The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, university teacher and iconic author, Toni Morrison, has passed on. Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, United States, the literary giant died after a brief illness on August 5, 2019, at Montefiore Medical Centre Moses Division, New York, at the age of 88.
Without doubt, her death is a great loss to the literary community, America and the entire world. The deceased was an American novelist, essayist, editor, teacher and professor emeritus at Princeton University. Morrison was best known for her critically acclaimed and best-selling 1987 novel, Beloved, which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award of the same year.
Her other classics include Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). Beloved was adapted into a film of the same title starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Morrison was the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City in the late 60s. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. The Swedish Academy gave her the award for being an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Morrison dwelt on the power of storytelling. Thus, she became the eight and the first African-American to win the prize. She also won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. The National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the US federal government’s highest honour for achievement in the humanities in 1996.
She was also honoured with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Through her literary works, Morrison eloquently captured the black experience in such a way that no other writer has done. Her works, Beloved, Song of Solomon and A Mercy, had illuminated the joys and agonies of black American life. Her novels are laced with epic themes, exquisite language and memorable African-American characters. Nevertheless, her works had universal appeal.
Morrison was highly influenced by other great writers. As a precocious reader, Morrison literally devoured the works of Jane Austen, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Doris Lessing, Henry Dumas and many others. Morrison studied Humanities at Howard University where she got her B.A. in English in 1953. At Howard, she studied under Alain Locke, the acknowledged ‘Dean’ of the Harlem Renaissance.
Later, she went to Cornel University, where she got a master’s degree in English in 1955. Morrison wrote her thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. She taught at Texas Southern University and later at Howard where she taught Stokely Carmichael, who later became a civil rights activist. Morrison married Harold Morrison in 1958 and they had two children, Ford and Slade, before they divorced in 1964.
In her career that traversed over six decades, the deceased wrote 11 novels, five children’s books, two plays, a song cycle and an opera. As an editor and professor, Morrison mentored generations of young writers of colour, including Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davies, Huey Newton and Gayl Jones. One of her groundbreaking books, Contemporary African Literature (1972) included works by Nigerian writers, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and South African playwright, Athol Fugard.
The literary genius will be remembered for documenting the unspoken truths of black life in America. We agree with former American President, Barack Obama, that “Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination.” Her works are relevant to American people as well as other people of colour the world over.
The world will remember her engaging and elegant prose. We join millions of her fans and members of the literary community to mourn and celebrate the passage of this great woman of letters. May God grant her creative soul eternal repose.