“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” — Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate who explored black history and identity, and whose novels were staples in classrooms across the United States, has died at 88.
Morrison won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature for her work, which included 11 novels, and essays and children’s books. Her novel Beloved won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award, and Song of Solomon won the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award. President Barack Obama awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and in 2016, she was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
Beloved, Song of Solomon, and many of Morrison’s other novels—including Sula, Jazz, and The Bluest Eye—were centerpieces in high school English classes around the country. To read samples of what high school students have written in response to Morrison novels, click here and here.
Describing her writing, The New York Times said Morrison’s style was like “no other writer in English.”
Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.
Her narratives mingle the voices of men, women, children and even ghosts in layered polyphony. Myth, magic and superstition are inextricably intertwined with everyday verities, a technique that caused Ms. Morrison’s novels to be likened often to those of Latin American magic realist writers like Gabriel García Márquez.
Morrison worked for many years as an editor at Random House. It was during those years that she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in the pre-dawn hours before work. Published in 1970, that novel’s protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, lived out the struggle of black girls’ identity for readers across the country: in a media landscape dominated by white girls, Pecola feels ugly and prays for blue eyes to make her beautiful.
The Bluest Eye ranked high on the American Library Association’s list of books most often targeted for removal from library shelves because of its violence—Pecola’s father rapes her—and language considered offensive. An Alabama lawmaker demanded that the book be banned from classrooms after it was included in the Common Core State Standards’ list of suggested texts.
Born in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Howard University and a master’s in English at Cornell University. She went on to teach at Texas Southern University and Howard, and was a longtime faculty member at Princeton University.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.