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“It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
That’s the last line of novelist Toni Morrison’s 1973 book “Sula.” Morrison died on Monday night at the age of 88. During her long and distinguished career in literature, she published 11 novels.
Long past the age when some might have retired, Morrison kept writing books, essays — even the libretto for an opera. She published a piece in The New Yorker in the immediate wake of President Donald Trump’s election. Here’s some of it.
This is a serious project. All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of “Americanness” is color.
On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
In a 2003 profile, Hilton Als described Morrison’s prose as “conducted in high style.”
Margalit Fox’s obituary in The New York Times expands on that point.
Ms. Morrison animated that reality in a style resembling that of no other writer in English. Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.
Her narratives mingle the voices of men, women, children and even ghosts in layered polyphony. Myth, magic and superstition are inextricably intertwined with everyday verities, a technique that caused Ms. Morrison’s novels to be likened often to those of Latin American magic realist writers like Gabriel García Márquez.
Morrison attended Howard University, later taught there, and also taught at Princeton and Texas Southern University. When she found the time, between parenting two boys as a single mother and working as a book editor, she wrote her first novel, “The Bluest Eye.”
Former president Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while. pic.twitter.com/JG7Jgu4p9t
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 6, 2019
She was the first black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She also won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and more throughout her career.
We reflect on her life, her work and her vision, and hear from you about what her words and her work meant to you.
Produced by Bianca Martin.
- Dana Williams Professor of African American literature; chair of the English department at Howard University; president, Toni Morrison Society @DWill5
- Paula Giddings Professor, emerita, Africana Studies, Smith College; author, "When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America" and "IDA: A Sword Among Lions, Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching"
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