Toni Morrison wrote and spoke with rare clarity, poetry, and context about the interior lives of black people in America. She became a leading voice for conversations around race, deft at spinning narratives of black girls and women into fictions about strength and neglect. Morrison, an author and essayist who taught a generation of writers the beauty and transcendence of language, has died at age 88.
Vulture reported her death on Tuesday morning. Morrison’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, confirmed that Morrison died on Monday night at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. The Washington Post and Associated Press also confirmed the news. No cause of death was stated.
Morrison, decorated in literature and once a senior editor at Random House—where she actively promoted black writers—published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 at age 39. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved, steeped in black spirituality, in 1988 (the book was famously adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey), and became the first black woman to win a Nobel Literature Prize in 1993. The Bluest Eye, her story about a black girl named Pecola Breedlove who wishes for a white version of beauty (based on a short story about a classmate who expressed a desire for blue eyes to Morrison when she was 12 years old) remains a masterpiece. “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941,” Morrison writes. “We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby, that the marigolds did not grow.”
“I’m not a stereotype; I’m not somebody else’s version of who I am,” Morrison told The Guardian in 2012. “And so when people said at that time black is beautiful—yeah? Of course. Who said it wasn’t? So I was trying to say, in The Bluest Eye, wait a minute. Guys. There was a time when black wasn’t beautiful. And you hurt.” Morrison’s 10 other novels, from Beloved to Song of Solomon (1977) to Tar Baby (1991), in addition to essays, sift for similar meaning, with elegant prose.
Per The Washington Post:
Ms. Morrison was “an African American woman giving voice to essentially silent stories,” Elizabeth Beaulieu, a dean at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., and the editor of “The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia,” said in an interview. “She is writing the African American story for American history.”
Beyond her own literature, Ms. Morrison was credited with giving voice to black stories through her work as a Random House editor beginning in the late 1960s. There was a “terrible price to pay,” she once remarked, for leaving the comfortable familiarity of Lorain, the Ohio town where she had grown up, for a career in an unwelcoming white society.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison took the nickname Toni at age 12. She later graduated from Howard University and earned her Master’s at Cornell before becoming an English professor at Texas Southern University. She also taught at Princeton.
Morrison has written at length about the effects of her proximity to whiteness. From The New Yorker:
Morrison always lived, she said, “below or next to white people,” and the schools were integrated—stratification in Lorain was more economic than racial—but in the Wofford house there was an intense suspicion of white people. In a 1976 essay, Morrison recalled watching her father attack a white man he’d discovered lurking in their apartment building. “My father, distrusting every word and every gesture of every white man on earth, assumed that the white man who crept up the stairs one afternoon had come to molest his daughters and threw him down the stairs and then our tricycle after him. (I think my father was wrong, but considering what I have seen since, it may have been very healthy for me to have witnessed that as my first black-white encounter.)”
Morrison’s final work is a collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard, released earlier this year. A documentary about her life and influence, The Pieces I Am, released in June, serves as a fitting closing chapter to one of our greatest American authors. “Navigating a white, male world wasn’t threatening. It wasn’t even interesting,” Morrison said. “I was more interesting than they were, and I wasn’t afraid to show it.”