Reading Toni Morrison at 17, 25 and 35 It took nearly 20 years, but revisiting ‘Sula,’ I finally saw myself in her words, as only a grown woman can

In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez offers a method for reading and understanding the work of her friend, the only black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

“In order to survive,” Sanchez says, “you should reread Toni Morrison every 10 years.”

After the news broke last week that Morrison had died, her death hit with the same intensity one associates with the passing of a beloved auntie. And yet I found comfort in three things. Unlike the beginning of her career as a novelist, when Morrison’s genius was up for debate and her choice to write free of concerns about the opinions of white people raised hackles, the entire world rose up to mourn her and celebrate her many contributions. Second, she graced the earth for 88 years. It didn’t feel as though someone had been prematurely stolen from us, like Lorraine Hansberry dying at age 34 or being forced to say goodbye to Jimmy Baldwin when he was 63. And third, I decided to follow Sanchez’s advice, starting with Sula.

Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Oct. 20, 2010.

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

For most of my childhood, Morrison’s works were beautifully crafted abstractions. The words were accessible, and yet admiring them was not the same as understanding them.

When I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, as a high school senior, my approach was practically clinical. I absorbed the work the same way I pored over the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — that is to say, in obsessive pursuit of an “A” — reading and regurgitating literary criticism and taking apart the book’s symbolism, context and ideas. But there was one moment when I connected to Morrison as a black girl.

During a class discussion, a white girl in the nearly all-white class asked the teacher what “high yellow” meant. I piped up because I actually knew the answer. “It’s a couple shades lighter than me,” I explained.

The girl turned and glared at me. “Well, thanks for that, Soraya,” she snarled, and then went on to admonish me for employing such a graphic example. I was confused and a little embarrassed. Why was she angry with me? Why had she reacted with such venom, as though I’d pointed out a deficiency that had embarrassed her? A wall grew between my blackness and that which Morrison had recorded for posterity, and I learned that it was offensive to connect the two. So Pecola Breedlove, the book’s main character, meant about as much to me as Ivan Denisovich. Two fascinating foreigners in two different gulags.

It wasn’t until my 20s — after having studied at Howard, the same university Morrison attended and taught at — that I picked up her work again, dared to see myself in it and read for my own pleasure and edification.

I chose Sula. Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, is the story of friends Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who grow up in a small town and whose adult lives move in different directions. Probably about 10% of it stuck with me. I remember being enchanted by Sula’s clothing. Wrote Morrison:

She was dressed in a manner that was as close to a movie star as anyone would ever see. A black crepe dress splashed with pink and yellow zinnias, foxtails, a black felt hat with the veil of net lowered over one eye. In her right hand was a black purse with a beaded clasp and in her left a red leather traveling case, so small, so charming — no one had ever seen anything like it before, including the mayor’s wife and the music teacher, both of whom had been to Rome.

Sula had left her tiny community of Medallion, Ohio, for college in Nashville, Tennessee, and had returned worldly, glamorous and uncontainable. I grew up in a small North Carolina town I had no desire to revisit. After spending a summer working in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Kansas City, Missouri, I realized I had something in common with Sula, which was that the provincial life was not for me. I yearned to be in a real city with black people and public transportation. And like Sula, I didn’t much see the point of marriage.

Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve.

The married women of Medallion were cautionary tales, especially for a young adult woman with no children. Every time a relative or a stranger made a remark about my potential as a wife and mother, I wanted to scream, the same way I wanted to scream every Thanksgiving in my grandmother’s house when all the women were conscripted into domestic duties while the men got to sit and watch football.

So Sula’s words to her grandmother, Eva, made perfect sense to me. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” Eva told Sula.

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”

Award-winning New York author Toni Morrison is seen here at the Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto in 1982.

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I supposed I, like Sula, would simply be selfish. Sula made sense to me. I didn’t fully grasp why Sula kept bouncing from man to man — I suppose I thought of her as the Samantha Jones of her day — but I understood choosing yourself first.

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her, and with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

So what if she died young? At least she had the sense to do a little living first. My admiration was superficial and grounded in my own stubborn, rather narrowly defined pursuit of the feminist cause. The darker details of Sula’s life slid by in my mind, and for the next 10 years, I walked around with an incomplete understanding of her.

And then the woman who created Sula died.

Recently, I’d been skipping around Morrison’s essays in The Source of Self-Regard, which, on some level, is a helpful guidebook for how to be a black woman in America without going mad. And I’d seen Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary about Morrison.

