“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
August 6, 2019 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Toni Morrison, the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, has died at 88. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, Beloved in 1988. She authored 11 novels and was a professor of literature at Princeton from 1989 until her retirement in 2006. Her vivid descriptions of the black American experience were groundbreaking, and her powerful prose influenced countless readers and writers.

“The presence of evil was something to be first recognized, then dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over.” -Sula

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind--wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.” -Beloved

“And talking about dark! You think dark is just one color, but it ain't. There're five or six kinds of black. Some silky, some woolly. Some just empty. Some like fingers. And it don't stay still, it moves and changes from one kind of black to another. Saying something is pitch black is like saying something is green. What kind of green? Green like my bottles? Green like a grasshopper? Green like a cucumber, lettuce, or green like the sky is just before it breaks loose to storm? Well, night black is the same way. May as well be a rainbow.” -Song of Solomon
posted by mai (103 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Toni Morrison was the first author I read whose work I didn't fully understand, in part because I was too young, and it part because it was so far beyond my experience. But it captivated me and challenged me and I am forever grateful for her work.
posted by mai at 7:10 AM on August 6 [22 favorites]


.
posted by mumimor at 7:12 AM on August 6


Nonononono.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 7:13 AM on August 6 [5 favorites]


I still remember exactly where I was when I was finishing Sula and I read “All this time, I thought I was missing Jude.” I started crying the way I had only cried reading A Tale of Two Cities and Middlemarch and Huck Finn. And Sula is a small thing compared to those big long books but it brought me to that same place in so many fewer words. I can recognize that Beloved was Morrison at the height of her powers, but Sula...if you have ever had a friend, been betrayed by a friend, loved someone, been betrayed by someone you loved—in other words, if you’ve ever lived, especially as a woman, in this world—that book looks you right in the face and says “I know you.”

No living American novelist comes close to touching her talent.

.
posted by sallybrown at 7:17 AM on August 6 [29 favorites]


.
posted by Etrigan at 7:17 AM on August 6


.
posted by schmod at 7:18 AM on August 6


.
posted by Gordafarin at 7:18 AM on August 6


Toni Morrison was the first author I read whose work I didn't fully understand, in part because I was too young, and it part because it was so far beyond my experience.

Me, also.

I am sorry to read this news.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:20 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


.
posted by 41swans at 7:21 AM on August 6


.
posted by solotoro at 7:21 AM on August 6


I also remember watching this moment on Oprah as a kid. “Does your face light up?” I think about it every time I have the urge to withhold fondness from someone I care about.
posted by sallybrown at 7:23 AM on August 6 [15 favorites]


.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 7:24 AM on August 6


.
posted by idb at 7:28 AM on August 6


oh no. oh, no no no. she was supposed to outlive all this. she was supposed to outlive everything.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 7:29 AM on August 6 [13 favorites]


Oh this is a blow. She was so good. I'm crying.
posted by brainwane at 7:29 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


I was just thinking the other day about her and "write the novel you want to read." This is too soon.

.
posted by camyram at 7:33 AM on August 6 [3 favorites]


.

When I heard this news, I knew I'd have to threadsit on Metafilter. I know so little of her work, and so many of you all are more widely read. The links and quotes and memories that happen here will honor her life and impact. Educate me, please.
posted by DigDoug at 7:34 AM on August 6 [4 favorites]


Absolutely terrible news for us on Earth. •
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:41 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


.
posted by fizzix at 7:44 AM on August 6


read all her books. Sula and Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye especially. but read them all.
posted by chavenet at 7:44 AM on August 6 [4 favorites]


.
posted by me3dia at 7:44 AM on August 6


I will be forever grateful to her for the moment in Sula where Sula tells her mother that she doesn’t want to have babies, saying “I don’t want to make someone else. I want to make myself.” It was such a shock to have someone articulate the way I felt and such a relief to know I wasn’t the only one.

.
posted by corey flood at 7:46 AM on August 6 [37 favorites]


When I heard this news, I knew I'd have to threadsit on Metafilter. I know so little of her work, and so many of you all are more widely read. The links and quotes and memories that happen here will honor her life and impact. Educate me, please.
I would recommend Beloved as a starting point. I read it twice--once in high school and once as an undergrad--and it has a relatively accessible narrative but also does some interesting things with form and perspective.

