Give up the shit that weighs you down

Photo of author Toni Morrison in black and white, as she faces away from the camera.
Photo: David Levenson/Getty

Toni Morrison passed away today.

Like many works of literary geniuses, I began to read her work fairly late in life. I began with Song of Solomon, where I stumbled upon my most ever favourite quote of hers: “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” It has always been used in the context of personal/individual advancement in ads about yoga or fitness, which made me cringe now but something I was also guilty of (the purely individual advancement part, not the yoga or fitness part). But we all know Morrison’s writings, like many of activists’, will never be purely intended for the good of one individual person. It is always for the collective good. “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” as the idea of flight, refers to the imprisonment of African-Americans, the designed segregation of their folks from the entire country, and the systemic racism and oppression that leads to their poverty. “The shit that weighs [you] down” could symbolise to the imprisonment created by these conditions, and this is something Milkman, the character in Song of Solomon is struggling with as he tried to ‘fly’, to achieve his freedom.

The racial dynamics in my country is, without doubt, is different than what Morrison and her fellow black folks experience in the United States. But as someone who belongs to one of the majority ethnic groups in Malaysia, reading Morrison, it had lead me to believe that even if one person isn’t free, none of us are. I could not call myself an ally if none of the marginalised people whose voices aren’t heard enough to make a change in the world would not consider me so, and this is something I have to earn.

“I tell my students, “when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game”.”

I feel absolutely devastated right now. It feels selfish to feel so, when she had done so much and I have not even started anything much. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to live in the same time and space as the light such as Toni Morrison. All I can hope is that in the very near future, all of us could achieve something even the smallest slight of her achievements, and to be able to do good for others too. Thank you Toni, for teaching us so much. Rest in power.

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