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Toni Morrison: "National Treasure"

Impact of celebrated author's work reverberates in nation's conscience

Toni Morrison
PHOTO BY: LEONARDO CENDAMO/GETTY IMAGES

Before Toni Morrison, who died at 88 on Aug. 5, 2019, wrote the 1987 novel Beloved and won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle award and the French Legion of Honor, she was an inspirational professor and the first black female editor at Random House, where she proved that African and African American authors could achieve massive mainstream success.

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"Toni Morrison was a national treasure,” wrote Barack Obama, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. “Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination."

Toni Morrison
Magnolia Pictures

Notable Works of Toni Morrison

FICTION:

The Bluest Eye, 1970

Sula, 1973

Song of Solomon, 1977

Tar Baby, 1981

Beloved, 1987

Jazz, 1992

Paradise, 1997

Love, 2003

A Mercy, 2008

Home, 2012

God Help the Child, 2015

NONFICTION:

The Black Book, 1974

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 1992

Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (editor), 1992

Remember: The Journey to School Integration, 2004

Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word (editor), 2009

The Origin of Others, 2017

The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, 2019

Born in a poor, multiracial neighborhood in Lorain, Ohio, she only fully recognized racism when she went to college in Washington, D.C., and encountered segregated diners and a professor who discouraged her from writing about black characters in Shakespeare's works. “Racism was always a con game,” she said later, “to define black people as a reaction to white presence.” Criticized early in her career for her focus on black people as literary protagonists, she sought to convey universal truths about people by focusing on particular communities, as did her influences Jane Austen and William Faulkner. As she recently told Stephen Colbert, “There is no such thing as race. There's just the human race, scientifically. Racism is a construct, a social construct.”

Not deferential enough for her Jamaican architect husband's liking, she and Harold Morrison were divorced in 1964. She then read an ad in The New York Review of Books for an entry-level job in publishing and moved to New York. “I wanted to see what it was like to be a grownup,” she told The Paris Review. In that role she discovered or popularized authors including Angela Davis, Wole Soyinka, Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali and Huey P. Newton. Researching her best-selling historical anthology The Black Book, Morrison discovered the story of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave who killed her infant daughter as they were about to be captured.

Without telling her editing colleagues that she had writing aspirations — which was frowned upon — she got up at 5 a.m., often with a toddler in her lap, to write a novel in pencil inspired by her childhood memory of a black friend who prayed that she could have blue eyes. To get her first book, 1970's The Bluest Eye, typed, Morrison paid colleagues with her famously tasty carrot cake. For years she combined novel writing with her editing day job, to increasing acclaim. In 1987 she developed the Garner story into the novel Beloved, which became a Jonathan Demme film in 1998 starring Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey chose four Morrison novels for her influential book club. Morrison said she wanted to write “without the white gaze,” and succeeded, in a series of historical novels that attracted the world's attention. Beloved was voted the best work of fiction of the past 25 years in a 2006 poll of the world's leading literary figures. She eventually gave up her editing job but continued to teach at Princeton University and to write books and essays. She was generally regarded as the greatest living American novelist.

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"If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it,” said Morrison.

"What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while,” Obama said.