Her words were still important, but I was mostly obsessed with Morrison’s life and personality. She was a lioness of American literature, yes, but she was also charming, sensual and self-assured. Here was a woman with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize grinning as she talked about how good she was at making carrot cakes, how she indulged her sexual appetites as a Howard student without a lick of shame or regret. To Morrison, chasing ambition did not require abandoning pleasure.

Toni Morrison attends Art & Social Activism, a discussion on Broadway with TaNehisi Coates, Morrison and Sonia Sanchez, on June 15, 2016, in New York City.

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Stella Adler Studio of Acting

For some time now, my editor has sent me on assignments and reminded me to have fun. My responses are always halting and awkward because I’m going to work, and work requires focus, and fun just seemed inappropriate.

And yet here was the freest black woman in the world, and she lived her life in such a way that pleasure and style were not antithetical to intellectual rigor. If anything, they fed it. The fact that Morrison was a writer made this seem all the more superhuman. Writing is typically characterized by long bouts of misery rewarded with occasional pearls of short-lived but deeply intense satisfaction. Morrison seemed to have found a way to supply herself with a steady stream of joy.

Rather than living literary goddess, I began to think about Morrison as a fellow writer, a fellow Howard grad, a fellow woman. There were whole worlds in the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and their grandmothers that I thought were none of my business because, well, they told me they were none of my business. What did a child need to know about the personal exploits of her ancestors? That was grown folks’ business. I realized that reading Morrison’s books feels like gaining entry into a club of black adulthood. They turn ancestors into contemporaries.

So I revisited Sula last week because Sula, like so much of Morrison’s writing, is a grown woman novel. The fact that Sula slept with her best friend’s husband is, frankly, the least interesting thing about her. I saw Sula through new eyes, as a woman who did a horrible thing as a 12-year-old (accidentally killing Chicken Little by throwing him in the river, where he drowned) and never fully got over it, no matter how hard she tried.

This time, I marveled at Morrison’s freedom. So much focus has been paid, and rightfully so, to how she didn’t seek white validation. But it’s more than that. Morrison possessed the moxie to create whatever world she pleased and follow whatever road beckoned in it. In doing so, she could create a heroine who slept with everyone’s husbands but genuinely didn’t mean anything by it. Who else breaks taboos with such gentle elegance, without the need to shout about it in the prose, but simply allows it to unfold?

Now I think the thing Sula actually spent most of her adult life chasing was joy, the love she felt she deserved, and she kept coming up short. She’d try on a man, then do away with him the moment she knew he didn’t have what she was looking for. And she kept doing it until she met Ajax.

Morrison was unafraid of letting everyone in Medallion regard Sula as a witch while daring to assert how Sula’s presence actually improved the lives of those in her community, whether they recognized it or not. When the people of Medallion don’t have Sula to kick around, they lose the vessel for all their displeasures and frustrations and insecurities and simply fall prey to them again.

This time, I paid closer attention to Nel, Sula’s best friend, and her realization that motherhood will be the most interesting thing about her life. I thought of my friends who are now mothers, and I felt grateful that I am able to make space for their children and their partners in my heart instead of walling myself off from the changes they welcomed in their lives. I got lost in Sula and Nel’s friendship in a way I never had before, and in this passage in particular, when Sula is alone on her deathbed:

While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather, she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.

Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

It took nearly 20 years, but I finally did what Morrison had been inviting me to do, through decades of writing: to see myself in her words, as only a grown woman can.

Our list of 24 can’t-miss books for holiday gifting From a photographic history of hip-hop to magical fantasy to sports activism, it’s all here

Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.

NON-FICTION

Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.


American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.


Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.


Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim

The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)


How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming

You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.


This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.


Becoming by Michelle Obama

The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.


Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.


Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak

Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.


Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg

Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.

New documentary shows us that Lorraine Hansberry of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ was one tough-minded woman ‘Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart’ portrays a ‘left-wing radical’ who spoke truth to power

Here’s a phrase I bet you thought you’d never read: Be prepared to fangirl over Lorraine Hansberry.

Told ya.

Friday at 9 p.m., PBS is airing Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a documentary on Hansberry, whose life story has been collapsed into a criminally incomplete Black History Month tidbit. She wrote A Raisin in the Sun, and then Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee starred in the movie adaptation. At some point you watched it in middle school one February and didn’t pay much attention because it was in black and white. Or someone in your class cracked a joke about Poitier always being ashy.

But Hansberry was so much more. As Dee says in an interview in Sighted Eyes, “She seemed to know something about everything. She was a profound thinker.”

