Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 01/11/2019

By Margaretta wa Gacheru

If you hadn’t read The Bluest Eyes, Beloved or Song of Solomon before August 9th, you might be among the multitude who made book sales of all Toni Morrison’s award-winning books shoot sky high following her passing on that fateful summer day in New York City.

Black America’s first Nobel prize winner (1993) was already renowned in many circles, (especially literary and African American ones) for her brilliant array of books before she passed at aged 88.

But it wasn’t just because she was the first Black American woman to win a Nobel that she was world acclaimed. She was also the first black American woman to achieve so many other things: she was the first of her kind to be a best-selling fiction writer, and as the first black female editor at a leading Manhattan publishing house, she was first to open literary channels for many more brilliant black American writers to prove that there are a myriad of powerful stories about the black experience that are yet to be told.

There are many more reasons why Toni Morrison has been so widely mourned since she stepped off humanity’s stage after years of teaching, writing and also editing some of the greatest English-language writers of our time. Possibly the most notable one would be in relation to her writing and her specific choice of subject matter. For she was intent on placing the black experience at the very centre of her writing. And not only that. She also felt deeply compelled to remove from her writing any hint or interest in taking heed of what she called ‘the white gaze’ (meaning ‘what will white people think of me?’ which was of no concern to her)

In the countless interviews, keynote speeches and dialogues that she had with scholars, members of the media and colleagues like Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey, she made clear that the chief concern of her writing was to speak of the black experience to black people, having no need to apologize for populating all of her books with black people in all of their many facets.

On more than one occasion, she had to set her white interviewer straight, that she had no desire to include white people in her literary world. What’s more, she was clearly offended when a journalist like Charlie Rose would ask her ‘when was she going to start writing about white people?’

In one interview, (one of the many that are now surfacing on YouTube), she explained that she had never really wanted to make the subject of slavery a central topic of her writing. But because she felt that the whole traumatizing experience of slavery had been so sanitized, even by black writers who she felt didn’t want to offend their white readership, she had no choice but to address the theme in books like Beloved, the one that earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Even a Black leader like Frederick Douglas who’d led the struggle to abolish slavery in the US (prior to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation) hadn’t told the full story of the brutal, dehumanizing and traumatizing experience of those 400 years. And to her, that was because they had a white audience, not a black one, in mind as they wrote.

 ‘I know [Frederick] Douglas could not tell white people about the real horrors of slavery,’ she said at The Hay Festival in UK. ‘It would have been too disturbing for them to hear,’ she added. But then she was pressed by her Hay interviewer: ‘Then where have you gotten your stories about slavery?’ He was genuinely curious since slavery has been a resounding theme of her writing, especially in a work like Beloved, the book many people believe is her best novel.

Beloved was so loved by Oprah Winfrey, for instance that she paid for the rights to produce the film based on the novel about a woman who killed her own daughter rather than have her grow up a slave.

The story is actually about the child that died. In the film it’s a haunting, disturbing story about the child’s ghost who returns to haunt her mother and inquire why she had to die. But for me, the film didn’t quite capture the passion, conviction and depth of feeling that propelled Beloved’s mother into making the radical and devastating choice to kill her own child. 

Morrison told her interviewer that in that case, she had found a small story about a real woman, Margaret Carter who was caught having slaughtered her child. Being a slave who had escaped and then been recaptured, Margaret posed a problem for her slavers. Would they charge her with murder or theft? For depending on one’s perspective, she had taken a life that didn’t belong to her. The baby according to that system was born into slavery and thus belonged, like a piece of chattel, to the same slave owner as Margaret.

The newspaper story was incomplete but it set Morrison’s imagination in motion such that she wrote a dazzling novel, her 4th? After writing first The Bluest Eyes, Sula and Song of Solomon, she wrote what’s considered her masterpiece, Beloved.

But she didn’t stop after that. She wrote two more, namely Jazz and Paradise which, with Beloved, are considered to be a trilogy. Then she continued writing novels like Love, A Mercy, Paradise, Home, God Save the Child, and many more.

Morrison, who was born in a rural corner of Ohio, was brought up in a largely black community, so she says she wasn’t fully aware of racism in America until she went off to Howard University.

‘I was determined to go to a school where there were many brilliant black minds,’ which is why she chose Howard University, one of the leading historically black schools in the US. But while she majored in English, she said she gravitated towards the theatre department because they treated literature differently, less academically. In their readings, they dramatized writings which brought the books alive, and that was what she loved.

Yet one fascinating point she made in an interview she gave towards the end of her days, she confessed that Chinua Achebe had had a transformative effect on her consciousness. His creation of an Africa-centric world in Things Fall Apart impressed her deeply and spurred her on to do the same only within a black American context.

Born in 1931 as Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, just four years before Achebe (1935), she read Things fall apart several years after it was published in 1958. She had already graduated from Howard (1953) and had moved on to Cornell University where she got a Master’s degree before returning to Howard where she taught English for a short time. By the late Sixties (after being married and divorced (1964) and having two sons), she’d moved to New York City and got a job at Random House where she became America’s first black female editor of fiction.

It was during her early days at Random that one of her first projects was working on the groundbreaking ‘Contemporary African Literature’ which featured relatively unknown writers like Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Athol Fugard.

But it was also while at Random House that she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eyes in 1970, which brought her national acclaim and made her realize she was meant to be a writer in her own right. She remained at Random after writing her second novel Sula, but soon after that, she resigned to write full time.

Some readers love Sula above all her books, but it was her next novel, Song of Solomon (1977) which earned her the National Book Critics Circle Award the same year. And after that, it was Beloved (1987) that won her the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and the American Book Award the same year. Oprah made it into a film starring Thandie Newton in 1998. And ever since then, Toni Morrison has been considered a national treasure, beloved for her writing and her wisdom all over the world.


Last modified on Wednesday, 06 November 2019 18:25

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