Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted In Black Lives, Dies At 88 Morrison was the author of Beloved, Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
NPR logo

Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted In Black Lives, Dies At 88

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/542391535/748639801" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted In Black Lives, Dies At 88

Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted In Black Lives, Dies At 88

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/542391535/748639801" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Toni Morrison, one of the giants of literature, has died. She was 88 years old. Morrison's work focused on African American life and culture. It dominated an industry where the vision of black life frequently was limited and sometimes descended into stereotype. Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Toni Morrison stood before the Swedish Academy when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Tall with a leonine mane of natural hair streaked with silver and steel, Morrison spoke in her signature measured cadence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONI MORRISON: I hope you will understand when the remarks I make begin with what I believe to be the first sentence of our childhood that we all remember, the phrase, once upon a time.

BATES: Her masterwork, "Beloved," was a once upon a time based in bloody truth. Its inspiration was Margaret Garner, a real-life escaped slave who killed her children rather than have them captured and returned to slavery. "Beloved" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELOVED")

BATES: A decade later, Oprah Winfrey made a movie based on the book and played Sethe, the mother, in this scene. Sethe is asked if she really thought slavery was worse than death.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELOVED")

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Sethe) It ain't my job to know what's worse, Paul D. It's my job to know what is, and to keep my children away from it. 'Cause I'd rather know they had peace in heaven than live in a hell here on earth, so help me Jesus.

BATES: Morrison was 56 when "Beloved" was published, but she'd been living with stories since childhood. Born Chloe Wofford, she grew up with tales being told all around her in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio. Her grandparents, like millions of blacks, left the segregated South for the North, part of the epic Great Migration. Young Chloe listened when the adults told stories about their southern homes. In a 2010 interview, she said their language stayed with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MORRISON: In my own family, there was street language. There was sermonic language. You know, people actually quoted the Bible to you.

BATES: Chloe Wofford went to college at Howard University, where she became Toni, using the nickname of her baptismal saint, Anthony. She earned her master's at Cornell and married architect Harold Morrison, with whom she had two sons. They divorced after seven years. She started her early publishing career as an editor, first in textbooks then for general circulation books. At the 92nd Street Y in New York, she told an audience she wasn't happy with how most black books were being edited back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORRISON: I thought the editing was sloppy. I thought the productions (laughter) were mishandled. Even the great books, like "Roots" and things, you know? When you read them carefully, you see that nobody was paying any attention.

BATES: So she consciously sought out good black authors, pulling them into what was and mostly still is the alabaster publishing industry. She edited Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali and the novelist Gayl Jones during the social upheaval of the late '60s and early '70s. Morrison saw this as her contribution to the civil rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORRISON: I made it my business to collect African Americans who were vocal, either politically or just writing wonderful fiction.

BATES: Even as she edited, Morrison secretly wrote for herself, getting up before her children were awake. Her first book, "The Bluest Eye," was published in 1970. It's a tale about a dark-skinned little girl who believes blue eyes will make her beautiful and cherished. Piper Huguley, a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, remembers how she felt when she read "The Bluest Eye" as a college student.

PIPER HUGULEY: At that young point in my life first came across the whole aspect of colorism and its connection to self-loathing and how deeply embedded that could go.

BATES: Morrison elaborated on this in one of her later books. She read from the book for Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MORRISON: (Reading) I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me. Her birth skin was pale, like all babies, even African ones. But it changed fast. I thought I was going crazy when she turned blue-black right before my eyes.

BATES: Piper Huguley says that kind of frankness about race has made Morrison's work essential reading.

HUGULEY: She exists in a class we call Seminal Writers that every English major must take, and that means that she belongs, for us here at Spelman and no doubt elsewhere, as part of the African American literary canon. That is, an author who must be read.

BATES: Morrison's stories weave between the familiar and the fantastical. In "Song Of Solomon," a key element was an ancient folk tale about black people flying away from enslavement and back home to Africa. The theme of mother-daughter love runs through several books, like "Beloved" and "A Mercy," where women make terrible sacrifices for their children. These are books that focus, without apology or explanation, on black lives and black culture. Some wondered why Morrison didn't make white characters more central to her stories. In 1998, she told talk show host Charlie Rose she had no interest in that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHARLIE ROSE")

MORRISON: And I've spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.

RICHARD YARBOROUGH: That statement, I think, suggests her grounding in the sort of black cultural liberationist art of the 1960s where, really, for the first time, that younger generation of black writers expressed their mission in exactly that way.

BATES: Richard Yarborough teaches African American literature at UCLA and says generations of black women writers, no matter their genre, have been touched by Morrison.

YARBOROUGH: Morrison is such a monumental figure that there's no way you could write about black women's experiences without taking her into account, even if you decided you were going to strike out in your own way.

BATES: She has shown by example the validity of black women's lives. And through her many once upon a times, Toni Morrison's expansive vision of black humanity now resonates around the globe.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR MUSIC)

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) How woo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hallelujah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hallelujah.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.