Thank you for your soul-searing books. The Bluest Eyecame out in 1970, the year my daughter was born. I thought of it as one of those new baby gifts that the infant
will one day grow into. She did, but meanwhile I read it over and over. By 1970, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, and Brown had already taught me what coming of age was
like for African-American boys. What was it like for girls? You taught me. In The Bluest Eye I identified with those little girls and grown women who longed to look white because white, not black, was beautiful. You make it clear how this supremacy of whiteness privileges some while condemning others, like Pecola and her mother, to misery. I reread The Bluest Eye most recently after my daughter’s daughter became the delighted owner of Rebecca, the pug-nosed Jewish American Girl doll. I noted (to myself, of course) that in spite of her period wardrobe and her Lower Eastside back story, Becky sure doesn’t look Jewish unless, like me, she had a nose job.
With each book of yours, I learned a lot of other things too. I’m especially grateful for Beloved, set in Ohio shortly after the Civil War and peopled by former slaves haunted by recollections of their years as property. Beloved made vivid and unforgettable to me the often used phrase “legacy of slavery.” Before Beloved, I’d understood that legacy mostly in abstract terms like “separated families” and “forced illiteracy” and “overseer cruelty.” After Beloved, when I hear or read of this legacy, I envision men and women with iron bits distorting and tearing their mouths as, worked like horses, they haul loads. I see black men in flames dangling from trees and a grown white man forcing a lactating black mother to suckle him before beating her bloody. I see a mother slashing the throat of her own baby girl rather than allowing the child to be captured by slave catchers and returned to captivity. Such memories are the unspeakable legacy of slavery that you, by speaking of them in your books, make your readers confront.
But in Beloved as in all your work, I got much more than a history lesson. I also got a lesson in storytelling: how to weave cultural elements, back stories, and symbols seamlessly into narrative, to alternate points of view, to write pitch perfect dialogue and description that matters: “There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors . If you are put out, you go somewhere else. If you are outdoors, there is no place to go. . . .Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life . . . struggling to hang on or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment.”
And Beloved is also a ghost story. Your haunted characters all believe in ghosts, so I suspend my own disbelief to enter their troubled world where a baby ghost and a ghostly teen kick up a ruckus. Inspired, in The Bones and the Book, I created a Nineteenth Century immigrant girl haunted by ghosts from her past who fights the growing conviction that displacement and loss have transformed her into a ghost.
I’m glad you won the Nobel Prize and so grateful to you for telling stories that keep me turning pages even while I face up to some hard facts about American history which is, after all, a legacy all Americans share.