Paris: Slavery was written into her family history and Toni Morrison, who has died at age 88 on Tuesday, made it one of her enduring themes in 11 novels that marked her out as a leading figurehead of black writing and the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In the searing prose of such classics as Song of Solomon (1982) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved 1987), Morrison shuttled across time to explore stories from the plantation fields to modern-day America, shining an ever-challenging light on identity and belonging.
“Part of Morrison’s longstanding greatness resides in her ability to animate specific stories about the black experience and simultaneously speak to all experience,” Leah Hager Cohen wrote in The New York Times in 2012.
End of innocence
She was born as Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio to a working-class family of four children, later choosing to be called Toni, drawn from her middle name.
Her grandfather had been born into a slave family, Morrison’s agent said. He was about five years old at Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed more than 3.5 million US slaves. Morrison said she only became self-conscious of her race in 1949, when she enrolled at the traditionally black Howard University in Washington — nicknamed “Black Harvard”. The new sense of exclusion and inequality would later become a cornerstone of her fiction.
“I am writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio,” Morrison told The Guardian in 2015.
“I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t write about white people, which is not absolutely true. There are lots of white people in my books.
“The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”
Morrison became a professor of literature at Texas Southern University before returning to Washington where she met her future husband Harold Morrison, an architecture student of Jamaican origin.
They married in 1958 but she left him in 1964 and moved to New York with their two young sons, one aged just six months.
Six years later, when Morrison was 39, her first novel “The Bluest Eye” was published.
“I wanted to read a book about the most vulnerable person in society — female, child, black — and it wasn’t around, so I started writing it,” she told the critic Hilton Als on the radio show Studio 360 in 2014.
Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye while she was teaching English at Howard University and bringing up her sons. She rose at dawn to write — a routine she maintained throughout her career.
“I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down,” she told The Paris Review in 1993.
For many years Morrison worked as an editor at Random House where she published biographies of leading black figures Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis.
Her first major literary success came with her second novel, “Song of Solomon”, in 1977 and then the overnight sensation “Beloved” 10 years later for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. The book was named the best novel of the past 25 years by The New York Times in 2006.
Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, a first for an African-American writer.
“I felt I represented a whole world of women who either were silenced or who had never received the imprimatur of the established literary world,” she told The New York Times in 1994.
‘Mourning for whiteness’
Morrison whipped up a storm when she called Bill Clinton the “first black US president” in The New Yorker in 1998, when his affair with Monica Lewinsky became public.
She had deplored Clinton’s treatment, she explained in The Huffington Post in 2011. “I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp.” In 2012 Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour.
Her 11th and final novel, God Help the Child in 2015, explored issues of child abuse as experienced by a young woman — “so black she scared me. Midnight black. Sudanese black” — who is rejected and punished for her colour by her light-skinned mother.
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016, Morrison penned an article for The New Yorker entitled “Mourning for Whiteness.” “These people are not so much angry as terrified,” she wrote of Trump supporters, “with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.” — AFP