Toni Morrison, the world-renowned writer, editor, and Nobel Prize winner died on Monday at the age of 88, as confirmed by her publisher Knopf. She leaves behind a son, Harold Ford Morrison.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, the writer was the second of four children to a homemaker and shipyard welder. Growing up during the tails of the Great Depression — in a segregated midwest — Morrison’s childhood informed her outlook on the world that would eventually influence her writing.
“Every book I read about young Black girls — they were props… jokes,” said Morrison in her 2019 documentary, The Pieces I Am. “No one took them seriously, ever.”
She attended Howard University for her undergraduate degree in English, where she became active with Howard University Players, the school’s theatrical group, which was taught by famous Harlem Renaissance figure and iconic author Alain Locke. After, she got her master’s degree from Cornell University and began teaching. She met her husband Harold Morrison, an architect when she went back to Howard to teach.
Morrison’s foray into literature was a unique path, as she worked as an editor for Random House, where she became their first Black woman senior editor. The role at Random House allowed Morrison to eventually gain support for her own work and writing, as well as the opportunity to uplift and promote the stories of multiple, significant Black cultural figures at the time, like Angela Davis and Gayl Jones.
Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, about a young black girl named Pecola who desires to have white features, was published in 1970 when Morrison was 39 years old. “What was driving me to write was the silence — so many stories untold and unexamined,” she told The New Yorker in 2003.
Morrison would go on to gain critical acclaim for her works that highlighted the Black American experience through an authentic gaze, like Sula (1973), Song of Solomon(1977), and Tar Baby (1981). She was often questioned why she didn’t write for white readers or make her storytelling palatable to them, to which she would ask why the same question wasn’t asked of white writers.
“I didn’t want to speak for Black people — I wanted to speak to and among them,” Morrison once responded to a New York Times critique of Sula. “So the first thing I had to do was eliminate the white gaze. [Critics responded] as if [Black] lives have no depth or meaning without white [existence].”
The last three decades of Morrison’s career were marked by major career triumphs — the release of Beloved (1987), friendship with Oprah Winfrey and film adaptation of Beloved, and Presidential Medal of Freedom honor from President Barack Obama — but also losses, like the death of her mother in 1994 and her son, Slade, in 2010.
But Morrison’s unrelenting spirit allowed her to continue writing in recent years, publishing Home in 2012 and God Help the Child in 2015. Morrison also wrote several children’s books.
Aside from being a prolific writer, Morrison will go down in history as one of the most intentional, revolutionary thought leaders of the 20th century who created a blueprint for all writers forevermore.