Toni Morrison’s works were seminal in African-American literature but the overall impact she’s had on American literature is undeniable and irreplaceable. Morrison, who was 88 years old, died in 2019 of complications from pneumonia, but her legacy and impact live on.
Morrison was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 and in 1988 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, Beloved. “I’m writing for black people,” Morrison told the Guardian in 2015. “I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited.”
Her first book, The Bluest Eye, (1970) centers around a young Black woman who is obsessed with white standards of beauty. This exploration of race in America became the cornerstone of her works, creating stories hardly told in the American literary canon.
Morrison went on to write 11 novels as well as children’s books and essay collections, among them, were Song of Solomon, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and was her first book to include a male protagonist. Throughout the works, she fixated on the legacy of slavery and the generational trauma and how it unfolded in violent ways including alcoholism, incest, murder, and rape.
She also worked as a book editor at Random House for 19 years — making sure to focus on Black literature —and was also a literature professor at Princeton University. She grew up listening to folklore from her grandparents which heavily influenced her writings decades later, evident in the supernatural presence in Beloved, for example.
Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, a working-class community about 30 miles west of Cleveland. When she was 12 she joined the Roman Catholic Church and took the baptismal name Anthony (for Anthony of Padua) which later evolved into the nickname she’s famous for after she took her husband’s last name. She received a bachelor’s degree from Howard with a major in English and a minor in classics in 1953 and later earned a master’s in English from Cornell in 1955.
In 2006, after polling hundreds of writers, editors, and critics, The Book Review named Beloved the best American work of fiction of the previous quarter-century. As she cemented her status as one of the world’s greatest writers, she continued to collect accolades including the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented in 2012 by President Barack Obama.
In 2015, she published her eleventh and final novel, God Help the Child and earlier this year a documentary about her life entitled Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am was released.
Morrison explained during an interview with Granta in 2017 that she began writing when she realized there was no book about her in the library where she worked so she started working on her first book. “So if I wanted to read it, I would probably have to write it.”
On Race in America
Toni Morrison was sometimes called the “the conscience of America” considering her fixation on racial prejudice in the United States and how she masterfully blended a detailed rage with understanding and compassion.
On the Beauty of Life
Toni Morrison said this to the graduating class at Rutgers University in 2011 inspiring students, like she was prone to do as a professor. In 1989, she was appointed the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University, where she taught until 2006. In 2017, the University renamed West Hall, a residential college on the campus Morrison Hall in her honor.
On Freedom and Power
In an interview with Oprah magazine, Toni Morrison discussed the greater good and the responsibility artists have to do what they do in the best way they can. “You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it,” she added.
Taken from Song of Solomon (1977), this straight-forward quote about life applies to everyone. It’s about letting go in order to move forward, embracing who you are in order to shed anything else that hinders that acceptance.
The Function of Racism
Racism and internalized racism distract from what’s important and from pursuing passions and goals despite race. Toni Morrison unapologetically wrote about Black people to give these stories the attention they deserved — despite the backlash and criticism that it was her sole focus.
On Knowing Your Value
Taken from Song of Solomon, this beautiful quote reinforces how no one can respect you if you don’t respect yourself and no one can value you if you don’t value yourself. Toni Morrison’s characters often suffered but many were also empowered and freed by truth — and this is one of those liberating idioms.
On Stepping Outside your Comfort Zone
Toni Morrison wrote this in her book The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations discussing “your rainbow journey toward the realization of personal goals.” She goes on to discuss how women’s rights are as much a personal affair as a cause. It is something between just two women as much as it is about women as a whole.
This was taken from her 1992 novel Jazz, the second in her trilogy on African-American history starting with Beloved and ending with Paradise. The story takes place in Harlem in the 1920s and its chapters are stylized like the music it draws inspiration from, often using the call and response style common in jazz music.
On Writing about the African-American Experience
One of my favorite interviews with Toni Morrison. The interviewer asked her when she was going to “substantially” write about white people. Her response? “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?” pic.twitter.com/WFhNMgx7xv
— Paul McCallion (@OrangePaulp) August 6, 2019
During a 1998 interview in the Australian program Uncensored, journalist Jana Wendt asked if she thought she would ever write stories that focused on white people and her response was a truth bomb. Throughout her career, Toni Morrison was unapologetic about her focus on the African-American experience, but what she did was more than just write about it, she thrived on showcasing the complexities of that existence.
On Being True to Yourself
This is a quote from an essay Toni Morrison wrote in 2017 for the New Yorker, she discussed a conversation she had with her father. “I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home,” she added.
On the Healing Power of Words
Toni Morrison wrote this in an essay featured in The Nation, where she discussed feeling low after the re-election of George W. Bush and how she found herself unable to write. A friend explained that in moments of dread, it was essential that artists continue to speak up. “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art,” she wrote.