Chloe Anthony Wofford ‘Toni’ Morrison (1931-2019)
Crowned with the highest literary award in the world, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Toni Morrison as she became known, was every inch a veteran of the struggle, mainly through her very engaging and profound writing that touched the soul of her native country.
She wrote about race both as a personal cum collective experience of Black people and as the experience of the average American citizen, taking on social and political issues with the dexterity of a literary virtuoso. At the time of her death, she had been honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012) during the presidency of President Barack Obama, the American Book Award for her novel Beloved (1987) and the Pulitzer (1988) among others.
Born in Lorain Ohio in 1931 as Chloe Ardelia Wofford Morrison, she entered the historically Black Howard University in Washington in 1949 and took a degree in English in 1953. She also took a Master of Arts degree from Cornell University in 1955 and then started a career in editing. When she was only two years old, her family landlord set their house ablaze because her dad could not pay the rent. Rather than demoralise them, the family laughed at the landlord because of this ‘bizarre form of evil.’
Later Morrison described it as ‘monumental crudeness.’ At age 12, she became Catholic and took the baptismal name Anthony from where her nickname ‘Toni’ was derived. She married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison in 1958 with whom she had two children. The marriage ended while she was pregnant with the second baby.
She made a mark in the book business as editor by identifying and causing some relatively unknown writers to be published. She later took to writing and published her first novel The Bluest Eye in 1970 followed by Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved, her most successful novel (1987), Jazz (1982), Paradise (1987), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012) and God Help the Child (2015). She also wrote children’s literature, short stories, plays, non-fiction and essays in reputable journals.
Morrison was involved in the big political issues of the day in her lifetime. For example, she endorsed Senator Barack Obama over Senator Hilary Clinton in 2008 though he had respect for Clinton. And when Obama won the election, she said that for the first time she ‘‘felt like an American.’’ She was also quoted as saying: “I felt powerfully patriotic when I went to the inauguration of Barack Obama. I felt like a kid.”
In 2015 when three unarmed Black youths were killed by white policemen she wrote: “People keep saying, ‘We need to have a conversation about race.’ This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back. And I want to see a white man convicted of raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’ I will say yes.” She never hid her concern over the emergence of the incumbent president Donald Trump and the rise of White Supremacist ideology.
In 2016 after Trump won the election, she wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled ‘‘Mourning for Whiteness’’ in which she argues that white Americans are so afraid of losing privileges afforded them by their race that white voters elected Trump, whom she described as being “endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan” in order to keep the idea of white supremacy alive.”
But it was as a literary writer that she etched her name into world consciousness through the powerful use of words, imagery and character creation. In her haunting novel, Beloved, she tells the story of a woman who escaped slavery and was pursued by slave owners. Just before she was recaptured, she killed her daughter to prevent her from suffering the horror of slavery. How the ghost of this child comes haunting the family is the story of Beloved and indeed the story of the Black race in America.
Her passing at a ripe old age creates a vacuum in world literature but her place in the pantheon of literary greats is assured by the sheer size of her creations and the profundity of her artistic oeuvre.
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