By Chaunce K Robinson
August 6, 2019
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.” – Toni Morrison
The world lost an icon today. Prolific novelist, essayist, editor, and professor Toni Morrison passed away at the age of 88. Morrison’s family confirmed “with profound sadness” that Morrison had died “following a short illness.” The Nobel Prize winner leaves behind a legacy rooted in uplifting the voices and visibility of Black women and Black culture, along with never backing down when speaking against the ills of society that continue to cause oppression.
Morrison authored 11 novels. Some of her most well-known books include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and Tar Baby. Although many know Morrison for her own writing, she had a long history of working to bring Black literature into the mainstream as an editor.
Born on February 18, 1931, in the racially integrated Lorain, Ohio, Morrison was one of four children in a working-class African-American family. Toni’s father worked as a welder at U.S. Steel along with working odd jobs after hours to supplement income, while her mother was a domestic worker. The author would often tell the story of how her family, the Woffords, lived in at least six different apartments during her childhood. One of their houses was set on fire by the landlord when her family couldn’t afford the $4 in monthly rent.
Morrison enrolled at Howard University in 1949, where she majored in English with a minor in the classics. Upon getting her undergraduate degree, Morrison continued her education at Cornell University in 1953. Her thesis at the university was on the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.
By 1964, Morrison was a single mother of two sons. She moved with her family to Syracuse, N.Y., where she worked as a senior editor for a textbook publisher. This would begin the avid reader’s career in publishing, as she would later work at Random House for more than a decade. She was the first female African-American senior editor at the publishing company.
One of the very first books Morrison got published was [The Case for] Black Reparations by Boris Bittker. Another of her early publishing triumphs was Contemporary African Literature, a collection that included works by Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.
Morrison edited works by Black documentary filmmaker and social activist Toni Cade Bambara, novelist Gayl Jones, and revolutionary activist and philosopher Dr. Angela Davis. Morrison, through her work as an editor, paved the way for Black writers by providing them access to a mainstream publisher in order to tell the global Black experience.
Much of her extraordinary editing career was done simultaneously with her work as a writer.
Her novels had a central theme of exploring the lives of Black people. Morrison explained to The New Yorker in 2003 what drove her to write her stories. “What was driving me to write was the silence—so many stories untold and unexamined. There was a wide vacuum in the literature.” Morrison maintained that as a Black woman writer she was just as capable, if not more so, in detailing the human experience as her white male counterparts.
“I’m already discredited, I’m already politicized before I get out of the gate… I can accept the labels [Black, female] because being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more,” she once explained.
In 1993, Morrison won the Nobel Prize in literature, becoming the first Black woman to do so. A year later, at Princeton University, she would establish a special workshop for writers and performers known as the Princeton Atelier.
Morrison never shied away from speaking on race and racism both in the works she helped to publish and her own books and public talks. Morrison did not mince words regarding our current political climate either.
In a short essay published days after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, entitled “Mourning for Whiteness,” Morrison wrote the following:
“Here, for many people, the definition of ‘Americanness’ is color… To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength?… So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”
Morrison succinctly described the dangers of white supremacy and the way it is used as a tool to divide and sow fear. Her words ring even truer now as there has been an increase in hate crimes and mass shootings fueled by a president and White House administration that encourage bigotry and genocide.
Morrison’s final book was published in 2015, titled God Help the Child. It is a novella focusing on the experiences of a young, dark-skinned Black woman who works in the cosmetics industry. The 2015 BBC documentary Toni Morrison Remembers also details the story of Morrison’s life in her own words and the words of those she inspired and befriended.
Morrison once said: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” It was in her use of language, and in uplifting the language of others, that she will continue to live with us and inspire us long after her passing.
**This article was first published in the newspaper, “People’s World” on August 6, 2019.