the University of California Press series on American genius.