A Tribute to Toni Morrison: ‘May she rest in Power’

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Sadly, Nobel and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Toni Morrison died yesterday at the age of 88. A trail-blazing author of eleven novels, she was best known for her compelling fiction on the African-American experience. In 1993, she was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Obama, who presented Morrison with the Medal for Freedom in 2012, has written a heartfelt tribute to Morrison calling her a ‘national treasure.’ Obama perfectly encapsulates what made her writing so special, it was ‘not just beautiful but meaningful – a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy.’ 

Morrison was the first African-American woman to work as an editor at Random House. Whilst working in this role and being a single mother of two, she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye in any free time she could find. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 when Morrison was 39, proving that it is never too late to start writing. As Morrison once said, ‘if there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

A trail-blazing author of eleven novels, she was best known for her compelling fiction on the African-American experience

One of the main characters in The Bluest Eye is a young African-American girl Pecola who is desperate to have blue eyes because she sees it as a solution to the discrimination she faces. It is an extremely moving tale of alienation and the loss of innocence. Song of Solomon, published in 1977, is one of her best-known novels. The novel follows the protagonist Milkman Dead on his journey from turmoil to self-discovery. Milkman is enriched by unravelling the mystery of his ancestors’ past, learning the importance of family and history along the way.

Morrison was skilled at weaving history and culture into her novels. Folk songs are integral to the plot of Song of Solomon. In Tar Baby, Morrison turns the tar baby from a folk tale into a symbol at the core of the narrative. Jazz explores the flood of African-American immigrants from the north to New York in the 1920s, describing the city as magnetic to the likes of Violet and Joe, the central characters, because of its promise of greater freedom. 

Beloved, arguably her most famous novel, earnt her seven awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Beloved is based on the tragic and violent case of Margaret Garner, a former slave, who the protagonist, Sethe, is modelled on. The novel poignantly portrays the haunting effects of slavery through the eerie house, the scar on Sethe’s back, and most importantly, through the character Beloved and all that she represents. 

Not only was Morrison a phenomenal novelist, but she also made a tremendous contribution to literary criticism. Unspeakable Things Unspoken is an incredibly powerful essay in which she analyses the discriminatory nature of the canon. She outlines the key reasons why African-American literature has been overlooked and points out how flawed and ignorant the reasons are.

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is another of her invaluable contributions to literary criticism. In this essay, she convincingly argues that the African-American presence has always been significant in American literature.

It is comforting to know that her incredible mind and magical way with words will live on forever through her work

Morrison even branched into children’s literature in 1999, writing alongside her son Slade. The wide range of writing that she engaged in shows just how extraordinary her imagination was. Morrison shared her gift for writing with the world, touching the hearts of children and adults alike.

She has left behind a rich literary legacy. Those who have been honouring her life are saying, ‘May she rest in Power,’ which is a testament to her remarkable strength of character. As an admirer of Morrison’s work, I am deeply saddened by the of her death. My favourite module last year was the Toni Morrison seminar module because I discovered a new author to cherish.

I will leave you with this fitting quote from Morrison’s Nobel Prize speech: ‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’ It is comforting to know that her incredible mind and magical way with words will live on forever through her work.

Image from The U.S. Military Academy via Flickr

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