the cut on tuesdays

Growing Up With Toni Morrison

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Getty

The Cut on Tuesdays

A weekly podcast from the Cut and Gimlet Media, with host Molly Fischer.

By the time Toni Morrison died last week, a whole generation of readers had come of age in a world where she was already a legend. So, on this week’s show, we’re talking to women about growing up with Morrison’s books — how they first discovered her work and what it’s meant to them over the years.

BRITTANY: She was a deity already before I was born. Like, it was understood: Oh, this woman, she’s everything.

This is Brittany Luse. She’s the co-host of The Nod.

BRITTANY: My mom, she stayed at home with us, and so Oprah was always on, 4:00 PM—at least on the east coast, it’s 4:00 PM, after school. And Oprah was not shy about choosing Toni Morrison for her book club picks. 

Brittany’s mom watched Oprah, and Brittany’s mom bought those books. So they were always around the house — and they felt familiar long before Brittany actually read them. Even just the picture of Morrison on the jacket.

BRITTANY: She looks like a grandma. She looks like a cool auntie, grandma, and she also has such a… I mean, Toni, Rhonda, Rosalyn—like, these are all good auntie, sister, cousin, grandma-friend names. If your friend is named Rosalyn, Toni, Rhonda, this is somebody who you’re gonna be on the phone with, three o’clock in the morning, laughing. They always have the tea. She just had a name that was so—Toni Morrison. It’s like a complete sentence. 

Eventually, Brittany picked up her books.

BRITTANY: I read The Bluest Eye

MOLLY: How old were you? 

BRITTANY: I was probably 15 or 16. It was around the house, and it had an Oprah’s book-club pick stamp on it, and any of those books that were in the house, I read them. 

The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s first novel: It came out in 1970, but she’d started it years before in a writing group at Howard University. And for a lot of the women we talked to, The Bluest Eye was their first taste of Toni Morrison. It’s a book that might catch your eye if you’re 10 or 13 or 16 years old: It tells the story of an 11-year-old girl growing up in the 1940s. She thinks she’s ugly — and what she wants more than anything is to have blue eyes, like a white girl.

BRITTANY: I was growing up in this mostly-white suburb. I felt like I was sort of out of step with most of the other people around me, but I didn’t have the language for it. When I first read The Bluest Eye, I was reading it sort of for the plot, and I was like: This is sad. I had an understanding situationally, in the book, that she thought whiteness could save her from her life. But I didn’t have a sophisticated understanding of how that same sort of system of oppression was making me feel a certain way—probably because it was a combination of too obvious and too painful for me to be able to connect that back to my own experience. That really would’ve made me feel totally like, Aw, man, I’m fucked.

But a few years later, she read it again. And this time it hit her in a new way.

BRITTANY: It was the first semester of my freshman year at Howard University, which is where I went. And also where Toni went. I was in an all-girls dorm. And so the first semester we’re all in freshman composition, it’s like our English class. And they have us read The Bluest Eye. 

To hear what it was like to read the book at Howard — plus more stories about discovering and rediscovering Toni Morrison — click above, and subscribe wherever you listen.

Growing Up With Toni Morrison