Thank goodness for director Tracy Heather Strain, who committed years to research and gathering the funds and archival footage necessary to make Sighted Eyes. The film transforms the memory of Hansberry from that polite woman who wrote one really important play to, as Hansberry’s friend Douglas Turner Ward deemed her, a “left-wing radical.”

I first saw Sighted Eyes at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and about 20 minutes into it I scribbled in my notebook, “I think I love this woman.”

Hansberry had a wit that would have fit perfectly in today’s times, examining the traps of respectability politics and sending them up. Toward the end of her life, she bought a bucolic compound in a predominantly white area of upstate New York and winkingly named it Chitterling Heights. It was a nod, I think, to the efforts of her father to integrate Chicago’s then-white neighborhood of Woodlawn when she was 7. One of the formative experiences in Hansberry’s life was when a crowd gathered outside the Hansberry house in Woodlawn and someone threw a piece of mortar through their front window that just missed her head. What better way to throw a middle finger to white supremacy than to move into a neighborhood and give your house the blackest name you could think of?

Lorraine Hansberry surrounded by clapping African-American teens at Camp Minisink in upstate New York.

Courtesy of Gin Briggs/Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust

Let’s not disregard the significance of A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry crafted a play in 1959 about a family living on the South Side of Chicago that dared to show black people as, well, people and not buffoons, and she wrote it by drawing from her own experiences. But Hansberry was also a fearless agitator for civil rights, a feminist inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which she said “might very well be the most important work of this century,” a nervy woman who had mapped out a plan for her life by the age of 23 and miraculously stuck to it. She was privately queer and unapologetically black, and undoubtedly someone who would have transformed American culture even more had she lived past the age of 34 (she died of pancreatic cancer). Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a producer and champion of her work, in 1953. He left his white wife to be with her, and he was so devoted to her and in awe of her that even though they divorced in 1962, Nemiroff publicly served as Hansberry’s beard for many years.

Hansberry began her writing career as a journalist for the black newspaper Freedom, which was founded by Paul Robeson. She began writing about racism, sexism, poverty and imperialism, which caught the negative attention of one J. Edgar Hoover. Even as civil rights agitators were being identified and surveilled by the FBI, they persisted in their work, and Hansberry was one of them.

She bought a bucolic compound in a predominantly white area of upstate New York and winkingly named it Chitterling Heights.

Lorraine Hansberry holds hands and sings with singer Nina Simone and other activists at a pre-benefit gathering for the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in June 1963 in the home of activist/singer/actor Theodore Bikel.

Courtesy of Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust

A group of black activists and artists assembled by James Baldwin to meet with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy included Hansberry, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. The May 1963 meeting was meant to pressure the Kennedy administration on civil rights or, at the very least, gain its sympathy.

Baldwin wrote about how frustrating the meeting was because rather than listen to what black Americans were enduring, particularly in the South, Kennedy became defensive, insisting that the Justice Department supported the civil rights movement. There was an undercurrent to his words intimating that those gathered who did not agree with him were ungrateful for the administration’s (frankly, rather meager) efforts.

Jerome Smith, a CORE activist who had been attacked and thrown in jail for protesting in Mississippi, bitterly recounted his experiences and refused to dress them up for the attorney general. He decried the Justice Department’s lack of action as activists were being beaten, arrested or worse.

“Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,” Smith said. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”

Hansberry also refused to cower before the face of the American government. She didn’t worry about alienating what the group hoped could be its most powerful ally. Instead, Sighted Eyes recounts, she, too, gave Kennedy a piece of her mind.

“You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General,” Hansberry told Kennedy. “But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” she said, referring to Smith.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”

Sighted Eyes is part of a trifecta of recent documentaries that have given us colorful new insights into the lives of those we often see in black and white. With What Happened, Miss Simone? and I Am Not Your Negro, about Baldwin, directors Raoul Peck and Liz Garbus produced chapters of an anthology about black intellectuals and artists who were contemporaries and friends. These directors give us insight into how the lives of Hansberry, Baldwin and Simone bled into each other, how their friendships provided solace and comfort to each other, how they lived as members of a community and not just as singular figures. They come alive.

Hansberry’s experiences, often told in her own words, come to life in Sighted Eyes thanks to voiceover from actress Anika Noni Rose reading from Hansberry’s journals and other archival material.

Strain, an experienced documentary filmmaker (I’ll Make Me a World, Race: The Power of an Illusion) and professor at Northeastern University became interested in Hansberry after seeing a community theater production of Hansberry’s play To Be Young, Gifted and Black in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The play, assembled from Hansberry’s own words after her death, shares its name with the Nina Simone song, which Hansberry inspired Simone to write.

With Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, Strain has created a portrait of Hansberry that’s as complete and well-rounded as the portrait of black family life that Hansberry captured in A Raisin in the Sun. In doing so, she’s transformed Hansberry from more than just a pretty young playwright who died tragically young. She’s rightfully preserved her place in American history.

Drake really wants Vince Carter to come home Day 4 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — At this point, the most magical words Drake could hear come out of Vince Carter’s mouth might be, “Hold on, we’re going home.”

In July, Carter, 40, signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Sacramento Kings. But at a Q-and-A after the premiere of The Carter Effect at the Toronto International Film Festival, Drake made his feelings plain: He wants the man who launched Vinsanity to come back to this city.

“It would be amazing, hopefully, for Vince to give us one last chance to not just give him a standing ovation for one night or two nights out of the year,” Drake said.

Saturday’s Carter lovefest (with the star basketball player nowhere in sight) was something to behold. The premiere was studded with sports and music notables: LeBron James, Cory Joseph, Akon, Director X (the guy who caused a sensation with the James Turrell-inspired visuals of “Hotline Bling”), sprinter Andre De Grasse, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, and former Raptors Chris Bosh and Patrick Patterson were among those in attendance. And since it was a bright, sunny afternoon, Drake fans were lined up everywhere for a glimpse of their hometown rapper.

Instagram Photo

Drake was an executive producer of The Carter Effect, along with James and his longtime business partner Maverick Carter.

“Me being from Ohio, when Vince signed with Nike, he actually made me believe that putting on those damn shoes would make me jump to the rim,” James joked after the screening.

Director X appears in the film and likened himself to John the Baptist and Drake to Jesus when it comes to Toronto and hip-hop. I asked him where Carter fits into that metaphor.

“He’s Moses,” X answered.

I also had a chance to talk to Mona Halem, a party host who had a front-row seat to the transformation Carter brought with him to Toronto, a city so unacquainted with basketball that its fans didn’t know they were supposed to be quiet when Raptors players were shooting free throws.

Halem, who also appears in the film, is a cross between an NBA doyenne, unofficial Toronto ambassador and social scene producer. She puts interesting people together with liquor and good music and has made it her personal art form here.

“Because basketball and entertainment around basketball was more popular in the U.S., [Carter] shone a light on Toronto,” Halem said. “It was like, ‘Oh, what’s this place Toronto?’ Everyone thinks we live in igloos and it’s so cold.”

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

Courtesy of TIFF

Director Tracy Heather Strain’s documentary on playwright Lorraine Hansberry, in a way, has been her life’s work.

Strain, who is a professor at Northeastern University (she canceled last week’s class to attend TIFF), has been working on Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart for 14 years. Most of that time has been spent raising more than $1.5 million to make the film. The rights for film clips, music and other properties cost about $300,000.

I spoke to Strain on Sunday morning before she departed for Boston so her students wouldn’t miss a second week of class. Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart will air in the future on PBS, and it’s a deep dive into the jam-packed 34 years of Hansberry’s life and the world that created the fictional Younger family of A Raisin in the Sun. Strain said she became taken with Hansberry when she was a 17-year-old in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her grandmother took her to see a community theater production of the autobiographical To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.

“You know how you know something in your gut?” Strain asked. “[That’s] how I felt when I was exposed to Lorraine Hansberry’s words.”

In Sighted Eyes, Strain makes it clear that Hansberry is so much more than the one-paragraph biography schoolchildren get during Black History Month before they watch the film adaptation of her celebrated play. In fact, early in the movie, one of Hansberry’s contemporaries insists on making it clear that Hansberry was not a liberal but a “radical leftist.”

I was astonished to learn Hansberry began her career as a journalist before venturing into playwriting, and even more astonished to learn that she’d basically mapped out her life, and told her would-be husband what it was going to be like, when she was just 23 years old. This woman did not waste time. Strain fell in love with Hansberry’s sense of humor: It’s hard not to crack up upon learning Hansberry bought a house on 2 acres in New York and named the place “Chitterling Heights.” She sounds like someone I’d desperately want to be friends with if she were still alive.

Sighted Eyes also works as a bit of mythbusting. My eyes grew large when Strain informed me that I, like so many others, had been fooled by this photo, supposedly of Hansberry dancing with writer James Baldwin. It’s not her but rather a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) worker from Louisiana. There are no photos, at least none that Strain could find, of Baldwin and Hansberry together despite their close friendship.