Toni Morrison, may she rest in peace!
I picked up my first Toni Morrison book in middle school, a time in my life where I was reading anything I could get my hands on. After exhausting my book collection, and sneakily reading Twilight (against my mom's wishes) I started going to work on my mom's personal library. After reading a couple of her favorites I chose Beloved based on the summary on the back of the book. I started reading it and put it down shortly after, ignorant to the unique style Ms.Morrison writes in, my impatient mind deemed it too difficult and moved on to the next book.
It wasn't until a few years later that I gave this critically acclaimed novel a real chance, and I fell in love. When reading a Toni Morrison book most people know that you are simply along for the ride, all of the things that have yet to be explained will likely be explained in the last few chapters. The true beauty of her novels is not simply the story, it is the way she paints a picture so vividly that you have no choice but to continue reading in awe. So when she passed away on August 5, 2019, at the age of 88 I was extremely saddened by the news. She was an icon and a national treasure with a beautiful creative soul. Her words will continue to inspire for generations to come. If you find yourself in the mood for some Toni Morrison appreciation or have no idea who she was and what her impact is this blog post is for you.
Toni Morrison was born, Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison, on February 18, 1931, in Lorain Ohio. Her father, George Wofford moved to Lorain at the age of 15 after a couple of boys were lynched on his street. The sight of the bodies was extremely traumatizing and he decided to move to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the extreme racial violence in the south and get a well-paying job. Her mother, Ramah Wofford was a homemaker and helped cultivate Toni's love of storytelling by exposing her to traditional African folktales and songs.
She enrolled at Howard University in 1949, and it was there that she began to truly explore her love of writing. After joining an informal writing club where poets met to discuss their personal work, she wrote a short story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. She reworked this story and ultimately created her first novel, The Bluest Eye in 1970.
She was surrounded and quite inspired by the individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Despite her close connections to those involved in the movement she remained critical of the:
"Mixed blessings of the southern blacks, who won a measure of integration into a white world at the expense of some of the enduring and nurturing institutions of the old black one", as she stated in her 2003 novel, Love.
So during that time she created her own version of activism through the creation of The Black Book, she and Middleton A. Harris led a team of collectors to compile a comprehensive visual history of African-Americans in this country. Sometimes it is easy to forget that there are multiple ways to be a part of to movements that you believe in. Though I am sure at the time she decided to do this there was a lot of pressure for her to contribute in the more typical ways, she chose a lasting a unique way to push the movement forward.
Her natural gift for storytelling, and her constant push to make stories that describe the Black experience cements her position as a legend. She has won over seventeen literary awards for her medley of novels that range from honorary degrees from Barnard College and Oxford University to the Pulitzer Prize. But Toni Morrison made history in 1993 by becoming the first African-American Female Author to win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. Her contributions to modern American literature can not be denied and will be truly missed.
Beloved is the most critically acclaimed novel written by Toni Morrison in 1987 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. A New York Times survey was taken amongst writers and literary critics and Beloved was ranked the best work of American Fiction from 1981-2006. This novel was based on a story Morrison stumbled upon in an 1856 newspaper titled, A Visit to the Slave Mother who Killed Her Child and was inspired to create this highly respected work of art. Beloved examines Slavery as a source of generational trauma through chronicling the life of a Black woman from her pre-Civil War days as a Slave in Kentucky to her post-Civil Wartime in Ohio during 1873.
Her books are rich with knowledge and will inspire us for years to come!
Her writing style is beautiful and unique, her ability to use historical references is truly the work of a master. The detailed descriptions and rich passionate stories give life to the African-American experience, rather than using us as a prop, she pushes us center stage through her writing. She was constantly questioned about why she never had a white protagonist, and she always took offense to the question because she knew it was loaded. Instead of breaking under the pressure of those demands from other people she always responded with, "You would never ask a white writer this question", and she was right. An incredible writer, a critical thinker, and a black icon Toni Morrison created a lane for herself and she will always be remembered for that.
My two personal favorite Toni Morrison books are:
Jazz was written by Toni Morrison in 1992, following the Pulitzer prize-winning Beloved. I read this for the first time in my senior year for my AP-English class and instantly was invested in the story. Jazz is the story of a love affair between Joe Trace, a fifty-year-old married waiter and part-time door to door cosmetics salesman, and seventeen-year-old Dorcus. It details how the affair began and its toll on his marriage to his wife Violet Trace, who has a...colorful reputation within the Harlem neighborhood they all reside in. It discusses the hope attached to the Great Migration, the darker sides of love and marriage, and the true effects of being deemed crazy within your own community.
Sula was written by Toni Morrison in 1973, becoming her second novel. Sula discusses the complex nature of female friendships in an oppressive time period. I read this book for the first time my Junior year in Highschool and instantly identified with the themes pushed in this story. Going to an all-girls High School, the importance of cultivating meaningful relationships with women was central to most things we did. It follows two girls, Nel and Sula, from childhood to adulthood and describes the way their deep bond is tested. Set in a mostly black town in Ohio during the Jim Crow era.
It is hard not to be discouraged by this legend passing, but her legacy will continue to live on forever. Toni Morrison gave our stories depth, both extremely painful and exceedingly beautiful depth. Her stories, her lectures, and her activism will always educate and inspire us until the end of time. Her undeniable eloquence, grace, and intelligence in the face of direct opposition is representative of her powerful spirit, rest in paradise Toni Morrison we will miss you.