On Monday, August 5, the world lost a true literary mastermind in Toni Morrison. She was 88. Morrison was the author of 11 novels and rose to prominence in 1977, when her Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her literary star reached the stratosphere in 1987, though, when she won the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award for Beloved. (She also published several children’s books and nonfiction works, and was a longtime scholar of literature.)
Six years after Beloved hit bookshelves, Morrison received the highest honor an author can receive, as she won a Nobel Prize in Literature, even more special, because she was the first African American to win the prestigious award. When awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy hailed her as an author, “…who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, grew up with a love of reading. After graduating high school with honors in 1949, she pursued an undergraduate degree in English with a minor in Classics from Howard University, followed by a master’s degree from Cornell University. She then taught at Texas Southern University before returning to Howard, where she became an English professor. After a short-lived marriage to Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, she moved with her two sons, Ford and Slade, to Syracuse, NY, where she worked as the first-ever female African-American editor at Random House from 1967-83. According to the company, “[Morrison’s] work as an editor and publisher demonstrated a unique commitment to writers of color and helped in opening industry doors to them.” It was during this time as a single, working mother that she wrote and published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970.
In the years following, Morrison’s work became a literary canon giving voice to the African-American experience from the beginnings of our country to the present century. Her academic achievements as a scholar and educator of literature and creative writing took her to notable institutions such as Yale University, Princeton University and the University at Albany from 1984-88, during which time she was writing her Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. In 1996, Morrison was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for her works, and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2012.
“Morrison’s gift to us was both aesthetic and moral,” says Mason Stokes, professor of African-American literature at Skidmore College. “Through the beauty of her language, her ability to put words on a page in just the right order, she offered difficult wisdom, necessary truth. She once told an interviewer, ‘If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.’ I hope that we’ll continue to look to Morrison as a guide. As someone showing us the way—beautifully.”