Literary icon and American legend Toni Morrison died last night. Toni’s publisher Knopf said that after a short illness, Toni died peacefully while surrounded by her loved ones. She was 88.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Layton, Ohio. And Toni, which was her nickname, learned early, early on that one way to conquer disgusting evilness is to laugh in the face of it. She learned this at 2 years old when her parents fell behind on payments for their $4-a-month house and their landlord torched the place while they were in it (this happens in Toni’s first novel The Bluest Eye).
“It was this hysterical, out-of-the-ordinary, bizarre form of evil,” she says. “If you internalized it you’d be truly and thoroughly depressed because that’s how much your life meant. For $4 a month somebody would just burn you to a crisp.
“So what you did instead was laugh at him, at the absurdity, at the monumental crudeness of it. That way you gave back yourself to yourself. You know what I mean? You distanced yourself from the implications of the act.
“That’s what laughter does. You take it back. You take your life back. You take your integrity back.”
Toni got her B.A. in English from Howard University and her Masters from Cornell University. She got a job at Random House, and later became the first black woman senior editor in the fiction department, where she brought many black authors, including Angela Davis and Gayl Jones, to the mainstream. Toni worked for Random House for 19 years.
Toni’s first novel and first masterpiece The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 when she was 39. She wrote it while working at Random House and raising two children on her own. Toni continued to fill bookshelves with her poetic prose with Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981). Beloved, the novel that brought Toni the most attention, was published in 1987 and was a huge hit spending 25 weeks on The New York Times best-sellers list. It won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Beloved was the first Toni Morrison novel I read after my sister praised it up to the heavens and beyond and said it changed her brain. So I tackled it for the first time in the 7th grade, and understood every single part of it and totally didn’t have to say to my sister, “Can you explain the whole book to me because I suffer from this thing called dumbness.” Toni completed her Beloved Trilogy with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997).
A year after the release of Jazz, Toni was given the Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first black woman to win it.
For those of you who didn’t read printed words unless it was in a magazine called Us Weekly in the doctor’s office, you may remember Toni as a regular on Oprah’s show. Four of Toni’s novels were chosen for Oprah’s book club, and Toni herself was on the show several times where she spilled an ocean of wisdom into the ears of stay-at-home parents, the unemployed, and us kids who pretended to be sick so we didn’t have to go to school. Wisdom like this:
I don’t know if Toni had a vacation house, but if she did, I’m sure she paid it in cash from the books she sold from being in Oprah’s book club, because that book club was no joke.
Oprah also turned Beloved into a movie, which starred The Mighty O, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, and Kimberly Elise.
Throughout her career, Toni wrote 11 novels, several non-fiction books, 2 plays, and 5 children’s books. And she won a gigantic pile of awards. She was also the Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University from 1989 to 2006. Princeton dedicated a building in her honor in 2017.
The Pieces I Am, a documentary about Toni’s life, was released in June.
Rest in peace, Toni Morrison.