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TONI MORRISON (1931-2019)

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Critically acclaimed writings by the premier African-American novelist and essayist changed the “black experience” narrative.

Critically acclaimed writings by the premier African-American novelist and essayist changed the “black experience” narrative.

 Steeped in folklore

Born on February 18 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison, the African-American writer, editor and teacher whose death was announced last week, was celebrated for her explorations of the black experience of life in America, primarily through fiction.

Morrison died on August 5 at the Montefiore Medical Centre in the Bronx, New York City. She was 88. The cause of death was said to be complications from pneumonia.

Originally named Chloe Ardelia Wofford, Morrison took the baptismal name “Anthony”, after Anthony of Padua, on becoming a Catholic at the age of 12. This was soon abbreviated to Toni.

She grew up in the Midwest in a family with an intense love of and appreciation for black culture. Storytelling, songs and folk tales were a deeply formative part of her childhood. This made the art of storytelling come naturally to her and enriched much of her work.

Writing for pleasure

Morrison studied English with a minor in classics at Howard University, graduating in 1953, and then took a Master of Fine Arts in 1955 at Cornell.

After teaching at Texas Southern University for two years, she returned to Howard University and taught there from 1957 to 1964.

In 1965 she became an editor for Random House, the largest general-interest paperback publisher in the world, working first for a textbook division of the company, but quickly moving across to fiction. Among the figures whose books she edited were the Black Panther activist Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara and the boxer Muhammad Ali. It was during these years that she began to write, at first privately, for her own pleasure and to keep herself company.

She later began teaching writing at State University of New York in Albany, leaving to join the faculty at Princeton in 1989. She retired from academic work in 2006.

Morrison won various awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, the Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service in 1989 and the 2007 Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for Children (Whos Got Game?).

Beauty standards

The Bluest Eye (1970) was Morrison’s first novel. It is not only a story, but an inspiring prose-poem that confronts the notion of beauty itself and the consequences of beauty standards for individuals who do not meet them.

The title derives from the protagonist’s desire to have blue eyes. “Whiteness” is the beauty standard that Pecola Breedlove cannot fit in with, and from this stems her obsession with having blue eyes.

The book highlights throughout that there is nothing about Pecola that is ugly. She just does not fit social standards.

We also learn about Cholly, Pecola’s father, abandoned by his mother near railway tracks when he was four days old. He gets taken in by his great-aunt Jimmy, who raises him until her death.

The day of Jimmy’s funeral, he has a horrible sexual experience that leaves him broken. He spends the next few years moving from city to city and woman to woman. He meets and weds Pauline in Kentucky and the couple move to Lorain, Ohio.

Cholly comes home drunk one day to find Pecola washing dishes. Cholly rapes her in the kitchen. When it is over, he covers her with a quilt. Pauline finds Pecola unconscious on the floor and when Pecola tells her that her father raped her, she does not believe it and hits her. Cholly rapes Pecola again at some point after this.

Pecola becomes pregnant with her father’s child. She visits a fake psychic and healer and asks him to give her blue eyes. He tells her to give his dog some meat, and if the dog acts strangely she will get her wish. Pecola does not realise that he hates the dog and has given her poison to feed to it. When the dog begins to act funny and limp around, Pecola believes her wish is finally coming to pass.

Pecola loses her child and begins to lose her mind, too. In the end, she is seen looking into a mirror, talking to herself about her blue eyes and picking through rubbish.

Milkman’s leap

Narrated by a man in search of his identity, Morrison’s critically acclaimed 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, brought her work to national attention.

The novel, Morrison’s third, is the intriguing and difficult story of the Dead family, though the story centres on the life of Macon Dead III, generally known as “Milkman”.

Macon Dead III is given the nickname Milkman because he breastfed far longer than was necessary. The effects of a prosperous and privileged upbringing leave him naive and egotistical, with no spiritual identity.

The first section of the two-part novel follows the story of the Dead family, centring on Milkman and his relationships with his parents, sisters, his aunt Pilate’s family and his friend Guitar.

Things change dramatically in the second section when Macon Dead II, Milkman’s father, unexpectedly learns about what Pilate considers her inheritance, hanging in a green sack from the ceiling. Macon woos Milkman into robbing Pilate’s home by offering him half of what is in the sack.

Both men believe that Pilate’s green bag is filled with gold nuggets which she stole from a cave in her adolescence. Milkman convinces Guitar to be his partner in crime.

To their dismay, the sack contains nothing but human bones.

Embarking on a trip to Pennsylvania to find the gold, Milkman is bitterly disappointed when he discovers an empty cave. He does, however, come across some of Macon’s old acquaintances. He learns a great deal from his stay, and travels to Shalimar in Virginia to learn more the family history.

His time in Virginia prompts a spiritual awakening, and Milkman returns north a newly compassionate and selfless human being. He informs Pilate that the bones she has been carrying in her sack are those of Jake, her father. They leave for Shalimar to bury the remains at a spot known as “Solomon’s Leap”.

A bullet intended for Milkman accidentally kills Pilate. Before she dies, Milkman sings to her and leaps towards Guitar, knowing that if “you surrendered to the air, you could ride it”.

Song of Solomon secured the first important recognition for Morrison’s work, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Living in America

Each of Morrison’s works seeks to explore the experience of black people in America, both in history and the present.

When she began writing, the lives of black fictional characters were not usually represented. In rich prose treating themes from colourism and racism to classism and society’s beauty standards, she describes her characters’ struggle to find themselves and their cultural identity.

Black people’s lives are always a leitmotif of Morrison’s writing, if not the main theme. Her use of fantasy, her graceful poetic style, and her rich interweaving of the mythic gives her stories great strength and texture.

Through its story of Pecola, The Bluest Eye reflects how many people, even today, go “under the knife” to fit in with socially set beauty standards.

Beloved (1987) is one of Morrison’s most celebrated novels. It was inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who, at the point of recapture, killed her infant daughter in order to spare her enduring a life of slavery. A film adaptation was released in 1998, starring Oprah Winfrey. Morrison also wrote the libretto for Margaret Garner in 2005, an opera based on the story that inspired Beloved.

Subsequent novels included Paradise (1997), a richly detailed portrait of a “perfect” black community in Oklahoma, and Love (2003), an intricate family story which shows the many sides of love and its opposite. A Mercy (2008) takes on slavery in 17th-century America.

The ramifications of child abuse and neglect through the tale of Bride, a black girl with dark skin who is born to light-skinned parents, are probed in God Help the Child, published in 2015.

Toni Morrison will always be remembered as the author who put black on the map ‒ maybe not in ways others wanted it to be, but that spurred her readers to evaluate self and society.

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