A literary titan has passed. Toni Morrison, the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize and author of such classics as ‘Beloved’ and ‘The Bluest Eye,’ has died. Here’s what you need to know.
“It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends,” her family said in a statement on Aug. 6, per Rolling Stone. Toni, 88, died the night before at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. A specific cause of death was not given. “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,” the statement continued. “Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life. 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.”
To say that Toni Morrison was a literary giant would sell her legacy short. As the world mourns the loss of this incredible woman, here’s what you need to know about this exceptional author.
1. Her name is a divine invention. She was born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. She was the descendant of sharecroppers, and her parents instilled a love of arts, and she was a prolific reader as a child. “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 told the Los Angeles Times (per CNN.)
She interacted with many children of various backgrounds and first encountered segregation when she attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. She would graduate from Howard with a degree in English. She’d earn her master’s from Cornell University in 1955. Three years later, she’d marry Harold Morrison. As to the origin of her first name, “Toni” is a nickname from her baptismal name, Anthony (after St. Anthon) when she joined the Catholic Church, per The Guardian.
2. Toni was nearly 40 when she published her first novel. She took a position as a book editor at Random House in 1963. She was the first black woman to hold a senior editor position at the publishing house. Toni has been credited in helping publish a new generation of black writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Angela Davis.
“I didn’t become interested in writing until I was about 30 thirty years old,” she later said, per CNN. “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.” In 1970, when she was 39, her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, was published. It is about an impoverished and abused black girl who longs for blue eyes. Though it wasn’t a critical darling, it gained prestige when it was added to the City University of New York’s curriculum.
3. She was the first woman from any nation to receive the Nobel Prize in literature… Overall, Toni would publish 11 novels over her career, detailing vivid stories about black life in America, specifically the hardships of black women. In 1993, she became the first black woman on Earth to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Prize committee described her as someone “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
4. Toni won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Toni’s best known for her 1987 novel, Beloved. The story details a former slave who kills her baby to ensure it is never enslaved. The novel won Toni the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award.
5. She was widely read and widely loved. Oprah Winfrey, who starred in the film adaptation of Beloved, picked Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for her first ever Book Club. She would add three more of Toni’s books to her club over the following years. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest possible US honor to a citizen.
Toni continued to write throughout her life (her last book was 2015’s God Help the Child), especially during moments of personal tragedy. Her home burned down in 1993 and in 2010, her son, Slade, passed away at 45 from pancreatic cancer. She had collaborated with him on a series of children’s books. In spite of the lows, she remained dedicated to the written word.
“We die,” she said at the end of her Nobel Prize address. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”