Presidential Medal of Freedom. The world often looked to Morrison for wisdom both within the pages of her work and her stirring speeches.
It never occurred to me that Toni Morrison would ever die; her words made her seem invincible and she seemed to live in a world that seemed eternal to me. I know differently now. I know she is no longer in this realm because of the cold I can feel deep in my guts.
I know she is gone because of the dam of tears threatening to break its banks as I type this. But what would she say to me right now? What comforting words would she use to build a fire to chase this cold and fear that is threatening to overwhelm all of us who for decades received nourishment from her bottomless trove of wisdom?
Morrison once wrote: “Did you ever see the way the clouds love a mountain? They circle all around it; sometimes you can’t even see the mountain for the clouds. But you know what? You go up top and what do you see? His head. The clouds never cover the head. His head pokes through, because the clouds let him; they don’t wrap him up. They let him keep his head up high, free, with nothing to hide him or bind him.” And I find comfort in these words right now. I know that although she has passed on from this realm, she lives on in another high, free with nothing to bind her.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in February 18, 1931, Morrison grew up in Lorain, Ohio. Dedicated to her studies, Morrison took Latin in school and read many great works of European literature. She graduated from Lorain High School with honours in 1949 and joined Howard University where she continued to pursue her interest in literature. She majored in English and chose the classics for her minor.
After graduating from Howard in 1953, Morrison continued her education at Cornell University. She wrote her thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, and completed her master’s degree in 1955. She then moved to the Lone Star State to teach at Texas Southern University.
In 1957, Morrison returned to Howard University to teach English. There she met Harold Morrison, an architect originally from Jamaica. The couple married in 1958 and welcomed their first child, Harold, in 1961. After the birth of her son, Morrison joined a writers group that met on campus. She began working on her first novel with the group, which started out as a short story.
Morrison decided to leave Howard in 1963 and in 1965, she moved with her sons to Syracuse, New York, where she worked for a textbook publisher as a senior editor. Morrison later went to work for Random House, where she edited works by Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, renowned for their literary fiction, as well as luminaries such as Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.
Awards and works
Among the many prestigious awards Morrison received throughout her life, she was notably the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.
She also received an NAACP Image Award for her novel, Love and Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988. Morrison became a professor at Princeton University in 1989 and continued to produce great works, including Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). The following year, she published the novel Jazz, which explores marital love and betrayal in 20th-century Harlem.
At Princeton, Morrison established a special workshop for writers and performers known as the Princeton Atelier in 1994. The programme was designed to help students create original works in a variety of artistic fields.
Using her experience as an editor early in her career, Morrison understood the publishing industry better than the ordinary writer and she championed emerging authors, helped introduce US readers to African writers. Morrison published her novel, The Bluest Eye in 1970, and followed that with Sula in 1973. Robert Gottlieb, who edited her work at publisher Alfred A. Knopf from Sula onward, recalled Morrison as a supremely gifted and confident writer who worked on first drafts in pencil—and enjoyed tugs of war over a particular form of punctuation.
With Sula, Morrison’s star began to rise among readers. She embraced the public platform that came with being a literary figure, and watched her works reach an even wider audience through film adaptations. Her death sparked tributes and memories from around the world.
PEN America said Morrison’s “unmatched ability to use story to kindle empathy and rouse the imaginations of millions to contemplate lived experiences other than their own has transformed our culture.”
Morrison helped raise American multiculturalism to the world stage and helped uncensor her country’s past, unearthing the lives of the unknown and the unwanted, those she would call “the unfree at the heart of the democratic experiment.” Her passing on Monday evening sparked off a cascade of deeply felt eulogies from her readers all over the world, literary agencies and organisations.
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.
She made me understand “writer” was a fine profession. I grew up wanting to be only her. Dinner with her was a night I will never forget. Rest, Queen.
“If there is a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it,” Toni Morrison said. We are all so lucky to live in a world where she took her own advice and shared it with others.
The Nobel Prize
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has passed away aged 88. She was one of the most powerful and influential literary forces of our time.
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” RIP, Toni Morrison.