Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison photographed in New York City in 1979. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

To lose Toni Morrison is to lose a great earthly guide. It feels personal, familial, yet I am aware that it is not. She had her own, very full life, with two sons, Harold Ford Morrison and Slade Morrison (who died in 2010), as well as grandchildren and other extended family. Still, I was born into her world. When she died last Monday night after a short illness at 88, Toni Morrison, born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, had published eleven novels, nine volumes of non-fiction, five children’s books (in collaboration with Slade), two plays, a libretto, and more over four-and-a-half decades. After her third novel, Song of Solomon, Morrison left her job at Random House, where, as senior editor, she shepherded work by Lucille Clifton, Toni Cade Bambara, and Angela Davis. She “single-handedly produced a black literary canon,” poet Harmony Holiday wrote as part of a longer reflection. A good amount of this work, including Clifton’s memoir Generations and The Black Book, from 1974, is out of print. The essayist Michael Gonzales told me The Black Book was “a breathtaking tome of black life from the Motherland to the Otherland, sheet music and slave notices, pictures of baptisms and black bodies burning as hordes of white men laughed.” In her foreword to the 35th anniversary edition, Morrison called it a “requirement for our national health.”

My earliest years overlap with the publication of Tar Baby, Beloved, and Jazz. Morrison won the Pulitzer in 1988 and became a Nobel Laureate in 1993, when I was not yet a teenager. In their tributes, many writers have spoken of a maternal transmission — how they came to Toni Morrison through their mothers, aunts, older sisters. I remember early edition hardcovers with bold plain fonts, laid out in different spots around my first home, protected in slick plastic, tucked under my mother’s arm or in the space between the driver’s and passenger’s seats for a return trip to the library. Morrison was grown-woman business and I burned to be let in on it. I’ll never know the force of what made my mother — born in 1943 to a woman born in Mississippi in 1906 — truly reach for those books and hold on to them the way she did. I’m lucky to have come of age with Toni Morrison fully formed, her books on the typewritten reading lists teachers pass around at the start of the school year, on Oprah’s show, in the glossies. We do not deify the pursuit of learning — we’d pay teachers and journalists more in money and respect if we did. When a person who reads for pleasure and reads for work, who takes the lessons of what they read to heart, who allows the lessons to wash over them is held up as an American celebrity, it is its own kind of coup. This coup made a different country possible. By being born and coming of age in the last years of the 20th century, I received the gift of the challenge Morrison waged on behalf of literacy, learning, and language, and, to some degree, won. 

 

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I finally read my first Toni Morrison novel, Song of Solomon, at 16. Before then I breezed through every book I read for school or fun with a haughty ease, memorizing names and dates and the facts of plots in order to recite them back for tests. I do not know that anything before made me stretch and reach for my intelligence. The village in which the protagonist, Milkman, comes of age, the circle of women who surround him, the language they speak to each other, all had the texture of home. But Morrison’s experimentation with narrative and her conception of time — the gaps and dynamism that make a reader slow down  — were too much for tenth grade me to breezily absorb. It got better the second time; I could understand enough to talk about it. “That, my dear, is called reading,” Morrison said to Oprah when Winfrey phoned about adapting Beloved for the screen. I hadn’t known before then that if something did not come easy, I could struggle with it until it changed me. That it would be meaningful; I could be made myself by the struggle. Not an egoistic pursuit of struggle, not a flirtation with martyrdom or self-deprecation. But a grown-woman struggle made of will and a desire to extend myself. Reading is re-reading, trying means trying again.

There would be other lessons. Sula sees possibility in a matriarchal upbringing and pushes me to recommit to my own women friends. “My sister? I need her,” Morrison told the writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah during their time together. I am thinking of black women like my mother who rushed the bookstores and signings when Toni Morrison began publishing her own work in 1970, before she’d won any of the awards that signaled her significance to white America. I am thinking of the black women she shared the New York Times bestsellers’ list with, like Alice Walker and Terry McMillian, who, together, created a renaissance of black women’s fiction. I am thinking of the poet Sonia Sanchez, one of the early instructors to teach Morrison’s work in the university. I am thinking of the 48 signatories of the January 1988 open letter to the New York Times, published shortly after the publication of Beloved and fresh off the loss of James Baldwin, whose defiance helped write Toni Morrison’s work into posterity. I am thinking of the black women she wrote alongside (“Some of us thrived; some of us died,” she writes in a foreword to Sula), with whom she dreamed:

I was living in Queens while I wrote Sula, commuting to Manhattan to an office job, leaving my children to childminders and the public school in the fall and winter, to my parents in the summer, and was so strapped for money that the condition moved from debilitating stress to hilarity. Every rent payment was an event; every shopping trip a triumph of caution over the restless caution of a staple. The best news was that this was the condition of every other single / separated female parent I knew. The things we traded! Time, food, money, clothes, laughter, memory—and daring. Daring especially, because in the late sixties, with so many dead, detained, or silenced, there could be no turning back simply because there was no “back” back there. Cut adrift, so to speak, we found it possible to think up things, try things, explore. Use what was known and tried and investigate what was not. Write a play, form a theater company, design clothes, write fiction unencumbered by other people’s expectations. Nobody was minding us, so we minded ourselves. 

Morrison’s passing is an enormous loss. She was a singular writer and editor with a complex body of work, a rigorous, unwieldy mind who wrote and thought us toward a more capacious humanity. She defies any impulse toward summary. She taught us what reading is, and will be teaching it into all the futures we actually have. May we also remember the witnesses who saw her early on. 

For more on Toni Morrison, selected profiles, interviews, and tributes: 

For more of Toni Morrison, a short story and selected essays: