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Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison, dies at 88

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Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison attend the Carl Sandburg literary awards dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Oct. 20, 2010.(Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic)

Toni Morrison, the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has died. The author of seminal works of literature on the black experience such as Beloved, Song of Solomon and Sula was 88.

She died Monday in New York following a short illness, according to her family and publisher.

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in the rust-belt town of Lorain, Ohio, she was the second of four children born to Ramah (née Willis), a homemaker, and George Wofford, a shipyard welder.

According to a statement by the Morrison family via her publisher: “Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends. She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life.”

The family continued: “While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family. We will share information in the near future about how we will celebrate Toni’s incredible life.”

Morrison illuminated the joys and agonies of black American life through breathtakingly vital works like Beloved, Song of Solomon and A Mercy, her publisher, Knopf, confirmed.

Morrison’s unique voice – earthy, poetic, powerful, elliptical – endures in her novels, which gazed unflinchingly on the lives of African Americans and told their stories with a singular lyricism, from the post-Civil War maelstrom of Beloved to the colonial setting of A Mercy to the modern yet classic dilemmas depicted in her 11th novel, God Help the Child.

Growing up in Lorain, Morrison has said, she played and attended school with children of various backgrounds, many of them immigrants. Race and racism were not the overriding concerns in her childhood that they would become in her books.

“When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child who could read,” she once told the Los Angeles Times.

She encountered segregation for the first time when she attended Howard University in Washington, D.C.”

Morrison was a precocious reader who devoured works by Jane Austen, Richard Wright, Mark Twain and many more. She converted to Catholicism when she was 12, and as a teenager she joined her school’s yearbook staff and debate team. To make money she cleaned houses for white families and worked as a secretary to the head librarian at the Lorain Public Library.

When Morrison reached college age, she decided to attend Howard University — her father took on another job in order to afford the tuition, flouting union rules. There, she studied humanities under Alain Locke — the acknowledged “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance — and joined the Howard University Players, the school’s theatrical group, with which she toured the segregated south.

After graduating in 1953, she went on to Cornell, where she received a master’s degree in English and wrote her thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

After graduating from Cornell, Morrison embarked on her teaching career, first landing a job at Texas Southern University, and then back at Howard, where she taught the soon-to-be civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael.

It was there that she met Harold Morrison, an architect, and the couple wedded in 1958; the pair went on to have two children (Ford and Slade) before divorcing in 1964.

Her books gave expression to formerly unspoken truths of black life in America, past and present. Morrison may be best remembered as a literary genius that wrote about black people for other black people, yet her work had universal appeal.

Over her six-decade career, she wrote 11 novels, five children’s books, two plays, a song cycle and an opera. She served as an editor and professor, mentoring generations of young writers of colour. After being largely ignored as a writer for a decade in the ‘70s, Morrison went on to win accolade after accolade, from the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

Morrison widened the nation’s literary canon, serving as its conscience through trying times and establishing herself as the keeper of its marginalized histories. Through her inventive turns of phrase, graceful incorporation of African-American vernacular, textured character portraits, sharp historical gaze and tragic plot turns, she is one of the most accomplished and impactful writers in the history of American literature.

Her talent for intertwining the stark realities of black life with hints of magical realism and breathtaking prose gained Morrison a loyal literary following. She was lauded for her ability to mount complex characters and build historically dense worlds distant in time yet eerily familiar to the modern reader.

A decorated novelist, editor and educator — among other prestigious academic appointments, she was a professor emeritus at Princeton University — Morrison said writing was the state in which she found true freedom.

She married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison in 1958 and gave birth to two sons — Harold Ford in 1961 and Slade Kevin in 1964. She and her husband divorced after six years of marriage.

Morrison began her storied career in letters as a college instructor at Texas Southern University and later at Howard, her alma mater.

In 1963, she took a position as a book editor at Random House based in Syracuse, New York, where she worked for 20 years before leaving in 1983. Morrison was editing the works of others when she published her first novel at age 39.

“I didn’t become interested in writing until I was about 30 years old,” she later said. “I didn’t really regard it as writing then, although I was putting words on paper. I thought of it as a very long, sustained reading process — except that I was the one producing the words.”

The Bluest Eye, about an impoverished and abused black girl, who longs for blue eyes, was met with middling reviews but gained prestige when it was added to the City University of New York curriculum.

“Required reading,” Morrison has said. “Therein lies the success.”

The novel has been challenged and called offensive over the years by parents in communities across the country that say the subject matter, which involves incest and violence, is too raw for young readers.

Morrison went on to pen roughly a dozen novels, most lauded among them 1987’s Beloved, about a former slave who kills her baby to ensure it is never enslaved. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.


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