With the death of Toni Morrison at 88, writers all around the world feel like they’ve lost a literary mother. Morrison was one of the most influential and important American writers of her time. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, followed by the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2012. In addition to the Nobel, Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize (for “Beloved”) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (for “Song of Solomon”). A 2006 New York Times Book Review poll of 124 prominent authors, critics, and editors named “Beloved” as the single best work of American fiction published in the previous 25 years.
Morrison published her first book The Bluest Eye in 1970 at the age of 39. It did not sell well at first, but the City University of New York put the novel on its reading list for its new Black-studies department, as did other colleges, which boosted sales. The book also brought her to the attention of the acclaimed editor, Robert Gottlieb at Knopf, an imprint of Random House.
In 1975, Morrison’s second novel Sula (1973), about a friendship between two Black women, was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), brought her national acclaim. The book was a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, the first novel by a Black writer to be so chosen since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1940. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 1975, Morrison’s second novel Sula (1973), about a friendship between two Black women, was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), brought her national acclaim.
Morisson’s work had a way of making one feel like they belong. There are a plethora of narratives of people finding their hope as well as solace in her writing. “I read The Bluest Eye when I was doing my masters in English literature. I was 25, I was separated from my “true love” who had turned out to be an abusive husband and who was also the father of my two-year-old daughter. What I remember most about the experience of reading the book is how unputdownable it was and how I couldn’t stop crying. The book had shown me how powerful a force beauty can be, how destructive and all-consuming. Beauty to me was no longer beautiful. Morrison had anatomized beauty for me in the same way that Claudia dismembered white dolls to see where their beauty was located. And I remember thinking: I hope my daughter will not grow up to be beautiful,” says Soumya R, a Professor at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore.
Toni Morisson believed that the writer had a duty to take a public stance. The novel was but one tool for doing this. Her work and political ideologies greatly affected a major chunk of the population. The work had to be “both political and beautiful,” she said in the 1984 essay, ‘Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.’ She was a revolutionary political thinker, who used her gift to change the world. She used language to combat the devastating effects of white supremacy, sexism, and all other dehumanising ideologies.
Morrison’s life and works have been of utmost importance in a lot of movements. “Morrison animated that reality in prose, that rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act,” says Dr. Angela Davis. In a time, when African stories are not seen as important unless they are set outside Africa or created to align with Western sensibilities, Morrison encouraged people to write about African traditional religion, culture and philosophies without reserve, even if the rest of the world, and Africans themselves, saw it as backward and unpleasant.
She was an extraordinary editor at Random House due to her defense of writers and their words, and it is in her editorial work where her political project is perhaps most explicit. In that capacity, Morrison played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream. One of the first books she worked on, was the groundbreaking Contemporary African Literature (1972), a collection that included work by Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, and South African playwright Athol Fugard. She fostered a new generation of African-American authors. She edited the voices of the Black Power movement, including Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton, George Jackson and one of us. Not just that, she also helped to create a lasting record that bore witness to the work of activists, marchers, and protesters long after their activity had subsided.
She was an extraordinary editor at Random House due to her defense of writers and their words, and it is in her editorial work where her political project is perhaps most explicit. In that capacity, Morrison played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream.
She was not an activist in the conventional sense of the word. Instead, and perhaps more significant, she helped to forge a path for future stages of a long struggle.
“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom. Like art.”
Amidst the clouds of chaos, Toni Morrison’s words remain the lining of light we need in this world.
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