Toni Morrison, author of seminal literary works featuring aspects of the Black experience including “Beloved,” “The Bluest Eye” and “Song of Solomon,” died Monday, Aug. 5, at the age of 88 among friends and family in her New York City home after a brief illness.
Morrison, 88, the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize, did not publish her first novel until 1970, just shy of her 40th birthday. Even then her entrée into the world of published writers did not yield immediate success.
She would need more time before the world would begin to catch on to and appreciate her unique voice — a voice that could come in ominously hushed tones — other times roaring like a lion — even scatting her message in syncopated rhythms reminiscent of Sarah, Ella or a West African drummer ensconced along a familiar river bank.
With each new work, she painstakingly established a reputation for being a writer unafraid of taking on the more painful realities and aspects of Black life in America.
Critics have long marveled over her innate talent that allowed her to pen breathtaking, lyrical prose, set to stories based on historical moments and events with amazingly complex characters whose lives and their worlds often seemed haunting familiar to the modern reader.
Her pen and her voice had the ability to render the world helpless as we, the readers, meandered through the pages of a people’s history that has often been delivered with half-truths and redactions of reality.
As a doctoral student at Princeton Theological Seminary during the early 90s, I had the opportunity to study under Toni Morrison in a course that brought students from various fields of specialty together for a weekly, no-holds-barred intellectual encounter.
There, she taught us the singular importance of working with a story that mattered — that had substance and merit — one that could change lives, give voice to the voiceless and elicit a feeling of “somebodiness” for those who had once languished in a lonely world where they’d been forced to sit along the margins.
As Providence would have it, Morrison had been riding the wave of a bevy of accolades for her novel “Beloved,” including the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, set with the backdrop of the post-Civil War maelstrom, when she stepped into my classroom. That book in which she so eloquently employed her ability to recast and embellish upon a painful scene of Black life in a way that we could comprehend and digest — albeit in very small pieces — would profoundly impact me as a Black man and, later, as a journalist for the Black Press.
She would tackle themes from slavery and colorism to misogyny and the sphere of the supernatural with words that painted pictures and characters who almost came to life — at least in our mind’s eye.
The celebrated author, editor and educator would hold many noteworthy, academic appointments including professor emeritus at Princeton University where she was writing and teaching when our paths crossed for that one life-changing semester.
She often said that it was during the process of writing that she experienced true freedom.
“I know how to write forever,” she told one fortunate New York Times reporter. “I don’t think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It’s control. Nobody tells me what to do. It’s mine, it’s free, and it’s a way of thinking. It’s pure knowledge.”
After graduating from Howard University in 1953 with a degree in English, she continued her studies at Cornell University, earning a master’s in 1955. Her marriage to Harold Morrison in 1958 ended in divorce six years later but not before the birth of two sons: Harold Ford in 1961 and Slade Kevin in 1964.
Before becoming a writer, she worked as a book editor at Random House based in Syracuse for 20 years, editing the works of others until she published her first novel at age 39.
“I didn’t become interested in writing until I was about 30 years old,” she said later. “I didn’t really regard it as writing then, although I was putting words on paper. I thought of it as a very long, sustained reading process — except that I was the one producing the words.”
Regal with her crown of dreadlocks, mostly gray, she would advance the careers of other Black writers: Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Gayl Jones. Many of her 12 works of fiction and her non-fiction essays have become essential elements within the English literary canon.
And while death has taken her from us physically, her words will live on now — and for generations to come.
In the opening pages of “Beloved” — a book which she dedicates to “Sixty Million and more,” she calls upon the following words from the Bible to set the theme.
“I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.” (Romans 9:25)