. for a life well lived.
posted by pxe2000 at 7:48 AM on August 6 [4 favorites]


"Circles and circles of sorrow." --Sula

I'm absolutely devastated by this news. Morrison was so deeply important to me as an author and as a role model, particularly when she calmly and regally dismantled racist questions from clueless white people (see her Charlie Rose rebuke, among others). I really thought that she'd live to, like, 106, and that still wouldn't be enough time.
posted by TwoStride at 7:59 AM on August 6 [6 favorites]


I guess it's considered one of her slightest novels, but I can never get over what Morrison does with the English language in "Jazz." It really is the closest thing I've ever read to a writer capturing the rhythm of music with words alone.
posted by HunterFelt at 8:04 AM on August 6 [5 favorites]


.
posted by repoman at 8:13 AM on August 6


I think that in many ways going in order is a great way to access Morrison. Start with The Bluest Eye and Sula before moving onto the others... Both of them are chronologically narrated and largely in one location, which helps a lot.
posted by TwoStride at 8:18 AM on August 6 [3 favorites]


"I didn't fall in love, I rose in it."
(Jazz)
posted by huimangm at 8:18 AM on August 6 [6 favorites]


.
posted by lowest east side at 8:18 AM on August 6


.
posted by parmanparman at 8:22 AM on August 6


I'm sorry she had to leave with the world in such a sorry state.

.
posted by praemunire at 8:34 AM on August 6 [4 favorites]


.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:37 AM on August 6


.
posted by motdiem2 at 8:39 AM on August 6


Nobody really thought that Black people were inferior. Not Benjamin Franklin, not Mr. Byrd, and not
Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way. They only hoped that Black people
would hear coon songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign, or become one. They never thought
Black people were lazy—ever. Not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would
never try to fulfill their ambitions.

And they never, ever thought we were inhuman. You don’t give your children over to the care of people
whom you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the
reason that you work or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switchblades. They were
only and simply and now interested in acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor. Everybody knows
that if the price is high enough, the racist will give you anything you want.

It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious
function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over
again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you
do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is.
Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so
you dredge that up.

None of that is necessary.

There will always be one more thing. The strategy is no different than bombing Cambodia to keep the
Northern Vietnamese from making their big push. And since not history, not anthropology, not social sciences
seem capable in a strong and consistent way to grapple with that problem, it may very well be left to the artists
to do it.
- Toni Morrison, from a speech entitled A Humanist View
posted by gwint at 8:43 AM on August 6 [59 favorites]


.
posted by XMLicious at 8:44 AM on August 6


.
posted by sourcequench at 8:45 AM on August 6


::sigh::

.
posted by droplet at 8:48 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


Man, no. Not Mama Toni.

Rest in power.
posted by Freeze Peach at 8:50 AM on August 6 [3 favorites]


2019 was spiteful
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:50 AM on August 6 [3 favorites]


.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:59 AM on August 6


.
posted by Gelatin at 9:00 AM on August 6


.

I taught a lot of books in high school AP Lit. Song of Solomon was the only one I had to reread every time for twenty years because there is so much in it (and it never got old).
posted by kozad at 9:02 AM on August 6 [5 favorites]


Oh, I am sorry to hear this...

I remember being assigned Jazz for an American Lit course and it was electric. That led me to read her other books, which were equally electric. She was a powerhouse and I’m sorry she died seeing truly bad actors working against the civil rights principles she’d worked hard for all her life.

.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:22 AM on August 6 [4 favorites]


.
posted by jquinby at 9:23 AM on August 6


.
posted by Gray Duck at 9:25 AM on August 6


This is a blow. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on The Bluest Eye and Sula. Each of her books is so rich and rewarding. I recently reread Beloved for my book club and there were things I noticed for the first time despite several previous rereads.

