Adieu ! Toni Morrison, the first black Nobel Laureate

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‘You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down,’  is the famous quote of Toni Toni Morrison.

The world is mourning loss of a great writer, famed for having portrait the African life, culture and the turmoils there were reeling into.Toni Morrison’s real name was Chloe Ardelia Wofford; born in February 18, 1931. She was an American novelist, essayist, editor, teacher and professor emeritus at Princeton University. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Beloved(1987).

Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 and went to graduate school at Cornell University. Later, while teaching English at Howard University, she married Harold Morrison. They had two children and divorced in 1964. In the late 1960s, she became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City. In the 1970s and 1980s she developed her own reputation as an author, and her perhaps most celebrated work, Beloved, was made into a movie in 1998 by Oprah Winfrey.

Morrison was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Also that year, she was honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio to Ramah (née Willis) and George Wofford. She was the second of four children in a working-class, African-American family. Soon after the lynching, George Wofford moved to the racially integrated town of Lorain, Ohio, in hopes of escaping racism and securing gainful employment in Ohio’s burgeoning industrial economy. Her father worked odd jobs and as a welder for U.S. Steel. Ramah Wofford was a homemaker and a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

 Lesson of Life

When Morrison was about two, her family’s landlord set fire to the house they lived in, while they were home, because her parents couldn’t pay the rent. Her family responded to what she called this “bizarre form of evil” by laughing at the landlord rather than falling into despair. Morrison later said her family’s response demonstrated how to keep your integrity and claim your own life in the face of acts of such “monumental crudeness.”

Morrison’s parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African-American folktales and ghost stories and singing songs. Morrison also read frequently as a child; among her favorite authors were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. She became a Catholic at the age of 12 and took the baptismal name Anthony, which led to her nickname, Toni.

 Adulthood 1949–1974

In 1949, she enrolled at the historically black Howard University, seeking the company of fellow black intellectuals. The University is in Washington D.C. where she encountered racially segregated restaurants and buses for the first time. She graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English and went on to earn a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. She taught English, first at Texas Southern University in Houston for two years, then at Howard for seven years. While teaching at Howard, she met Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, whom she married in 1958. She was pregnant with their second son when she and Harold divorced in 1964.

 

As an Editor

After the breakup of her marriage, she began working as an editor in 1965 for L. W. Singer, a textbook division of publisher Random House, in Syracuse, New York. Two years later she transferred to Random House in New York City, where she became their first black woman senior editor in the fiction department.

In that capacity, Morrison played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream. Among other books Morrison developed and edited is The Black Book (1974), an anthology of photographs, illustrations, essays, and other documents of black life in the United States from the time of slavery to the 1970s. Random House had been uncertain about the project, but it got good reviews.

First writings and teaching, 1970–1986

Morrison had begun writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University who met to discuss their work. She attended one meeting with a short story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. Morrison later developed the story as her first novel, The Bluest Eye, getting up every morning at 4 am to write, while raising two children alone.

The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 when Morrison was thirty-nine. It did not sell well at first, but the City University of New York put the novel on its reading list for its new black-studies department, as did other colleges, which boosted sales.

In 1975, Morrison’s second novel Sula(1973), about a friendship between two black women, was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon(1977), brought her national acclaim.

Morrison gave her next novel, Tar Baby (1981), a contemporary setting. In it, a looks-obsessed fashion model, Jadine, falls in love with Son, a penniless drifter who feels at ease with being black.

In 1983, Morrison left publishing to devote more time to writing, and lived in a converted boathouse on the Hudson River in Nyack, New York. She taught English at two branches of the Sate University of New York and at Rutgers Univrsity: New Brunswick Campus.

Morrison’s first play,Dreaming Emmett, is about the murder by white men of black teenager Emmett Till in 1955. It was performed in 1986 at the State University of New York at Albany, where she was teaching at the time. Morrison was also a visiting professor at Bard College from 1986 to 1988.

The Beloved Trilogy and the Nobel Prize: 1987–1998

In 1987, Morrison published her most celebrated novel, Beloved. It was inspired by the true story of an enslaved African-American woman, Margaret Garner, a piece of history that Morrison had discovered when compiling The Black Book. Garner had escaped slavery but was pursued by slave hunters. Facing a return to slavery, Garner killed her two-year-old daughter but was captured before she could kill herself. Morrison’s novel imagines the dead baby returning as a ghost, Beloved, to haunt her mother and family.

