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.”


An excerpt from ‘Sula’

Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.

It was in that summer, the summer of their twelfth year, the summer of the beautiful black boys, that they became skittish, frightened and bold — all at the same time.

In that mercury mood in July, Sula and Nel wandered about the Bottom barefoot looking for mischief. They decided to go down by the river where the boys sometimes swam. Nel waited on the porch of 7 Carpenter’s Road while Sula ran into the house to go to the toilet. On the way up the stairs, she passed the kitchen where Hannah sat with two friends, Patsy and Valentine. The two women were fanning themselves and watching Hannah put down some dough, all talking casually about one thing and another, and had gotten around, when Sula passed by, to the problems of child rearing.

“They a pain.”

“Yeh. Wish I’d listened to mamma. She told me not to have ’em too soon.”

“Any time atall is too soon for me.”

“Oh, I don’t know. My Rudy minds his daddy. He just wild with me. Be glad when he growed and gone.”

Hannah smiled and said, “Shut your mouth. You love the ground he pee on.”

“Sure I do. But he still a pain. Can’t help loving your own child. No matter what they do.”

“Well, Hester grown now and I can’t say love is exactly what I feel.”

“Sure you do. You love her, like I love Sula. I just don’t like her. That’s the difference.”

“Guess so. Likin’ them is another thing.”

“Sure. They different people, you know …”

She only heard Hannah’s words, and the pronouncement sent her flying up the stairs. In bewilderment, she stood at the window fingering the curtain edge, aware of a sting in her eye. Nel’s call floated up and into the window, pulling her away from dark thoughts back into the bright, hot daylight.

"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years.  She has led classes for young and old on...