Whenever I think about Toni Morrison, I think about my favorite teacher, Deborah Stanford, a black woman who, when I was in high school, helped me to understand that to read seriously was a discipline and a privilege, and that an author who helps us to do it is a kind of hero. Her brand of stern, fertile New Criticism (I’m pretty sure I learned that term from her) was rooted in the completeness of her respect for writers and their intentions. Why stray from the text when it had been so painstakingly prepared? Ms. Stanford instigated my lifelong relationships with Flannery O’Connor and Adrienne Rich, among many others, but it always felt obvious that the truest joy of her job was to teach Morrison. (Uncannily, she even looked—to me, at least—a bit like Morrison in her early dust-jacket photos: fair-skinned, with a shortish, feathery Afro; wide-mouthed and fiercely funny around the eyes.)
I took her classes in my sophomore and senior years, and, during those years, read “The Bluest Eye,” “Song of Solomon,” and “Beloved,” revelling in how long we could linger on just one line, or image, or passage, tossing it around to shake loose (and, at Ms. Stanford’s insistence, to support) new meanings. Maybe the first great symbol of my life as a reader was the riddle of Pilate’s nonexistent navel, from “Song of Solomon,” still my favorite of Morrison’s novels. We talked about that uninterrupted tummy for an hour straight, scraping at the idea until my head felt oddly clean.
People who are roughly my age, lucky to have entered high school when Morrison was already a legendary figure, will disproportionately, I’d bet, think of Morrison’s work as an early exegetical playground. From her, we learned what it could mean to be alienated from the past, or traumatized into new and freakish modes of sight, and we learned just how total an experience a haunting—a memory or “re-memory”—really is. We were reading her even when we weren’t, because we read everything else with her somewhere in mind. Such was, and is, her importance.
I have learned to read in other ways since high school—“Beloved” is a structural marvel, a kind of medieval cathedral, and it’s hard to see that as a kid—but I will always, on the deepest level, think of Morrison in terms of moments and images: huge, generous, quickly multiplying trees, offering endlessly parsable fruit. She shared with O’Connor a Catholicism whose tradition of rigorous, many-tiered scriptural reading, detailed in “Christ and Apollo,” one of O’Connor’s favorite books, parallels the tough process of reading Morrison with sufficiently satisfying depth.
It’s only right, then, that Morrison was an editor and exhaustive curator of black writers—what’s an editor but a friendly pedagogue?—and that her classic literary-critical study, “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” has become an unfailing guide to all kinds of American phenomena. There she goes, teaching us Cather and Melville just as we were once taught Morrison herself. I can think of no other writer whose work, and the cult of its consumption—still, surely, in its very first stages—embodies the ideal of writing and reading as a community practice, meant more for the enrichment of a people than for any individual’s private therapy or entertainment.
“We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes,” she once said. “We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.” Her writing opens up into other writing, richness into richness, in a way that will help such solidarity come to pass. But two things can be true. Our teacher is our hero, too.