The Legacy Toni Morrison Left Behind
On Tuesday, August 5th, 2019 renowned novelist and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison died at the age of 88. The black community has definitely lost a monumental figure within the literary world. However, her bodies of works, depicting the real black experience in America, have created a legacy and reputation that will precede her.
News of her death has affected many of us within the black community who grew up reading her books. Her death prompted an online conversation of remembrance and celebration for the life of Toni Harrison. From your everyday users to famous personalities, like Shonda Rhimes and Barack Obama, people took to social media to pay their respects.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, she grew up in Lorain, Ohio in a working-class African-American household. Her pen name “Toni” was derived from her baptismal name “Anthony”, which she received at the age of 12 after converting to Catholicism. From a young age, her parents instilled a love of language and a sense of heritage through the telling of traditional African-American folktales, stories, and songs. This love and sense of heritage would help majorly influence her writing as she grew older. She was a graduate of the esteemed HBCU, Howard University, in 1953 with a B.A. in English. She continued her educational journey after undergrad, going back and completing her Master’s of Arts from Cornell University in 1955.
Upon receiving her Master’s, she taught English for almost a decade, spending two years at Texas Southern University and then seven at Howard University. During this time she met her husband, Harold Morrison. The pair married in 1958 and had two sons before divorcing shortly after in 1964.
Morrison In The Literary World
Her introduction into the literary world came after she took a position as a publishing editor at Random House in 1965. By 1967, she became the first African American woman to become senior editor in fiction at Random House. She used her influence as an editor to help bring black literature into the mainstream, offering black creators, activists, and personalities, like Muhammed Ali, Angela Davis, and Huey Newton, the opportunity to be celebrated and recognized. Her influence in the publishing world was also beneficial in bringing African authors like Wole Soyinka to the U.S. audience.
After helping others within the black community share their stories, shortly after Morrison began writing herself. It wasn’t until 1970, when Morrison was 39, that her first novel, The Bluest Eyes, would be published. The story is about a young black girl named Pecola, who is “bullied and demeaned by the people around her for her mannerisms and dark skin”.
Although the book has been flagged for being lewd and sexually explicit (due to themes of incest and rape), the book contains a real, unfiltered experience of a young black girl that is relatable on a base level. At its core, this story revealed to us the harsh realities of the world, specifically of how society’s false ideas can diminish, demean, and ostracize people who are outside what’s considered favorable. In Pecola’s case, her dark skin and mannerisms made her an easy target and as a result, she was put down by the people around her in order to build their self-esteem. This experience is something young black girls have either gone through or have seen happen to someone they knew. It can be a traumatizing experience, which Morrison realistically captured in The Brightest Blue.
Her exploration into the darker side of human behavior, raw honesty, and word mastery seen in The Brightest Blue became definers of Morrison’s work and would continue to be prevalent in the works following her debut novel. Her works became known for conveying the bitter truths of the black experience in America, with emphasis on black womanhood. She was not afraid to touch on the topics that most authors would deem unthinkable, unspeakable, and unwritable and provided answers to why those cruel things happen. Sula, Beloved, and Song of Solomon (the novel who brought her critical acclaim) are all examples of Morrison’s emotive, painfully honest style of writing.
Outside of being an accomplished professor and novelist, she also has written plays, operas, and numerous successful children’s books.
Toni Morrison has left behind an incredible legacy. As a publishing editor, she helped pave a way to get black voices heard during a time where their access was limited. As an author, she wrote about the gritty black experience of African Americans in a way that was painfully truthful. Her stories force us to confront the darker sides of American history, which is necessary for growth as a society. As a black woman starting out in the literary field in the mid-1960s, she was a trailblazer. The success from her writings gave young black women (including myself) the inspiration to dream big and the belief that we could achieve it. Hopefully, her works will continue to inspire more generations to come.