a photo of Tara Conley outside novelist Toni Morrison's birthplace in Lorain, Ohio, not far from Cleveland.
The author outside novelist Toni Morrison's birthplace in Lorain, Ohio, not far from Cleveland. Brenda P. Conley/CityLab

In Toni Morrison’s Hometown, the Familiar Has Become Foreign

The late novelist was born a few miles from me in Lorain, in a small-town Ohio she called “neither plantation nor ghetto.” But much has changed.

There’s a bridge in Ohio that connects the town of Elyria to Lorain. A steel mill is just to the right. The Black River runs parallel. I know because my mother told me my father once worked around the corner from the steel mill at the National Gypsum plant. It’s the same route she drove countless times to visit family members. Mom tells me I confuse this bridge with the one Dad drove me across to the Christian school I attended in Lorain. My father is gone now. My mother helps me remember.

Growing up in Elyria, just outside of Cleveland, I remember hearing about a famous black woman writer born in Lorain. I double-checked Google Maps because I didn’t believe Toni Morrison’s childhood home was just five miles north from where I grew up on 4th Street. All these years, I thought, five miles across a bridge connected me to Toni Morrison.

She and my aunt spelled their names alike. I also remember her name was often associated with nearby Oberlin College, located in Oberlin, Ohio, where I was born. When I was a kid, I fantasized about attending Oberlin College because I wanted to be smart. Toni Morrison is Oberlin College, Oberlin College is smart. So, Toni Morrison is smart. That’s how I remembered it. But it was only when I attended college far away in Texas and read Beloved in English Lit that Morrison became a legend.

When I heard Toni Morrison passed away, I thought it odd that someone immortal could die. As people my age tend to say when these things happen: I have to process this. So I tweeted and retweeted and liked more tweets and texted and DM’ed, to process it.

But I had to get out of my head and off of Twitter threads. I knew Mom and I would soon be making an eight-hour drive from New York City to Elyria for a family funeral. The last three years of visiting home has been because of funerals. On this trip, I wanted to visit Toni Morrison’s childhood home for the first time.

Reader, the irony of going home to visit Toni Morrison’s childhood home after her death, amidst a series of family homegoings isn’t lost on me.

To give you a sense of what it feels like driving through Lorain, imagine a sleepy, working-class town. Pickup trucks blanket wide roads. Dollar Stores are Starbucks. Police park their SUVs in shopping center lots. Brick houses sit on lawns behind centuries-old trees. Satellite dishes with cable cords dangling along the gutters appear on nearly every rooftop. It’s quiet enough to think here. It’s slowed down. It’s familiar. As we pull up to Morrison’s pale-blue two-story home on a tree-lined street, we pass by a nearby house where a Cleveland Indians banner hangs between a gigantic “Trump 2020” sign and an American flag blowing in the wind.

Morrison called Ohio “neither plantation nor ghetto,” and that’s how I remembered it, too. At the Christian school I attended in Lorain, my classmates were black, Puerto Rican, and white. Our parents worked together at industrial plants and telephone companies. I always felt a sense of shared class consciousness growing up in Elyria-Lorain. Racism wasn’t talked about so much as it was quietly experienced by family members and friends. I was called a nigger on the playground, and so was my mom, and so was my mom’s mom. But that was our problem to deal with.

When Donald Trump was running for president, that shared sense of class struggle I knew growing up seemed like a lie. White family friends defended Trump and his rallies; they refused to see him as a problem and became less and less reticent about showing their support. Sports team banners used to tell people what we were most proud of in Northeast Ohio. Now Trump 2020 signs do.

This place I know is foreign.

Morrison saw this coming. In her 2002 lecture “The Foreigner’s Home,” she reflected on “the matter of foreignness,” and the mass movement of people from the latter 20th century to the start of the 21st century. This is a movement not just of people but also of languages, infrastructure, ideas, data, natural resources, and violence. It’s a spectacle, Morrison argued, a flow that the state desperately wants to control. But controlling anything en masse comes with consequences, especially psychological. Inevitably, she pointed out, mass movements draw our attention to borders.

We’ve become obsessed with them. We’re no longer convinced that globalization is a good idea anymore. Factory jobs that once fed families in sleepy towns like Lorain have disappeared. The thought of losing resources, babies, women, jobs, shopping malls, and identities truly terrifies people. We have become, as Morrison wrote,  “uneasy with our own foreignness [and] our own rapidly disintegrating sense of belonging.”

In the terror, people refuse to see themselves as foreigners, even as they mourn the death of their homeland, as if in exile. The white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville two years ago chanted: “You will not replace us!” That wasn’t just a rallying cry; it’s a psychosis.

Morrison’s lecture 17 years ago foreshadowed the current socio-political, transnational, and media moment. In Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Staten Island, police officers use high- and low-tech weaponry to control human bodies on streets, parks, and cars. At the U.S.-Mexico border, federal agents keep families confined and engage in psychological warfare through enforced physical separation. Americanization, Morrison says, happens through the penetration of U.S. culture into others. We’re supposed to believe that America’s sense of freedom and progress can “corral the earth.”

To this I add, America has done well to brand itself to others as a nation of freedom and progress by our greatest export: racism and xenophobia.

Now we can access the spectacle Morrison warned about through our smartphones and television. We can scroll through videos on our timelines that depict white people calling 911 on black people for congregating in public places. We can watch brown children crying for their parents at the border on cable news segments. At any time, we can bear witness to the mania. It’s no wonder, as Morrison wrote, that we can “deny the foreigner in ourselves,” because the spectacle of otherness is readily consumable.

Despite the borders controlling flows of people—all the gentrified neighborhoods, redistricting, gerrymandering, and barbed wire—no one seems to know where they belong. Morrison likens borders to “vulnerable points where one’s concept of home is seen as being menaced by foreigners.” When I stood at Elyria Avenue and 23rd Street, I existed between two places. Morrison’s childhood home represented her gift to black people, a call on us to remember who we are by how we move in the world. The house across the street with the Trump banner was an urge to forget Morrison’s offering. It was at this intersection where I realized Toni Morrison’s greatest influence on me is not so much written or spoken as it is a whisper to remember that home is strange and borders are everywhere.

In the days since Morrison’s passing, black women writers have eloquently memorialized her legacy and the impact she had on their lives and scholarship. Unlike these writers, I can’t say that Toni Morrison influenced me as a writer and thinker in my early years, and it would be dishonest of me to call us kindreds because her childhood home is five miles up the road from where I was raised, 30 years ago. I can say, however, that even though she’s gone, I feel her presence, more visceral than ever. She, like my mother, reminds me what borders cause me to forget: that belonging exists between familiar and unfamiliar places, and crossing is damn painful.

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