Toni Morrison earned a reputation as one of the most respected novelists in American and world literature and as one of the most influential figures in the world of letters. Morrison challenged herself in each of her novels to explore the power and sense of self that can emerge from directly confronting one’s communal and personal histories. She proudly asserted that she has progressed through “the four stages in the life of a minority writer”: an initial stage of anger, then self-discovery, which leads to a period during which the writer celebrates her culture, before arriving at a “conceptual notion of the ethnic experience.” Her work has earned international praise from both critical and popular audiences; the breadth of her remarkably vast readership is evident in the honors she has received, which range from four Oprah Book Club selections (The Bluest Eye, Paradise, Song of Solomon, and Sula), to the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Beloved in 1989, to the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 for her life’s work. In addition to her novels, Morrison also wrote several highly acclaimed collections of essays, including Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) on the presence of blackness or “Africanism” in literature by white writers.
Morrison said that the stories she heard and valued she absorbed while growing up in the small rural town on Lorain, Ohio, and gave her a rich basin from which to draw in her writing. As a young girl, Morrison learned the music and folklore of African American culture, including stories of Br’er Rabbit and of Africans who could leap into flight. She immersed herself in books, discovering writers like Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky who wrote passionately about experiences firmly bedded in particular cultures and planted seeds within Morrison that came to fruition in her later writings.
From the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, Morrison sought new ways into the stories of everyday African American lives. As she worked to “familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar,” Morrison avoids focusing on heroes and leaders that readers might have seen before, creating instead characters such as the young girl, Pecola Breedlove in Bluest Eye, who feels hopelessly inferior to white standards of beauty and wishes for blue eyes, and Sula, the title character of Morrison’s second novel, who rejects her community’s expectations—by skipping church suppers, sleeping with another woman’s husband, putting her grandmother in a nursing home, and, worst of all for many in her town, having affairs with white men–—but who ends up realizing that self-definition is impossible unless it is connected to a larger, communal identity. Morrison presented readers with perhaps her most famous character, Sethe, in her 1987 novel Beloved. Sethe, an escaped slave who killed her two-year-old daughter to spare her from a life of slavery, is based loosely on the life of a Kentucky slave named Margaret Garner who escaped with her four children to Cincinnati, Ohio. When caught, she tried to kill all her children by slitting their throats, but was successful in killing only one.
Morrison learned about Garner and hundreds of other African Americans whose stories might otherwise have been forgotten when she worked as an editor at Random House in the early 1970s on a project called The Black Book, which offered a pictorial history of African American life from the days of slavery to approximately the 1940s. Working on the book allowed Morrison to study things like the head braces that had once held slaves, bills of sale, photographs, sheet music, newspaper clippings, and other artifacts that she and the project editors accumulated over the course of putting the book together. Her experiences working on The Black Book continued to be a source of inspiration as she worked to keep such remarkable stories from getting lost in “a lump of statistics.” Margaret Garner’s story proved especially inspirational. In addition to its profound influence on Beloved, it inspired Morrison to write the libretto (with music by the composer Richard Danielpour) for an opera that took Garner’s name for its title.
Morrison was keenly aware of her potential influence on future generations of African Americans. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Morrison admitted that she “felt [she] represented a whole world of women who were either silenced or who had never received the imprimatur of the established literary world.” Morrison addressed the issue again later in an interview with the New York Times, in which she discussed the impact that earning honorary degrees from a number of the most prestigious universities in the world—including the University of Pennsylvania; Yale, Columbia, Brown, Harvard, and Georgetown universities; and Oberlin, Spelman, Dartmouth and Sarah Lawrence colleges—could have on others: “It was very important for a young black person to see a black person do that…. Seeing me up there might encourage them to write one of those books I’m desperate to read. And that made me happy. It gave me license to strut.” Ultimately, Morrison’s influence, like her books, transcends race. Toni Morrison occupies a central place in the literature of twentieth-century America. Her epic themes and characters, her unique and sophisticated style of storytelling, and her ability to recreate urgent, long-silenced voices have expanded what readers know about African American history and what they understand about the complex, often confusing relationships between race and gender in contemporary society.
Editor’s note: this blog post was first published on 5 September 2006. Toni Morrison since passed away at the age of 88 on 5 August 2019.
Feature image by Angela Radulescu