Toni Morrison, world-renowned American literary master, remains an author of undying consequence.
Morrison along with such literary icons as Maya Angelou and James Baldwin led an unprecedented era of voices challenging and dismantling society’s concept of Black identity as being less-than, brilliantly expressing and courageously celebrating Black culture in its vast complexity. She helped usher in a veritable renaissance leading to the arrival of such figures as Alice Walker and Alex Haley, and a host of noted successors.
Beloved, her career hallmark, was a bestseller for 25 weeks. Moreover, it united nearly 50 Black writers and critics, Angelou among them, to protest in the New York Times: “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve.” Two months later, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Ten years in the making, Oprah Winfrey co-produced and starred in the film adaptation directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). The supporting cast included Thandie Newton in the title role, Danny Glover, timeless veteran Beah Richards, and Twin Cities native Kimberly Elise (Set It Off, John Q).
Inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, a slave, it is the first novel in what is sometimes called the “Beloved Trilogy,” followed by Jazz, set during the Harlem Renaissance and Paradise, about citizens in an all-Black town. She eventually wrote the libretto for Margaret Garner, performed by the New York City Opera.
Most noted among her many awards were the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by President Barack Obama. She first drew national attention with Song of Solomon which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
As a Random House editor, she was invaluably instrumental in bringing Black literature to the mainstream with the groundbreaking Contemporary African Literature, a collection that included Nigerian authors Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and South African playwright Athol Fugard. She promoted a generation of writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Huey Newton and edited Muhammad Ali’s autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story.
Morrison began writing fiction in a Howard University workshop with a short story that eventually became her first novel The Bluest Eye. Later came the successful titles Sula and Tar Baby after which Song of Solomon and Beloved cemented her standing. Other novels were, Love, A Mercy, Home and God Help the Child.
To commemorate the Brown v. Board of Education’s 50th anniversary, she created a children’s book Remember. Her other children’s books, written with her painter-musician son Slade Morrison are Who’s Got Game?, The Ant or the Grasshopper? The Lion or the Mouse?, Poppy or the Snake?, The Big Box, The Book of Mean People, Peeny Butter Fudge and Please Louise with Slade Morrison and Shadra Strickland.
Her play Dreaming Emmet dramatized the murder of Emmet Till. Her book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination examined the African American presence in European American literature.
She graduated from Howard University, earned a Master of Arts at Cornell University, then went on to teach at Howard, Rutgers University, State University of New York and Texas Southern University,
Never shying away from social comment, following President Donald Trump’s election, Morrison penned the essay, “Mourning for Whiteness” in The New Yorker, asserting that his constituents so fear of losing White privilege they put in the nation’s highest office someone she described as “endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan in order to keep the idea of White supremacy alive.” A widely shared perception difficult to contradict.
In 2015, BBC One television aired Imagine — Toni Morrison Remembers, directed by Jill Nicholls (The Allen Toussaint Touch). Oberlin College received a 2016 grant to complete the documentary, The Foreigner’s Home, about Morrison’s intellectual and artistic vision, executive-produced by Demme, incorporating footage shot by her son Harold Ford Morrison, who consulted. This June, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Among those featured in the film with her were Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sanchez and Walter Mosley.
Michelle Obama stated in the August 9 Washington Post, “It’s a thread running through…all of her work — that Black stories, particularly the stories of Black women and Black girls, are worthy of examination and celebration. Again, and again, she was unapologetic about that fact, deliberate in proving that our stories are rich and deep and largely unexplored.
“We belong, she showed us, not just in paperback books but in textbooks,” said Obama, “not just in a publishing house but in the White House. And on their own, our stories are more than enough to inspire a Nobel laureate.”
Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford), succumbed to complications from pneumonia at Montefiore Medical Center, The Bronx, New York City on August 5. She was 88.