Toni Morrison, author, legend, has died. She was 88 years old. According to the New York Times, the cause was complications from pneumonia.
But it is difficult to write about Morrison’s passing. For those who studied American literature, there is no canon that doesn’t include her work. There is beauty in even the most harrowing of her lines, and she created worlds that few readers will ever forget.
But a person doesn’t have to be a student of literature to appreciate what Morrison offered as a writer. She unapologetically wrote about black Americans for black Americans, although she made it clear that everyone was welcome to read her works.
Through literature, Morrison revealed the lives of black people. Since her passing was announced earlier today, debates have erupted online about whom Morrison wrote for. In at least one famous interview, Morrison answers the question. But Morrison was uniquely American. Her takes on the post-slavery lives of black Americans, colorism among black Americans and other aspects of black American lives made Morrison a much-needed voice for those who felt voiceless.
Morrison told stories that readers didn’t know they couldn’t live without. Novels like “Song of Solomon,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Beloved” and “Sula” made Morrison a household name and introduced her Faulkner-inspired writing to a wide swath of readers.
Toni Morrison’s achievement and legacy
In the article announcing her passing, The New York Times labelled Morrison “A towering novelist of the black experience.” Her first novel, “The Bluest Eye” was published in 1970, and it told the story of Pecola, a girl who became a foster child who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father who eventually devolves into insanity after her baby (the product of incest) dies. Pecola is convinced she has achieved the blue eyes she has desired ever since getting blue-eyed dolls for gifts, and thinks people are nicer to her (she was once derided for being “ugly”) because of her changed eyes. Her eyes, though, haven’t changed. People are kinder to her because knowledge of what her father did to her has become known to the community.
The storyline isn’t an easy one, but the novel’s themes are easy enough for most readers to understand. A reader doesn’t have to experience the same things as Pecola to get the personal and public impact of what has happened to her.
Other works soon followed “The Bluest Eye,” such as “Sula” (1973), “Song of Solomon” (1977), “Tar Baby” (1981) and “Beloved” (1987) and “Jazz” (1992). Morrison won a National Books Critic Circle Award in 1977, a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for “Beloved” and a Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, the first black American woman to do so. Morrison also wrote children’s books and essay collections.
There is so much to the life and work of Morrison that it is difficult to encapsulate it all for a post that is supposed to be a quick read. She was a rare talent who will never be replaced, but who has inspired many. The world should brace itself to read the work that her myriad “students” will write.