My vote for the best underrated Morrison novel is Paradise. It's not like gender and patriarchy aren't themes of her other novels, but Paradise really explores those topics in-depth. If you're at all interested in serious books about the lives of women, especially WOC, definitely check it out.
posted by zeusianfog at 9:25 AM on August 6 [8 favorites]


.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:28 AM on August 6


.
posted by numaner at 9:36 AM on August 6


.
posted by neutralmojo at 9:39 AM on August 6


Rest in power

.

one of the most formative, beautiful, overwhelmingly intense authors who have ever lived. I’m so glad I found her early and have travelled with her writing most of my adult life.
posted by zinful at 9:39 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


.
posted by nobody at 9:40 AM on August 6


.
posted by rather be jorting at 9:42 AM on August 6


.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 9:42 AM on August 6


.
posted by corvikate at 9:52 AM on August 6


zeusianfog, I agree with you about Paradise. "They shoot the white girl first," is, to me, one of the most stunning opening sentences in American literature.
posted by TwoStride at 9:58 AM on August 6 [4 favorites]


.
posted by twentyfeetof tacos at 10:03 AM on August 6


.
posted by lucy.jakobs at 10:07 AM on August 6


.
posted by wicked_sassy at 10:14 AM on August 6


No truer American beloved, light sharer, sorrow bearer...
posted by Oyéah at 10:14 AM on August 6


My college commencement speaker was Condoleeza Rice; the university administration changed after I graduated, and the next set of graduates got Toni Morrison.
posted by wicked_sassy at 10:16 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


The end of Beloved is the most beautiful romantic scene I've ever read. An ex-slave with scars on his back returning to a mostly broken woman who killed her child to prevent the child from becoming a slave.

They meet again and accept each other and love each other. And the ghost that haunted her disappears. I don't know if I'm describing that in a way that makes sense to people who haven't read the book, but I'm crying as I write it.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:18 AM on August 6 [7 favorites]


.
posted by filtergik at 10:38 AM on August 6


.
posted by Anita Bath at 10:39 AM on August 6


What a sad day.
posted by theora55 at 10:43 AM on August 6


.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 10:45 AM on August 6


Song of Solomon was one of two contemporary novels we read in my undergraduate Great Books class (the other being Kiss of the Spider Woman). I felt the same as mai: I didn’t fully understand it but I was captivated.

.
posted by chainsofreedom at 11:01 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


I'll quote the end of 'Peril' (it also serves the introduction to 'The Source of Self-Regard,' a 2019 collection of speeches, essays, and meditations), but I suggest reading (or watching) the whole thing:

"The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages nourishing underground, essayists' questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films -- that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.

A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity."
posted by box at 11:04 AM on August 6 [10 favorites]


.

One of her discussions with Charlie Rose regarding racism.


"If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is, that white people have a very very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it."
posted by blurker at 11:07 AM on August 6 [23 favorites]


Such a voice. Such a talent. Such a force. As a writer, I always found her choices so stunningly unexpected and revelatory. So perfect. Such precision with language should be impossible. A scalpel with an edge so fine it can cut at the quantum level to reveal the stars. Yet somehow, that was the least of her gifts. Such a storyteller. Such a truthteller. To use her gifts to such ends. Seldom have I been so grateful to be so destroyed, if that makes any sense. Not sure. Words don't seem enough, today. As if language itself were in mourning.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:09 AM on August 6 [9 favorites]


Obama posted the following tribute on Twitter this morning:
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.
(Lovely accompanying photograph, too.)
posted by rather be jorting at 11:24 AM on August 6 [11 favorites]


Guardian: Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also expressed sorrow over Morrison’s passing:
Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders)

"If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else." -Toni Morrison

Today we lost an American legend. May she rest in peace. https://t.co/DInZvd8stY
August 6, 2019
As did Representative Ilhan Omar:
Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN)

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Holding all those touched by Toni Morrison in my heart today. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/2jkAvtaErK
August 6, 2019
.
posted by Little Dawn at 11:36 AM on August 6 [9 favorites]


Oh no! Awfully sad. Rest in Peace & Power, Toni Morrison. (Thank you for posting-- I'm just finding this out because of your post, mai).
posted by jj's.mama at 11:58 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


.
posted by Beardman at 12:04 PM on August 6


.

She changed me as a parent when she wrote, "Unless carefree, mother-love was a killer."
posted by MiraK at 12:07 PM on August 6 [6 favorites]


.
posted by Lynsey at 12:08 PM on August 6


Last year I read Beloved for the second time, in a graduate literature class; the first time I was fourteen, and too young for it, but it was one of the few books I read in that bookish phase of my life that gave me the feeling that it was a much deeper and better and more ambitious book than I was capable of understanding.

