How the Timeless Toni Morrison Lives On
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because generations of writers are advancing in her wake.
By Carly Stern
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
What pulled Toni Morrison’s pen to paper was silence. She could see all the stories that were untold and unexamined, and spent her literary life writing experiences that demanded existence. By doing so, she created a framework for Black writers for ages to come.
Morrison died Monday at 88 years old. The pioneering novelist authored seminal works that bore witness to the Black experience. A giant of American literature, Morrison was a writer ahead of her time who examined the legacy of slavery and intergenerational trauma. Her prose, circular and meandering, often appeared to extend beyond the construct of time itself.
Born in 1931 in a working-class Ohio community, Morrison first moved through the world with the name Chloe Ardelia Wofford. She was raised in a household full of ritual and storytelling to parents Ella Ramah (Willis) Wofford and George Wofford, a shipyard welder. Early on, Morrison learned that passion for one’s craft supersedes visibility: Her father’s investment in his work was such that he wrote his own initials after completing a perfect seam, becoming a part of wherever that ship journeyed.
Morrison joined the Roman Catholic Church at age 12 and soon became known as Chloe Anthony Wofford, her middle name shortened to the nickname “Toni” when she studied English and classics at Howard University. After earning a master’s in English from Cornell University in 1955, Morrison started teaching English at historically Black universities Texas Southern and Howard. “I don’t write when I’m teaching,” she told The New Yorker in 2003. “Teaching is about taking things apart; writing is about putting things together.”
The convention she broke was the stronghold of the White gaze.
Author Morgan Jerkins, on Toni Morrison
Morrison’s literary career would be propelled by her ability to see and assign language to structures of power — and her writing shed insights into not only what keeps those structures intact, but also what can dismantle them. At a Howard fiction workshop in her 20s, she began crafting a longer narrative from a short story she’d previously written about a Black girl who wanted blue eyes — the seeds of what would become her breakout novel, The Bluest Eye, more than a decade later.
She married Harold Morrison in 1958. After getting divorced in 1964, she and her two sons moved to Syracuse, New York, and later Queens while she worked as an editor for Random House. Morrison would go on to pen a slew of widely acclaimed novels, including Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby and Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1987 novel that would become her flagship. Morrison was the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Since 1989, she was on faculty at Princeton University, where she founded a workshop for aspiring writers, performing artists and playwrights.
She brought along a current of Black writers in her wake, leading a rebirth of Black women’s fiction — and Black fiction more broadly. Throughout her tenure at Random House, she edited authors like Angela Davis, Gayl Jones and even Muhammad Ali. “I wasn’t marching. I didn’t go to anything. I didn’t join anything. But I could make sure there was a published record of those who did march and did put themselves on the line,” she told The New Yorker. In 1974, she compiled The Black Book, a collection of photos, letters and documents that reflected the history of Black Americans from slavery through the present.
In Morrison’s 1993 Nobel lecture, she spoke of the ways in which language may be the measure of human lives. Beyond the tangible works she’ll leave behind though, she opened up space for Black authors and readers to tell their own stories — without Whiteness setting the benchmark. “We saw ourselves through her work,” says Morgan Jerkins, a 27-year-old author, journalist, editor and professor based in Manhattan. “The convention she broke was the stronghold of the White gaze.” And in doing so, she taught Americans that “White people cannot be the arbiters of truth,” Jerkins says.
“She was a magician with language, who understood the Power of words,” Oprah Winfrey wrote in a tweet Tuesday. “She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them.” Winfrey included The Bluest Eye in her book club and played Sethe, the former slave protagonist of Beloved, in the 1998 film based on Morrison’s novel. “Toni Morrison is relighting the angles from which we view American history, changing the very color of its shadows, showing Whites what they look like in Black mirrors,” Patricia Storace wrote of Paradise in The New York Review of Books.
Though the social clashes surrounding Morrison evolved with time — she was often criticized for her harsh portrayals of men and Whites — the thread of her work and mission on earth remained clear: “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence,” she wrote in an essay for The Nation in 2015. “Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.”
To be sure, today’s world provides no shortage of racial inequities, gender discrimination and class divides on which Morrison could — and did — shed light. She’s already shown people how to see and where to look for the next generation of stories.