The literary world suffered a great loss this week with the passing of the pioneering and unparalleled Toni Morrison. What she did for writers of color is undeniable, and throughout her career she gave the world a truly beautiful bibliography of works.
Born into poverty in Ohio, she would eventually go on to become the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. She would also win the Pulitzer prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, and numerous other awards for her powerful books.
After graduating with honors, she attended Howard University to study literature and continued her education at Cornell where she completed her master’s degree in 1955. She taught college for a time in Texas before working her way up through Random House where she would become the first black senior editor in the fiction department. It was in this position that she would help revolutionize the publishing world for black writers. She unapologetically published several African authors and anthologies as well as encouraged a new generation of African American writers, especially female ones. Morrison was “an African American woman giving voice to essentially silent stories,” Elizabeth Beaulieu, the editor of “The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia,” once said. “She is writing the African American story for American history.”
“The convention she broke was the stronghold of the white gaze.” – Morgan Jenkins
Her own breakout novel was 1970’s The Bluest Eye, a story of a young African American girl desperate to have blue eyes so she could conform to society’s white standard of beauty. Morrison followed this critical success with several more novels that became instant classics, such as Beloved, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby.
Her later years were dedicated to fostering younger generations of writers. She founded a workshop at Princeton University just for this purpose, and spent much of her time lecturing and giving talks around the world while still publishing novels, children’s books, and essays.
She was favorite with talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who chose four of Morrison’s novels for her book club. Oprah tweeted this week about Morrison, “She was a magician with language, who understood the Power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them.” Morrison was well aware of this power, especially for marginalized groups. During her 1993 Nobel lecture, she emphasized the ways in which language may be the measure of human lives.
While she lived a long, amazing life full of achievements few others can claim, I was still deeply saddened to hear of her passing. I have read several of her novels and have re-read many of them as audiobooks that she narrated herself. Her deep, soothing voice brings a magical lilt to her already powerful words. Listening to her audiobooks I feel as if she is speaking directly to only me, like we’re in our own world together while she reads me her stories. If you haven’t listened to any of her audiobooks, please do so. It is an incredible experience everyone should have at least once in their life.
Not only did she give us mesmerizing, important stories throughout her life but she launched a rebirth of black and black women’s fiction. She gave a voice to those who previously had none. “We saw ourselves through her work. White people cannot be the arbiters of truth,” writer Morgan Jerkins has said.
Her impact on the world has been and will be felt for generations. She changed the way publishers and readers approach works written by people of color, especially African Americans. For that and so much more, Ms. Morrison, we are all forever in your debt.
2 thoughts on “Remembering Toni Morrison, 1931-2019”
The world is a dimmer and sadder place without Ms. Morrison in it. This was a lovely tribute to her.
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Thank you ❤