By Lisa Kashinsky
Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate whose seminal works highlighted the black experience, died on Monday, leaving behind a profound legacy that stretches far beyond the written word.
“Toni Morrison has done for the American novel what Shakespeare did for theatre — she is that important, she is that influential,” said Carla Kaplan, Northeastern University Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature.
“There’s a certain sense in which she reinvented our relationship to the American novel, and certainly has reshaped what it means to engage with history and to engage with one another.”
Morrison died Monday night at Montefiore Medical Center in New York after a brief illness, her family said. She was 88.
“Toni Morrison passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends,” her family said. “The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing.”
Though Morrison was nearly 40 when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published, she rose rapidly in the literary world, writing 11 novels, along with children’s books and essays. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved, and became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
The daughter of a welder and a domestic worker, Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, near Cleveland. She was encouraged by her parents to read and to think, and was unimpressed by the white kids in her community. Recalling how she felt like an “aristocrat,” Morrison believed she was smarter. She was an honours student in high school, and attended Howard University to be among black intellectuals.
Boston University lecturer Mary Anne Boelcskevy, who teaches a class on Morrison’s work, described her prose as having a “lyrical” yet “forceful voice.” Boelcskevy recalled the first time she heard Morrison speak; admitting her “image of this incredible, strong, profound woman” was shaken by the author’s “delicate voice.”
“I was completely shocked at the time because I was used to this incredible, strong narrative voice she brings to all her writing,” Boelcskevy said.
Her literature “asks us to look at the most horrific parts of our past,” Kaplan said, but “her language is so extraordinary that we don’t look away.”
Over 15 years as a book editor at Random House, Morrison, a single mother, was “dedicated to raising up other writers, black writers, giving them more of a platform,” Kaplan said.
“Her legacy, it’s in her work. But it’s also in the example she set,” Kaplan said. Even as Morrison became famous, “She inhabited that role with the most extraordinary graciousness, the most dignity and generosity of spirit.”
Morrison worked as an editor at Random House — the first female African-American editor in company history — from 1967 to 1983. There, she published Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Huey P. Newton, Muhammad Ali, and Angela Davis, among others. Her work as an editor and publisher at Random House demonstrated a unique commitment to writers of colour, and helped in opening industry doors to them.
And for over five decades, Morrison was also a part-time teacher of creative writing and literature, often bringing students together with other writers, at Howard University (from which she graduated in 1953), Yale University, SUNY Purchase, Bard College, Rutgers University, SUNY Albany, and Princeton University, where she retired as Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities in 2006.
Barack Obama, Beyonce, others react to Morrison’s death Politicians and authors, celebrities, social justice groups and casual readers shared quotes from the writer. Some described her as a “shining example to black women everywhere” and her death as “a devastating loss to the world of words.”
The tributes for Toni Morrison came from trailblazers and luminaries, including political leaders Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Beto O’Rourke, media figures Oprah Winfrey and Billie Jean King, as well as and other writers and anyone passionate about her writing and poetic voice, which was dedicated to illuminating the lives and history of African Americans in Beloved and other books.
In addition to winning the Nobel Prize in 1993, Morrison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 from then-President Barack Obama. He took to Twitter on Tuesday to call her “a national treasure”.
“Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.” — Barack Obama (@BarackObama)
Former president Bill Clinton called her “a world-class human being” whose words “stirred out sous and challenges our consciences to confront injustice, large or small, wherever it exists.”
Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey had convinced Morrison to let her novel Beloved be adapted into a 1998 film. Winfrey starred and Jonathan Demme directed. On Twitter, Winfrey called Morrison “our conscience. Our seer. Our truth-teller.”
Tennis legend Billie Jean King wrote, “May she rest in power.”
Others, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, honoured the writer by taking to social media to more directly share their favourite quotes from Morrison’s writing or interviews — words that expressed her belief in the power of words, freedom, fearlessness, love and beauty.
“‘If you surrender to the air, you can ride it.’ Rest in paradise.” — Beyoncé wrote on her website.
Morrison was a critic of President Donald Trump and penned an essay for the New York after his election, saying that many of his supporters were white voters who were disturbed by the “collapse of white privilege.”
“On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters — both the poorly educated and the well-educated — embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump,” she wrote.
As Oprah Winfrey once said: “It is impossible to actually imagine the American literary landscape without a Toni Morrison. She is our conscience, she is our seer ....”
Here then, a brief sampling of great Morrison:
“He licked his lips. ‘Well, if you want my opinion—’ ‘I don’t,’ She said. “I have my own.”
“Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved is shorn, neutralised, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.”
— The Bluest Eye (1970)
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.”
— 1979 speech at Barnard College
“Perhaps that’s what all human relationships boil down to: Would you save my life? or would you take it?”
— Song of Solomon (1977)
“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little coloured girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you.”
— From a 1981 interview
“Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”
— Jazz (1992)
“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.”
— Tar Baby (1981) – TNS
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