Remembering Toni Morrison
Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, died Monday, Aug. 5, in New York City. She was 88.
She wrote 11 novels that explored and illuminated the experience of black America, including “Beloved,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is known for “Song of Solomon,” “Sula,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Jazz,” “Paradise,” and “Tar Baby,” as well as many essays and children’s books. In 1993, Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
Morrison dedicated her career to editing and writing literature that created new realities. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, Morrison grew up loving language and letters. In 1949, she enrolled at Howard University to major in English and minor in the Classics (the study of the history, philosophy, and literature of the Greco-Roman world). While studying at Howard University, she changed her name to Toni; a decision inspired by her classmates who had trouble pronouncing her real name. After graduating from Howard in 1953, she enrolled in the Master of Arts program at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Her master’s thesis was titled “Virginia Woolf's and William Faulkner's treatment of the alienated.”
After a series of events in both her personal and professional life, Toni Morrison moved to Syracuse, New York with her sons and began working as an editor at Random House from 1967 to 1983. This appointment made Morrison the first female African-American editor in the history of the publishing house. As an editor, Toni Morrison introduced readers to the writings of prominent cultural thinkers and novelists like Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bombara, Henry Dumas, Huey P. Newton, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, and more. While she is known for transforming the landscape of American culture and letters through her own writing, few take the time to truly acknowledge that before she ever wrote a novel of her own Morrison spent her time editing and elevating the voices of others. It was during her appointment at Random House that young and aspiring writers like Dumas and Davis got not just an editor, but an advocate.
“Toni Morrison’s working life was spent in the service of literature: writing books, reading books, editing books, teaching books. I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni,” said Sonny Mehta, Chairman of Knopf; a division of Random House who edited many of Morrison’s books. “Her narratives and mesmerizing prose have made an indelible mark on our culture. Her novels command and demand our attention. They are canonical works, and more importantly, they are books that remain beloved by readers.”
In 1970, Morrison crossed over from editor to writer and published her first novel The Bluest Eye. A cherished classic, The Bluest Eye explores the life of 11-year old Pecola Breedlove whose fascination with blonde hair and blue eyes causes her to pray that her own eyes will turn blue. This was the beginning of Morrison’s practice of shifting the literary gaze off of “white” characters and onto “black” characters. It was important to her to make black women the focus of her novels, and she did this time and time again.
This was always of interest to literary critics and journalists. Many feared that Morrison’s work would never break into the mainstream if she continued to exclusively elevate the lives and voices of black women to the neglect of whites. When Morrison was asked by a reporter in 1999 if she plans to ever “incorporate white lives” in her novels, the author replied with grace, poise and power: “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you? You could never ask a white author, ‘when are you going to write about black people?’ Whether he did or not, or she did or not. Even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center.” For Morrison, white protagonists in white stories were already mainstream. Throughout her years of reading and writing, she had learned that there were very few black women in American literature. These women were also entitled space to express their fears, their disappointments, their passions, their relationships, their losses – and their stories. So Morrison dedicated her literary career to telling the stories of black women.
Over the course of 11 timeless novels, Morrison has explored everything from female relationships in Sula to violence against black women at the hands of black men in Paradise. All of her works of fiction, historical or original, explore the mishandlings of racism and sexism and memorably interrogate the way systems of power constrain the lives of black people. However, what makes her writing so remarkable is that in each story, in spite of the tragedy or trauma presented, Morrison demonstrates how black women always find a smile in the midst of sorrow; hope in the midst of hell; optimism in the midst of oppression and freedom in the midst of fear.
Toni Morrison will be remembered for giving words life. She elevated the voices and experiences of black women, rebuked the centrality of whiteness, and exposed the fiction of race. One of her most famous quotes: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” refers to the legacy that the author has left behind. Her readers will remember her for using the voices of those who have been systematically silenced to tell profound, teachable stories. The beauty of her language, universality of her narratives, and consistent work to expose and destroy racism and sexism has caused her work to transcend racial barriers making her legacy one not restricted by color. It is for this reason that Toni Morrison is not one of the greatest black female authors, but simply one of the greatest American authors of all time.