Describing Toni Morrison as a novelist, a writer or even a literary giant doesn’t do her, or her legacy, justice, even though she was all of those things. Morrison, who died Monday, wrote such great works as “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and “The Bluest Eye,” using her poetic, often musical, prose and soaring language to become an extraordinary voice that resonated with generations of readers.
Through her powerful storytelling, she shed light on some of the darkest moments of our country’s history, and through her words, she tried to help heal some of society’s deepest wounds, wounds that still need care. She forced Americans to pay attention to slavery, discrimination and other evils, and she claimed her space atop a literary canon that didn’t look like her. She spoke to us as mothers and fathers, as adults and as children, so her words held meaning for everyone. Readers, perhaps more eager for truth-telling and more willing to listen in the 1970s and 1980s than they are now, learned from Morrison, both from the words on the page, and those she spoke in her warm, memorable, melodic voice.
Morrison, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, also was a groundbreaking New York book editor who nurtured black writers. And she wasn’t afraid to tell stories of tragedy, to create characters who were flawed, frightened and damaged, yet at times, as in “Song of Solomon,” able to fly. Much of her writing focused on black history and race, but often also spoke to the broader American cultural experience — both what unifies and what tears at us. In “The Bluest Eye,” her central character is a black child who sees herself as ugly and dreams of having blue eyes, her symbol of beauty. Even now, nearly 50 years after it was written, the essence of that story resonates.
In her 1993 Nobel speech, Morrison said language was “the measure of our lives.” In her death, Morrison’s words and stories live on — and can continue to teach us.