And She Was Loved: On the Power of Toni Morrison

My first encounter with Toni Morrison’s words was as a bright-eyed, hopeful sophomore at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was required summer reading. Toni Morrison books cracked me open, and 20 years later I am still examining parts of myself that this fiction writer made real. That is the magic of Toni Morrison—her ability to chronicle the African-American experience in a deep and detailed way that resonates with readers, that forces them to re-read her words as if they were an incantation. Read often enough, in just the right way, they unlock a new way of seeing.

As a young African-American woman living in South Carolina, surviving in a vein that Morrison seemed to be writing about, her words were a lifeline, even if I could only comprehend a third of them at the time. Morrison was born as Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Her family had moved from the Deep South hoping to escape racism and find employment in Ohio’s burgeoning industrial economy. She became a Catholic at age 12 and took the baptismal name Anthony after Anthony of Padua—a Portuguese priest celebrated for his Bible knowledge, powerful preaching, and devotion to those ignored—and Toni became her nickname.

toni morrison books
Author’s portrait of Toni Morrison for the first-edition back cover of her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). The groundbreaking novel that shook America to its core turns fifty this year.

“I knew more than they did.”

Her high school job as a book page at the Lorain Public Library shaped the rest of her life. In 1949, she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English and earned a Master of Arts in 1955 from Cornell University. Her master’s thesis was “Virginia Woolf ’s and William Faulkner’s treatment of the alienated.” After teaching at Howard University for seven years, she moved to Syracuse, New York, to work as an editor for Random House’s textbook division. “Navigating a white male world . . . it wasn’t threatening. It wasn’t even interesting,” she said of that time. “I was more interesting than they were. I knew more than they did, and I wasn’t afraid to show it. You have to be a little tough and rely on yourself and tell people no.”

Soon she would make her way to New York City, where she would acquire and edit fiction and memoirs by African-American authors for the company. Morrison understood change was afoot. “What can I do where I am?” she said to herself at the time. “I thought it was important for people to be in the streets. But they couldn’t last. You needed a record. It would be my job to publish the voices, the books, the ideas of African-Americans, and that would last.” Under her stead the works of Muhammad Ali, Lucille Clifton, Angela Davis, and Huey P. Newton were ushered into the world. She was not publishing her own work yet.

“Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God.” (Paradise)

toni morrison books

Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Available for purchase here

A Novelist is Born

In 1970, Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye. She was 39 years old. “Even when I wrote The Bluest Eye, I was really writing a book I wanted to read. I hadn’t seen a book in which black girls were center stage. I wanted to read a book that had no codes, no little notes explaining things to white people. I had a major question at the time: how does a child learn self-loathing?” In a Toni Morrison quote said in an early Charlie Rose television interview. “Every book I read about young black girls, they were props. Jokes. Topsy. No one took them seriously—ever.”

Set not long after the Great Depression, the main character, Pecola, is deemed ugly because of her black skin. She prays for blue eyes, a symbol of beauty, as a way to improve her disposition and change how townspeople see and treat her.

Mural of Toni in Baltimore, Maryland
Colorful street mural of Toni Morrison by Ernest Shaw, Jr. found on North Howard Street in Baltimore, Maryland. Elvert Barnes Photography.

Pecola’s prayers come from Morrison’s time in Ohio: “I remember an incident from my own childhood when a very close friend of mine and I—we were walking down the street, we were discussing whether God existed, and she said he did not, and I said that he did. But then she said she had proof. She said, ‘I have been praying for two years for blue eyes, and he never gave me any.’ So I just remember turning around and looking at her. She was very black and she was very, very, very beautiful. How painful? Can you imagine that kind of pain? About that? About color? So I wanted to say you know, this kind of racism hurts. This is not lynchings and murders anddrownings. This is interior pain.” Morrison examined this world—where ideological scripts by people in authority can be imposed on others—describing the conditions her characters lived in and how they tried to transcend the situations they were born into.

“What’s the world for if you can’t make it up the way you want it?” (Jazz)

Three years later, Morrison published her second novel, Sula, which was nominated for the National Book Award. In 1977 her third novel, Song of Solomon, brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities.

“Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation,” Morrison said during her Nobel lecture. Morrison draws on her heritage and the language she learned through her family’s retellings of African-American folktales and ghost stories, so readers feel she’s talking to them and understands that they can talk back. Her work to dignify the inner life of another human being is evocative and not just analytical; her characters’ situations speak to the larger concerns of humanity and thus have universal meaning.

toni morrison books
Toni Morrison meets with students and faculty in African and African-American Studies in Arts & Sciences in 1985. Courtesy of Washington University Photographic Services Collection, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections. 

Toni Morrison Quotes Across the Globe

Her work has been translated into more than 40 languages. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. Always searching for the story beneath the story, Morrison showed that the English literature canon isn’t the private property of upper-class white male writers. She made sure readers understood that slaves were people—they could love and had imaginations. She unboxed America and its varied modes of repression by writing about the terror of history and her characters’ unwillingness to be victims in the face of it. “Toni Morrison’s work is for all of us,” Oprah Winfrey says during The Pieces I Am, a documentary on Morrison’s life.

toni morrison quotes
William Kennedy, the 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner for Ironweed, poses with Toni Morrison. Photo courtesy of the University at Albany.

Winfrey was an early champion of her novels and helmed the film adaptation of Beloved. “Her words, her language, is a friend to our minds. That’s what you’re feeling when you’re in the midst of a read. It comforts you and consoles you and allows you to understand that pain is OK. She reaches into the depths of pain and shows us through pain all of the myriad ways we can come to love. That is what she does, with words on a page.”

Morrison passed on August 5, 2019, at 88 years old. The author of 10 novels, she also penned 7 non-fiction works, 2 plays and 3 children’s books. She left behind an incredible legacy of the different ways we can transcend the suffering of our communities with flight—into a book, on an actual plane, or even into our imaginations. Critically acclaimed and adored by readers around the globe, and a champion by those who were often used and abandoned, Toni Morrison is considered one of the titans of American literature. And she was loved.

Written by Latria Graham

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toni morrison books

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Available for purchase here 

toni morrison books

Toni Morrison, Beloved
Available for purchase here

toni morrison books

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Available for purchase here

toni morrison books

Toni Morrison, Sula
Available for purchase here

toni morrison books

Toni Morrison, Jazz
Available for purchase here

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