“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”— Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
American novelist – and the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993) – Toni Morrison died at the age of 88 on August 6. Known for her writings on slavery and the African-American experience, Morrison started her career as a teacher and then moved on to publishing.
Her first novel The Bluest Eye – the product of writing daily at 4 am while working full-time, and caring for two children – came at 39. A coming of age story about an 11-year-old who prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she can also be beautiful “like the other American (white) children” The Bluest Eye, thought initially rejected by publishers twice, received critical acclaim.
Over the next decade or so, Morrison wrote Sula (1973), the story of two black heroines, best friends, from a small town in Ohio, and Song of Solomon (1977), a decades-spanning epic of a black man named Milkman Dead.
Her best-known novel, Beloved, came in 1987 – the heartbreaking story of a runaway slave who kills her two-year-old daughter but is unable to kill herself in time and is recaptured by enslavers, haunted by the memories of her dead child.
“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind–wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”
Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The book failed, however, to win the US National Book Award or the US National Book Critics Circle Award – which forty-eight black critics and writers protested against in a letter to the New York Times. Of course, she went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, for which she was described as a writer “who, in novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”.
In her six-decade-long career, Morrison wrote 11 novels, five children’s books, two plays, a song cycle and an opera. She was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, the second of four children in a rust-belt town of Ohio. As a girl, she often dreamed of being a dancer but changed her mind after reading authors such as Jane Austen, Richard Wright and Mark Twain.
One of America’s most important black writers, Morrison spent her “entire life trying to make sure the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.” Someone who stated, “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.” She inspired legions of writers who followed to speak fearlessly about their unique cultural experiences.
As an editor, Morrison actively worked to publish more black writers. One of her first projects, Contemporary African Literature (1972), was a collection that included writings by Nigerian authors Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and South African playwright Athol Fugard. Widely claimed as her greatest success as an editor, The Black Book, an anthology of African-American life and history, came in 1974. Morrison was also responsible for the publication of Muhammad Ali’s autobiography The Greatest.
Described by the late poet and essayist Maya Angelou as having “the insight of a shaman and the lyricism of a great poet”, Morrison constantly juggled identities, reminding her readers, students and contemporaries to change perspective and ask questions.
“We speak, we write, we do language,” she once said. “That is how civilisations heal.”