Beloved was a critical success, and a bestseller for 25 weeks. Despite overall high acclaim, Beloved failed to win the prestigious National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Forty-eight black critics and writers, among them Maya Angelou, protested the omission in a statement that The New York Times published on January 24, 1988. “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve,” they wrote. Two months later, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It also won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

Beloved is the first of three novels about love and African-American history, sometimes called the Beloved Trilogy. Morrison said that they are intended to be read together, explaining, “The conceptual connection is the search for the beloved – the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you.” The second novel in the trilogy, Jazz, came out in 1992. Told in language that imitates the rhythms of jazz music, the novel is about a love triangle during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. That year she also published her first book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), an examination of the African-American presence in white American literature.

Before the third novel of the trilogy came out, in 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her citation reads: Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She was the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize. In her Nobel acceptance speech, Morrison talked about the power of storytelling. To make her point, she told a story. She spoke about a blind, old, black woman who is approached by a group of young people. They demand of her, “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? … Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story.”

Morrison was also honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which is awarded to a writer “who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work.”

The third of her Beloved trilogy, Paradise, about citizens of an all-black town, came out in 1997. The next year, Morrison was on the cover of Time magazine, only the second female writer of fiction and second black writer of fiction to appear on what was perhaps the most significant U.S. magazine cover of the era.

Beloved onscreen, and “the Oprah effect”

Also in 1998, the movie adaptation of Beloved was released, directed by Jonathan Demme and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, who had spent ten years bringing it to the screen. Winfrey also stars as the main character, Sethe. The movie flopped at the box office. A review in The Economist suggested that “most audiences are not eager to endure nearly three hours of a cerebral film with an original story line featuring supernatural themes, murder, rape and slavery.” Film critic Janet Maslin, however, in her review “No Peace from a Brutal Legacy” called it a “transfixing, deeply felt adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel. …Its linchpin is of course Oprah Winfrey, who had the clout and foresight to bring ‘Beloved’ to the screen and has the dramatic presence to hold it together.”

Ofrah gave space to Toni’s other creations too in her famous talk show.

On November 17, 2017, Princeton University dedicated Morrison Hall (a building previously called West College) in her honor.

Home and final years: 2010–2019

Morrison wrote books for children with her younger son, Slade Morrison, who was a painter and a musician. Slade died of pancreatic cancer. On December 22, 2010, aged 45. Morrison’s novel Home was half-completed when her son died.

In May 2011, Morrison received an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Rutgers University-New Brunswick during the commencement ceremony where she delivered a speech of the “pursuit of life, liberty, meaningfulness, integrity, and truth.”

Morrison had stopped working on her latest novel when her son died. She said that afterward, “I stopped writing until I began to think, He would be really put out if he thought that he had caused me to stop. ‘Please, Mom, I’m dead, could you keep going…?

She completed Home and dedicated it to her son Slade Morrison. Published in 2012, it is the story of a Korean War veteran in the segregated United States of the 1950s, who tries to save his sister from brutal medical experiments at the hands of a white doctor.

In 2012 Oberlin College became the home base of the Toni Morrison Society, an international literary society dedicated to scholarly research of Morrison’s work. God Help the Child, Morrison’s eleventh novel, was published 2015. It follows Bride, an executive in the fashion and beauty industry whose mother tormented her as a child for being dark-skinned––a childhood trauma that has dogged Bride her whole life.

Morrison was a member of the editorial advisory board member of The Nation, a magazine which was started in 1865 by Northern abolitionists.

Documentary films

Morrison was the subject of a film entitled Imagine – Toni Morrison Remembers, directed by Jill Nichols and shown on BBC1 television on July 15, 2015, in which Morrison talked to Alan Yentob about her life and work.

In 2016, Oberlin College received a grant to complete a documentary film begun in 2014, The Foreigner’s Home, about Morrison’s intellectual and artistic vision.

The painful farewell

Morrison died at Montefiore Medical Center, New York City on August 5, 2019, from complications of pneumonia. She was 88 years old. It’ a global loss. Morrison not only unveiled the black agony but also helped raise American multiculturalism to the world stage. The world is mourning her death. A strong lady with a pen which never rested has left. Adieu, the great writer who wrote even in pain and difficult times !