*A mention of America’s literary giants would be incomplete with the mention of one Miss Toni Morrison. This daughter of a steel worker and a homemaker has rightfully earned her laurels for creating works centered on African American life when its erasure from culture was commonplace.
Her poetic and bittersweet writing has earned her a Nobel Prize for Literature, a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Truly, she is our Black intellectual.
To understand Toni Morrison’s significance, one needs to understand her work’s specialness. Her writing not only captures the pain and anguish of the countless nameless souls that were snatched away from their home and treated with cruelty but also shows their complexity, their unique link to their heritage and most importantly their humanity.
Through her books, Toni Morrison reinforces black people’s place in America history and society.
In the foreword of her book Beloved, Morrison wrote “I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population.”
Morrison understands that the role of her writing isn’t just confrontational. It serves a higher purpose. It reconstructs dark chapters of America’s past so that roads leading into empathy and light can be built.
Stories were always part of Toni Morrison’s life – first as a child when her mother told her traditional folktales and singing songs and then later when she took up an editing position at Random House. As an editor, she championed the works of black authors and stories – a move that foreshadowed her own foray into writing. In her own work, she crafts terminology indigenous to her imagination like Thick Love and Thin Love that serve to illustrate the difficult choices made by her ancestors and the struggle to retain their humanity.
Toni Morrison’s stories are personal stories. Not personal in the sense that they are recollections of her life experiences but in the sense that they are informed by her own relationship to stories and her wish to make African American lives central to her story.
In books like Song of Solomon, we see her use magical realism – a feature of traditional African-American folk tales and ghost stories from her childhood – to convey the struggles of black folks in America. The other-worldly image of flying African men is subverted into a scene where a black man escapes the pain of living in segregated America with suicide. A girl is born without a navel, mirroring the creation of Adam, representing the uniqueness and fierce independence of black women.
Morrison’s writing is unapologetically black. Her work is a challenge to the prevalent whiteness that aims to alienate black people and keep them in a constant state of displacement. Instead of giving into a culture where whiteness was valued, her writing carved space for black people in the zeitgeist. Her books like Beloved were some of the first prominent American works of literature that centered on African-American life.
She writes for Black people and therefore, does not have to preface her characters with an introduction to their humanity. Her characters breathe and feel from the very beginning.
When subtle suggestions were made about her writing about white characters, she dismissed them as distractions. In a 1975 lecture given at Portland State, Morrison expanded on this “the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being.” Morrison knew that she did not have to write about white characters to elevate her work.
Morrison’s contribution to literature and culture at large are enormous. Without Morrison’s work, the tapestry of American literature would be incomplete. Her work brings an acute understanding of the injustices that permeate the fabric of America. It draws a through line connecting the past to the present. Through her stories, she showed that black stories were sufficient and worthy of creative attention. Her success paved the way for other black female writers. As the author who gave shape to the rage, pain and joy of black America, we need to celebrate her work more often.