Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, Toni Morrison is one of the most iconic literary figures of the twentieth century. She was born in Ohio, to which her parents, Ramah Willis Wofford and George Wofford, moved in order to escape the racist climate of the US South. I'll be referring to her by the name by which she is known professionally, Toni Morrison, throughout this piece, but I want to point out that Toni is the nickname, and Chloe Wofford preferred. She writes a lot about being denied one's true self, and, as naming is a powerful determinant here, I don't care to be one to let this writer's true self go unacknowledged. Morrison, then, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993–the eighth woman to be awarded this honour–and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Morrison's services to literature have not just been through her own fiction, however; she's edited writers such as Angela Davis, promoting black literature every which way she can.
Morrison's novels are The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1999), Love (2003), and A Mercy (2008). She's also written two children's books with her son, Slade, The Big Box (1999) and The Book of Mean People (2002), and a play, and non-fiction, and more. It has been forty years of amazing writing, written at a remarkably consistent pace for someone simultaneously busy raising children, editing, and teaching. I'd describe the plots to you, but that would not be telling you what the books are about. The plots are only an element of these novels that are as much about the inner lives of black women who've been thought of as incapable of producing them. They're about slavery, and living through its legacy. They're about Morrison's style, which is intense and variable and to the point that it will leave you reeling. Her writing demands all the emotion you've got in you.
The Bluest Eye is something else. In a 1994 interview with the New York Times, Morrison said:
When I began, there was just one thing that I wanted to write about, which was the true devastation of racism on the most vulnerable, the most helpless unit in the society—a black female and a child. I wanted to write about what it was like to be the subject of racism. It had a specificity that was damaging. And if there was no support system in the community and in the family, it could cause spiritual death, self-loathing, terrible things.
The Bluest Eye is about Pecola Breedlove, a young girl in Ohio in the most difficult of circumstances. You have to read around the edges of everyone else's stories, hates, and preoccupations, however, to focus on her, because the townspeople sure don't care about Pecola. The novel examines beauty standards as glorifying whiteness; the title refers to Pecola's longing for blue eyes so that she can be beautiful and loved. It's a hard book to read, particularly when Pecola's father rapes her, and the townspeople shun her when she becomes pregnant as a result. None of Morrison's work is easy reading. I can't imagine how taxing it must be for her to write.
Beloved was the one to win Morrison the Pulitzer, following the appearance of an open letter, with forty-eight black writers as signatories, in the New York Times Book Review. It's based on the story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who, when she was discovered, killed her child rather than have her endure slavery. In Beloved, the mother, Sethe, and her surviving daughter, Denver, are haunted by the baby ghost. When the ghost is pushed out of the house, she comes back in flesh form. It's a devastating book full of supernatural elements that are absolutely part of reality, as real as the struggle to survive and Sethe's to not be forgiven. Beloved herself is hardly the only haunting thing about the novel. Morrison renders those moments of experience most of us struggle to and can't articulate. "Listless and sleepy with hunger Denver saw the flesh between her mother's forefinger and thumb fade"–how perfect and awful is that?
Morrison's Nobel citation describes her as writing novels "characterized by visionary force and poetic import, [giving] life to an essential aspect of American reality." That's exactly right. She brings out the poetry in that which is thought of as quite unpoetic: the awfulness of seeing a racist, misogynistic reality for what it is. Toni Morrison writes people how they really are. Her dialogue is pitch perfect, her characters sympathetic alongside the horrors in them born of being human in this world. She is a true writer.