Beloved is one of my favorite books ever, but I think was struck me the most from that graduate literature class was a section that we read from her nonfiction book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination in which she argued that race and racism are part of all American literature, from the very beginning - in the same way that you don't get the rapid growth of the United States (economically/geographically/etc) without slavery and genocide, you don't get the life of any of those canonical literary protagonists without people of color in the background, even if they're off the page. I think there are some literary scholars (especially in the early nineties when she was writing that book) who see canonical American/English literature as white, with diversity being a recent or trendy addition, and she reframes that argument in a really brilliant, thoughtful way.
posted by Jeanne at 12:20 PM on August 6 [10 favorites]


When I was in college, I had a creative writing class with Toni Morrison. It was me, her, and five or six other students.

She was a best-selling Pulitzer-prize winner who was frequently mentioned as a Nobel prize candidate. We were a bunch of teens and 20somethings turning out flawed, inexperienced writing. Yet she treated every single one of us like a respected colleague. Needless to say, that had nothing to do with our writing ability, and everything to do with her generosity of spirit.

RIP, Professor Morrison.
posted by yankeefog at 12:24 PM on August 6 [31 favorites]


.
posted by Kattullus at 12:57 PM on August 6


The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, The New York Times Magazine, 2015)
Morrison is a woman of guardrails and many boundaries; she keeps them up in order to do the work. The work “protects,” she told me. “It’s a serious protection: emotionally, even intellectually, from the world.” Journalists from Europe and elsewhere call these days, one after the other, and they try to be coy, but she can tell what they really want to know. “They are just calling to see when I’m going to die.” She laughed and said: “So I’ll play it up a bit and say, ‘Oh, today my arms hurt, my chest is sore.’ Because, me? I’m not going anywhere soon.”
posted by box at 1:15 PM on August 6 [4 favorites]


I have not yet read enough of her work, and it has been many years since I have read any of it. This is a good time to return to her writing.

This comment by It's Raining Florence Henderson is a wonderful epitaph. Thank you for it, it uplifts us in our loss.
posted by biogeo at 1:33 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


.
posted by nightrecordings at 1:40 PM on August 6


.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:44 PM on August 6


.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:12 PM on August 6


Toni Morrison was the Greatest American Writer, an appreciation by Damon Young.
posted by donnagirl at 2:19 PM on August 6 [3 favorites]


.
posted by mkim at 3:28 PM on August 6


i am so sad. thank you toni morrison and rest in power

.
posted by one teak forest at 3:56 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


.
posted by little mouth at 4:11 PM on August 6


.
posted by no mind at 4:34 PM on August 6


.
posted by miles per flower at 4:49 PM on August 6


Fran Lebowitz on Toni-ness
posted by lowest east side at 5:26 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


.
posted by Mutant Lobsters from Riverhead at 7:24 PM on August 6


I was just last week reading an essay or excerpt of hers and feeling grateful that she was still alive to make the whole world a slightly better place just by her continued presence. Maybe her death will remind us of her wisdom and act as a catalyst for change. Neither of those is a reasonable request of someone who has already given so much to the world.

.
posted by lab.beetle at 7:32 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


I first "Sula" in freshman American Lit and it changed the worldview of this sheltered New England white boy.

.
posted by martin q blank at 8:24 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:45 PM on August 6


.
posted by riverlife at 12:46 AM on August 7


.
posted by gudrun at 4:26 AM on August 7


.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 4:33 AM on August 7


.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:06 AM on August 7


.
posted by evilDoug at 7:42 AM on August 7


.
posted by whirligig at 8:57 AM on August 7


Paradise, yes. But all of them. And Playing in the Dark.

I feel like I've wasted so much time, reading not-Toni Morrison.

.
posted by allthinky at 10:15 AM on August 7 [3 favorites]


.
posted by cass at 2:02 PM on August 8


.
posted by socialjusticeworrier at 10:35 PM on August 9


« Older A weekly conversation with a non-fiction writer on...   |   The Case for Rent Control Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments