There’s a picture of Toni Morrison in the American Heritage dictionary: ”Amer. writer. 1993 Nobel” is all the old, small, paperback edition states.
Oh, but there is so much more. Morrison’s work gives readers of multiple ethnicities a glimpse into what it means to be Black in America. That was her contribution to our country, as stated when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 “…For nursing our souls and strengthening the character of our union.”
After her passing on Monday, accolades came forth.
“Toni Morrison captured the beauty, chronicled the pain and celebrated the triumphs of the African American experience,” wrote Rep. Maxine Waters (CA-43) in her statement.
“She was our conscience,” wrote Oprah Winfrey on Instagram. “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.”
Shondaland producer Shonda Rhimes tweeted: “She made me understand ‘writer’ was a fine profession. I grew up wanting to be only her.”
Former President Barack Obama tweeted that “Toni Morrison was a national treasure.”
At the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies, President Obama was visibly touched by her presence.
“I remember reading “Song of Solomon” when I was a kid,” he said during the ceremony, “and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think.”
Beginning of stardom
Morrison began writing fiction as a part of an informal group of poets and writers who met to discuss their work at Howard University.
“The point of writing is to take what’s common and to estrange it, make it new again,” Morrison said. “And to take what’s strange and familiarize it.”
Her father would spin Black folktales while she grew up in Lorain, Ohio. She was an English teacher at Texas Southern University, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Morrison noted that they “always had Negro history week.”
The school introduced to her the idea of black culture as a discipline.
In addition to Morrison’s notable works of fiction, she was also concerned with a number of other literary efforts that made their mark in combating racist ideals.
Morrison was involved in compiling the material for 1974’s “The Black Book,” a collection of writing, photographs and images recounting the Black experience in America.
“I am not complete here; there is much more/but there is not more time and no more space… and I have journeys to take… which is what this book is—an amazing journey through time and through bygone (but not forgotten) history,” Morrison wrote.
“It’s like a museum on page — there’s newspaper clippings, bills of sale for slaves, promotional posters for cakewalks, ads for hair products and historical documents chronicling the role Africans have played in the western world since the 15th century.”
Later, she continued to vent her civil rights attitude through her editing of a 1992 book: “Race-ing Justice, Engendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality.”
She co-edited the 1997 book “Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case.”
Another nonfiction effort was the 2004 “Remember: The Journey to School Integration,” her first historical work for young people.
While a senior trade book editor at Random House in New York, Morrison took the opportunity to promote black literature, introducing Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Gayl Jones to mainstream audiences.
In 1987, Morrison was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University, a post she held until her 2006 retirement. She taught courses at Princeton in the humanities and African American studies. One of her courses led to her book of literary criticism, “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.”
Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, the first Black woman to be so honored. On the Nobel website, the Swedish academy recognized her as an author “who in novels characterized visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
In 1996, she was honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Morrison, through her unique creative expression, reached toward her stated objective: “There is no time for despair, no place for self pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” she wrote. “We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Of Morrison’s 11 novels, a few of them stand the test of time for their authentic portrayal of the history and culture of African-Americans. Her novels evoked a past that is scarred by the violence of both slavery and its long aftermath, and redeemed by the power of love and the grace of laughter. Her novels were philosophically speculative yet vividly imagined and written in a prose that was by turns lyrical, elusive, colloquial, and transcendent. The best art, Morrison once asserted in a phrase that could be applied to her own, is “unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
A storyteller with an abiding moral vision, Morrison confronted contemporary issues of racism, sexism, class exploitation, and imperialism by exploring her characters’ emotional and psychological response to these structures of domination.
Here is a brief look at some of Morrison’s most popular and thought-provoking books:
“The Bluest Eye” (1970)
Her first novel to garner critical acclaim told the story of a Black girl named Pecola Breedlove who grew up during the Great Depression in Lorain, Ohio. Racism, bullying, and sexual assault were a daily fact. In an interview about the inspiration for the novel, Morrison said that she wanted to remind her readers how hurtful racism is and that Black people with dark features must always compensate for their dark skin. Morrison wanted to tackle on the White beauty standards that were praised during that time, and how racism and being called “ugly” can result in developing an inferiority complex – the feeling of low self-esteem and not being able to measure up to society’s standards, as well as the doubt and uncertainty about oneself.
The ending of the story focuses on Claudia, as the narrator, and her belief that the entire community, including herself, uses Pecola as the scapegoat to make oneself feel “prettier and better.”
“I wanted to read this book and no one had written it, so I thought that maybe I would write it in order to read it,” Morrison told The Guardian in 2015.
There are a few parallels in the novel, that reflects on Morrison’s upbringing and her own experience with racism and poverty, growing up in Lorain, Ohio.
“Song of Solomon” (1977)
The story about “Song of Solomon” is probably the most complex of Morrison’s work, and was also the first book written by a Black author to receive worldwide aclaim since Richard Wright’s “Native Son” in 1940.
“Song of Solomon” won the National Book Award for “Best Novel” and made the cover of “The New York Times Book Review.” As well as won fiction awards from the National Book Critics’ Circle and the American Academy and Institute of Letters.
The novel tells the story of Macon “Milkman” Dead, a young Black man who feels estranged from his family, and feels alienated from himself and his community, not having a sense of his real identity, and his cultural roots. But he also feels torn between his father’s materialistic values, and his aunt’s traditional lifestyles, two opposite poles. However, with the help of his best friend Guitar Bain, and his strict aunt Pilate, he finds spiritual guidance that helps him reconnect to his past to discover his true-self. While “Song of Solomon” recreated the traditionally male quest narrative, Morrison revised the Western classic adaptation of literature to give voice to women.
This book tackled racial issues and class prejudice in the Black community and is set in the Carribeans. It tells the story of Jadine, who is a model with a privileged background and her love affair with a simple, local, impoverished man, Son, who washes up on the shore.
The novel highlights the sexual, familial, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds associated with the individual’s journey to self-discovery and freedom.
The New York Times reviewed it and wrote,
“…Toni Morrison’s greatest accomplishment is that she has raised her novel above the social realism that too many black novels and women’s novels are trapped in. She has succeeded in writing about race and women symbolically.”
Was considered her masterpiece and was even turned into a movie starring “Oprah Winfrey,” 10 years later. “Beloved” earned Morrison the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The novel tells the story of a real 19th-century tragedy and unravels after the end of the Civil War. It’s the story of a runaway slave in 1873, named Sethe, from Kentucky who kills her youngest daughter, and flees to Cincinnati, Ohio to live as a free woman, but the ghosts of her past still haunt her.
Morrison would often tackle on topics such as incest, sexual abuse, rasicm and cultural identiy in her work, that there were many attemps to ban her work–such as “The Bluest Eye”–from school curriculums and libraries.
The timeless, and controversial aspects of her work continue to find ground in current times, and will never be forgotten.