Toni Morrison dancing at a disco party in New York City in 1974. "She wasn’t born Toni Morrison. She had to become that person," writes Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in her 2015 New York Times Magazine cover story on the author. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)
Cashawn Thompson created the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic on Twitter in 2013 to draw attention to the accomplishments and resilience of black women in the public eye like Michelle Obama. With T-shirts, tote bags, videos, and news headlines, #BlackGirlMagic soon went viral. Like “(To Be) Young, Gifted, and Black,” a song written by Nina Simone, and “Black Lives Matter,” the affirmation “Black Girls Are Magic” creates positive associations with blackness and reconstitutes its possibilities. “Say it loud!” James Brown sang in his 1968 song “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” In other words, let us not cower — let us like ourselves.
Affirmations like #BlackGirlMagic are important corrective tools, especially now, with a president in office who weaponizes language to stir up policies that are hurtful for communities of color. Still, I worry that a focus on black women’s extraordinariness obscures the unfairness of what we overcome. I wonder if, along with a litany of archetypes that have lingered in the public imagination, #BlackGirlMagic fortifies an idea that black women can endure anything, that we don’t need protecting.
You mentioned getting permission to write. Who gave it to you?
No one. What I needed permission to do was to succeed at it. I never signed a contract until the book was finished because I didn’t want it to be homework. A contract meant somebody was waiting for it, that I had to do it, and they could ask me about it. They could get up in my face and I don’t like that. By not signing a contract, I do it, and if I want you to see it, I’ll let you see it. It has to do with self-esteem. I am sure for years you have heard writers constructing illusions of freedom, anything in order to have the illusion that it is all mine and only I can do it.
Consistent, long-term pain, the kind that (Toni) Morrison suffers in her back—and that keeps her from standing for longer than six minutes—allows for a steady stream of thoughts, a ruthless spinning of the mind.
To our minds, this spinning feels akin to accomplishing something, I think. If we can’t tend to our lives in the physical realm, the mind kicks in double-time, and this weekend, my husband away at an Army training for the month, I’ve spent the hours in my bed accomplishing the task of going over errors big and small. I check them off like items on a to-do list: ways I’ve burdened my husband with impossible expectations; friends I’ve failed to call back; writing assignments I’ve left unfinished; jobs I’ve quit or underperformed at; bad impressions I’ve made; ambitions I’ve curtailed—all the ways I’ve failed to live a life I envisioned. These are the kind of terrifically unhelpful thoughts that surface inside the void, or at the very edge of it. Truly boring stuff, the kind I find too tedious to even bring up to a therapist. But, alone, in the dark, that doesn’t stop me from going there. When our bodies shun us to the back rooms of the world, away from colleagues and lovers and friends, we have only ourselves and our reckless, pulsing imaginations: This is where regret lives. Not big, dramatic regret, not those fatal mistakes for which we seek absolution, but the mundane, everyday regrets that go unnoticed until it’s too late, the ones that make up the unalterable course of our lives. The tiny little messes.
I generally know better than to go down these paths, but the tricky thing about chronic pain is that it blurs your mind, weakening not just your body but also your psyche, leaving it with just enough strength to follow the path of least resistance, to retreat to the most dimly-lit hiding place. There, I find myself clinging to people, dreams I’ve lost, plot lines that didn’t go the way I intended. It’s hard to see sometimes how or why I lost them, whether my health or just the natural course of life was to blame, and whether there is, really, at this point, a decipherable division between the two.”
Why do writers have such a hard time writing about sex?
Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough. The only way to write about it is not to write much. Let the reader bring his own sexuality into the text. A writer I usually admire has written about sex in the most off-putting way. There is just too much information. If you start saying “the curve of . . .” you soon sound like a gynecologist. Only Joyce could get away with that. He said all those forbidden words. He said cunt, and that was shocking. The forbidden word can be provocative. But after a while it becomes monotonous rather than arousing. Less is always better. Some writers think that if they use dirty words they’ve done it. It can work for a short period and for a very young imagination, but after a while it doesn’t deliver. When Sethe and Paul D. first see each other, in about half a page they get the sex out of the way, which isn’t any good anyway—it’s fast and they’re embarrassed about it—and then they’re lying there trying to pretend they’re not in that bed, that they haven’t met, and then they begin to think different thoughts, which begin to merge so you can’t tell who’s thinking what. That merging to me is more tactically sensual than if I had tried to describe body parts.
Nancy spoke to me as if she were my mother. “Margaret dear—you can’t possibly miss Laura Danker. The big blonde with the big you know whats!”
“Oh, I noticed her right off,” I said. “She’s very pretty.”
“Pretty!” Nancy snorted. “You be smart and stay away from her. She’s got a bad reputation.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My brother said she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose.”
“And,” Janie added, “she’s been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period.”
—Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, as quoted in Ten Authors Who Write Great Dialogue (Meredith Borders, Lit Reactor). Borders’ column also features passages from Jeffrey Eugenides, Barbara Kingsolver and Elmore Leonard, among others.