Toni Morrison, one of the most influential authors of the last century, passed away on August 5, marking the end of a long and prolific writing life. Although best known for novels such as Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon, Morrison’s catalogue of work encompasses children’s stories, short fiction, plays, and non-fiction books exploring topics surrounding race, gender, power, and more. She held teaching positions in colleges and universities across the country, was the first African American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, was awarded the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American letters, and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Morrison’s life and legacy are an inspiration to many. She was the first African-American woman to work as an editor at Random House. She made a strong impact on the literary world with her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970. Her works focus on the experience and perspectives of African Americans in order to draw attention to this underrepresented community. She provided American literature with insight into the dignity and richness of African American culture using language and a willingness to engage with often overlooked parts of history. When questioned about her decision to exclude the white perspective from her novels, Morrison outlined her literary creed:
I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me… If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say “people,” that’s what I mean.
Though no summary can quite do justice to the depth and complexity of her work, these excerpts will inspire you to explore Morrison’s rich and masterful prose on your own:
“Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.” — The Bluest Eye
“You can’t own a human being. You can’t lose what you don’t own. Suppose you did own him. Could you really love somebody who was absolutely nobody without you? You really want somebody like that? Somebody who falls apart when you walk out the door? You don’t, do you? And neither does he. You’re turning over your whole life to him. Your whole life, girl. And if it means so little to you that you can just give it away, hand it to him, then why should it mean any more to him? He can’t value you more than you value yourself.” — Song of Solomon
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” — Beloved