A dozen black women from various Chicago neighborhoods gathered Feb. 18 on the West Side to celebrate a literary foremother whose books have articulated many people’s feelings and experiences. Toni Morrison died Aug. 5, 2019, at age 88. She was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Front Porch Art Center, the organization founded by Keli Stewart, invited people to a party on Feb. 18, Morrison’s birthday, to read quotations from the author’s work while enjoying cake and cupcakes provided by Brown Sugar Bakery, which has a presence in Austin.
“We see the front porch as a place where we gather,” Stewart said. “They say the West Side is hood, but I say we are really country. I think our stories are preserving some important stuff. Toni Morrison’s stories make up for the absence of stories about what happened in Mississippi before our parents came here.”
Shani Smith, a South Side community activist, reinforced Stewart’s point.
“My grandfather had to escape from a plantation,” she said. “So I say I’m just the second generation out of slavery.”
Marche Pernell, a young Austin resident, said she feels muffled by society’s racism when trying to express her experiences and feelings. She read a quotation from Morrison’s novel Sula.
“Like any artist without an art form, she became dangerous,” the book says.
Melody Waller of Greater Grand Crossing also quoted from the novel Sula.
“The cry that had no bottom and no top — just circles and circles of sorrow. We need each other as we go through those circles.”
Waller said her mother, a librarian, introduced her to books by Morrison and other black writers.
Morrison’s writing shows the beauty of black people even in times of tragedy and misdeeds. Her novels come alive with poetry, mysteries and wild women. Everyone attending said their lives were influenced by a Morrison book or quotation.
Tanisha Woodson-Shelby read the scene from Jazz that depicts a couple riding the train to a new life, fearful but finding joy in the dancing motions of the wheels.
Larissa Johnson of Hyde Park read from Morrison’s The Source of Self Regard, a book of essays published last year. Johnson said that African Americans seek a connection with their homeland through people from other parts of the African diaspora.
Stewart read a poetic section from Morrison’s novel Beloved, in which she honors all parts of black bodies, often scorned and devalued by a racist system.
“How many times do we tell our liver and our heart, I love you?” the Morrison quotation reads.
Love is something we earn, Morrison explains in her novel Jazz.
“I didn’t fall in love; I rose in it.”