A giant of the literary world Toni Morrison has died.
The 88-year-old novelist, essayist, editor, teacher and professor emeritus at Princeton University was the author of 11 novels from “The Bluest Eye” in 1970 to “God Help the Child” in 2015. Morrison received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize in Literature and in 2012, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Morrison, a native of Ohio, began writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University who met to discuss their work. She attended one meeting with a short story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. Morrison later developed the story as her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” getting up every morning before sunrise to write, while raising two children alone. “The Bluest Eye” was published when Morrison was 39 and failed to gain traction in sales initially, but the City University of New York put the novel on its reading list for its new black-studies department, as did other colleges. It remains atop of professors must-read books for college students today. In 1987, Morrison published her most celebrated novel, “Beloved,” which was inspired by the true story of an enslaved African-American woman, Margaret Garner, a piece of history that Morrison had discovered when compiling “The Black Book.” Garner had escaped slavery but was pursued by slave hunters. Facing a return to slavery, Garner killed her two-year-old daughter but was captured before she could kill herself. Morrison’s novel imagines the dead baby returning as a ghost, Beloved, to haunt her mother and family. “Beloved” was a critical success, and a best-seller for 25 weeks; the novelist wrote the libretto for the opera, “Margaret Garner,” first performed in 2005. In 2004, Morrison put together a children’s book called “Remember” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 that declared racially segregated public schools to be unconstitutional.
“We have lost one of the most admired and gifted writers of our time,” said Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). “My late wife, Lillian, loved Toni Morrison’s and even came to know her as a friend. Toni Morrison was unapologetically black, mining the ‘rich’ heritage of the African-American story to reveal truths of our lives that we might never have seen had she not committed words to the page.”
“Without her courage as an editor, Americans might never have fully understood the powerful victory of Angela Davis, the spiritual life of Muhammad Ali, and the political philosophy of Chinua Achebe. As a writer, her fictional characters, whom she said visited her and communed with her as she wrote, were unforgettable. Pecola of ‘The Bluest Eye;’ ‘Beloved,’ the frustrated, mute spirit who was the central character of her prize-winning book; as well as the strange and bewildering ‘Sula’ captured, the interior life of African Americans in a way we had never seen in print.”
After the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, Morrison wrote an essay “Mourning For Whiteness,” published in the November 21, 2016, issue of the New Yorker. In it she posited that white Americans are so afraid of losing privileges afforded them by their race, white voters elected Trump, a candidate supported by the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, in order to keep the idea of white supremacy alive.
Of creating, Morrison said: “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.”
“Reading ‘The Bluest Eye’ was an unforgettable experience but ‘Sula’ was my favorite of all her books,” said writer Pearl Cleage in a post on her facebook page. “She showed us how to live a writers life. She left so much work for us to read and study and debate and decipher. She was a fierce warrior for the freedom to write the truth. We who remain can honor her by doing the work we do and digging for the truth of our complex lives.”
Morrison died Monday at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. No cause was given.