The Life and Death of Toni Morrison

Marlas Whitley
Staff Writer

PC: Marlas Whitley

In my freshman year of university, I began to veer away from Young Adult fiction, something I thought I’d never bring myself to do post Hunger Games mania. I sampled the different, literary flavors that where abundant at my first school’s library, propelled by a sense of wanting to be adventurous and taste something new. Tending to be highly indecisive when faced with too much variety, a thought floated by my mind’s eye. And from this I was resolute, and went looking for the book. Thankfully, I found it. In my mind-space was the title ‘Song of Solomon’. 

Most likely uttered by my mother or grandmother, both avid readers, in a casual chat about literature. The title stuck with me through the years, and I finally had the mature curiosity to actually spend my energy on finding out what the acclaim was all about for myself. To this day, I’m glad that I did. Otherwise, I would have never known who Toni Morrison was in the authorial sense. And thus, would have never experienced the weight and strength of her work, or the importance of her presence on my own.

On Aug. 5th, 2019, the world lost Toni Morrison to complications of pneumonia at age 88. She was an American writer whose work impacted the literary world and has been subject to deep criticism, analysis and endless personal interpretations. Her focus was on the Black community as a whole, but after closer examination, it is clearly apparent that she zeroed-in on the experiences of Black women the most. It is this that makes up the soul of her work, and has been a defining element of resonance with her fans; myself included. 

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison, on February 18, 1931, Morrison was raised by parents who had a deep love for cultural literature, music and folktales. She earned her B.A. at Howard University, and her M.A. at Cornell University. After an initial career in academia, she went on to the publishing world, working as a fiction editor for Random House. She then began to work on her writing, publishing her first novel, ‘The Bluest Eye,’ in 1970. Then followed Sula (1973), ‘Song of Solomon’ (1977)—for which she won the National Book Critics Circle award—and soon ‘Beloved’ (1987), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988. Among her most noteworthy accolades, she was the first African-American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, was made an officer of the French Legion of Honour in 2010, and was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Morrison’s career, work and over all person have always been among the most inspirational for me. Her work led me to explore other Black women authors, such as Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, Alice Walker and others. Her writing has opened the door wide to this almost endless array of stories and characters and themes and styles. It was her mixture of realism and mysticism that drew me in, the mortal and the divine. ‘Song of Solomon’s’ motif of flying, Sula’s incorporation of bad luck and chance, Beloved’s exploration of the supernatural as common place. The touch of magic in Toni Morrison’s work is truly unique, and used in such a way to where the sense of it seems so natural, yet is potent enough to assert its significance to the story and characters. 

I implore you to take a gander at one of her many compelling works. There is an importance in her writing that I believe should be experienced no matter what your race or ethnic background.  Just because a novel may be marked ‘African-American’ on the library shelf, doesn’t mean that it is devoid of universal elements that apply to all of us. Also, check out “Toni Morrison: ‘The Pieces I Am’ (2019), chronicling her life and career. 

I conclude with a quote from Morrison herself, from The Nobel Lecture in Literature (1993); “Make up a story…for our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”

Toni Morrison, you will be missed. 

Categories: Arts & Entertainment

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