Chronicler of Black Experience in America and Winner of Nobel Prize for Literature

By Morrison, Toni | The Scotsman, August 9, 2019 | Go to article overview

Chronicler of Black Experience in America and Winner of Nobel Prize for Literature


Morrison, Toni, The Scotsman


Toni Morrison, writer. Born: 18 February, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, United States. Died: 5 August, 2019 in New York, aged 88.N obel laureate Toni Morrison, a pioneer and giant of modern literature whose imaginative power in Beloved, Song of Solomon and other works transformed American letters by dramatising the pursuit of freedom within the boundaries of race, has died.

Few authors rose in such rapid, spectacular style. She was nearly 40 when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published. By her early 60s, after just six novels, she had become the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize, praised in 1993 by the Swedish academy for her "visionary force" and for her delving into "language itself, a language she wants to liberate" from categories of black and white. In 2012, Barack Obama awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Morrison helped raise American multiculturalism to the world stage and helped uncensor her country's past, unearthing the lives of the unknown and the unwanted, those she would call "the unfree at the heart of the democratic experiment". In her novels, black history was a trove of poetry, tragedy, love, adventure and good old gossip, whether in small-town Ohio in Sula or big-city Harlem in Jazz. She regarded race as a social construct and, through language, founded the better world her characters suffered to attain. Morrison wove everything from African literature and slave folklore to the Bible and Gabriel Garcia Marquez into the most diverse, yet harmonious, of literary communities. "Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me," she said in her Nobel lecture. "It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge."

Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, she was one of the book world's most regal presences, with her expanse of greying dreadlocks, dark, discerning eyes and warm, theatrical voice, able to lower itself to a mysterious growl or rise to a humorous falsetto.

TV presenter Oprah Winfrey idolised Morrison and helped greatly expand her readership. Morrison shared those high opinions, repeatedly labelling one of her novels, Love, as "perfect" and rejecting the idea that artistic achievement called for quiet acceptance. "Maya Angelou helped me without her knowing it," Morrison said in a 1998 interview. "When she was writing her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was an editor at Random House. She was having such a good time, and she never said, 'Who me? My little book?'.

"I decided that ... winning the [Nobel] prize was fabulous," Morrison added. "Nobody was going to take that and make it into something else. I felt representational. I felt American. I felt Ohioan. I felt blacker than ever. I felt more woman than ever. I felt all of that, and put all of that together and went out and had a good time."

The second of four children of a welder and a domestic worker, Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a steel town outside of Cleveland. She was encouraged by her parents to read and to think, and was unimpressed by the white kids in her community. Recalling how she felt like an "aristocrat", Morrison believed she was smarter and took it for granted she was wiser. She was an honours student in high school, and attended Howard University because she dreamed of a life spent among black intellectuals. At Howard, she spent much of her free time in the theatre, later taught there and also met and married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison, whom she divorced in 1964. They had two boys, Harold and Slade.

In 1964, she answered an advert to work in the textbook division of Random House. Over the next 15 years she would have an impact as an editor, and as one of the few black women in publishing, that alone would have ensured her legacy. …

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