Are You a Monster: Conversations with My Favorite Toni Morrison Quotes
“…If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. White people have a very, very, very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”
I have been gone from this world for a very long time. In all iterations. Gone. Departed. Left. Lost or hopeless. Ruined. Dead. Used up. Pregnant. Gone. I have been pushed to the margins by the palest and most normative. I have been chased to the margins of the margins by the darkest and queerest. Gone.
I stopped listing the offenses I have suffered; the taste of prejudice and fear soured my appetite for cherries, and apples, and scrambled eggs and greens with toast. I stopped asking for space to be made for me; I stopped begging to be loved. Instead, I looked inward and made a home. I mined unconditional love from my bones and gave it to myself; and I undid, and came undone, and undid some more. I apologized to myself. I said, “you are forgiven.” I am forever the undoing.
“…what are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Still smart? Do you still like yourself?”
I have lied so many times. I have cheated. I have stolen. I have been unkind, I have manipulated, and bent, and adjusted the lens to catch myself in just the right light. In the name of fear, I have done all of these things. I am a person who is capable of all of this.
I do not how to be excited about this movement. I know how many things would have to die in order for me to be allowed to exist in that world. I know what undoing does to a made and perfected thing; I know the pain and trepidation that come before being gone. And who but the ones who are already dead would logically choose that? The question, though, that loomed as I was dying, was “Who wants to only be anything in relation to someone else?”
“The people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft. There is something distorted about the psyche…”
In the quiet of my last breath, the clever monster illuminated itself to me. Those whose entire sense of self and worth is allowed to grow externally, outside of their own bodies and beings, would, of course, select contingent existence, because they believe that they cannot be without it. They believe that they will, ostensibly, die. They think that they are fighting for their very lives. The thing that sustains whiteness is the same thing that is killing white people. It is killing all of us. And they are fighting for it as it sucks the life right out of them. Whiteness is a flesh-eating bacteria made of its own flesh. It is the monster of all monsters.
Blackness has never been allowed to grow out in the world that way. I have been killed so many times already simply because I existed. Eleanor Bumpers, Bee Love Slater, Muhlaysia Booker, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Tony McDade, Kiki Fantroy, Rae’Lynn Thomas, Duanna Johnson, Tanisha Anderson, Breonna Taylor, Mya Hall, Shantel Davis, Nizah Morris, Malissa Williams, Kendra James, Shelly Frey, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, The New Jersey 7, Alesia Thomas. I have died over and over again.
I set up a life for myself inside, apart. And I start every day giving myself permission to exist, and unraveling, independent of anything or anyone else. And writing new definitions for all the words I’ve unlearned.
Love (verb); to gaze upon another person or thing, giving one’s full attention, and saying nothing. To take in all that is offered to each of the senses, and nothing else. Right here. Wherever here is. To find gratitude for every existence, and for the moments that one has been allowed to share with other living creatures.
“You are your best thing.”
I do not know how to be excited about this movement. It does not seem to be about me. I am not better, or greater, or kinder or more deserving, or anything else in relation to that world. I am. I am excited about the monarch butterflies and the lizards playing in the desert, and about putting the right amount of vinegar in the greens, cheese in the grits. I’m excited about how sounds can dance together and translate my ineffable insides. I’m excited about all the unconventional and beautiful things one can make out of beer cans. And about reading Tar Baby for the first time. I’m excited about what comes after. Do not recruit me to join the madness. I am dead. I am a ghost. And I bake a mean chocolate chip pecan cookie.
“Over here, brother man! Can you see me…You want me? Huh? You want my life?… You need it? Here.”
A Translation and a Prayer
Over these past few months, I have struggled. I have struggled with what to say or do, how to be, and how Scarlet fits into it all. Being a person is hard. Being a person of color in a global pandemic that disproportionately affects people who look like you is harder. Being a Black queer trans person in the midst of an international movement for racial equality is…all of the words above. And more. I have gone out into the streets and protested. And yelled “BLACK LIVES MATTER” at the top of my lungs. And cried. And been quiet.
It does not feel safe to let myself get excited about this movement. But I want Scarlet to be a place that uplifts the voices who are called to speak. I am grateful for many of those voices. Thank you for speaking. Thank you for fighting for my right to exist. The following is a poem by my dear friend, Maria José Giménez. This piece held me up on a day when my sorrow threatened to hang me. And I hope it will sustain you.
translation or prayer (for remembrance)
for George Floyd
about a new friend
perfumed my afternoon
into a new search
I asked my mother
for the best way
to root cuttings
from a rosemary bush
I wanted to propagate
to make up
for my unknowing
all my failings
attempting to root
a tip from a fig tree
on a morning walk
I didn’t know it’s best
to take a cane ripe
with tender buds
in another season
on another moon
I don’t think this cutting
will survive the present crisis
of fires tremors and death
but knowing that in my absence
its hundred-year-old mother
will still guard the gulch
that young and old shrubs
will watch over the sleeping grapevines
almond trees and tunos
will no doubt lengthen my years
I will wax gracefully
my memory swollen
with new tongues
sweet with drupelets
scions and roots
with the fresh air
without a knee to the neck
María José Giménez is a poet, translator, and editor whose work has received support from the NEA, the Studios at MASS MoCA, the Breadloaf Translators’ Conference, Canada Council for the Arts, and Banff International Literary Translators’ Centre. Among other awards, María José has been named 2019–2021 Poet Laureate of Easthampton, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.mariajosetranslates.com.