Toni Morrison: The Writer Who Recalibrated the American Story

from by Angelyn Mitchell, 12/29/2019

Quiet as it’s kept, grief is cumulative. For me, the death of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison in August unearthed those “circles and circles of sorrow” she describes in her second novel, Sula. I immediately thought to share this news with my mother, before I remembered that she, too, was dead. I thought, then, of Morrison’s character Sula, who, as she lay dying, wanted to share that experience with her best friend.

Great writers rightfully earn major prizes and awards, and they are widely taught. We longingly remember when they leave us why they were so important. Quite simply, the landscape of American arts and letters would be unimaginably impoverished without Toni Morrison, who, for almost a half-century, excelled across a stunning spectrum—writer, editor, curator, professor, and cultural and literary critic. Hers was a life of the arts and the mind.

When I think of what Morrison most valued in her art, I think of community, and the communities of readers, now global, she created. All of her works centered on black culture and black life, in ways that were revolutionary when she began and are now essential to the American story.

Morrison enshrined black life not only in her own novels, but also in her work as an editor at Random House. One of her projects, in which she wanted, as she wrote, “to put together a thing that got close to the way we really were,” was The Black Book (1973). This eclectic collection remains the best encyclopedia of black history and culture. While at Random House, she also nurtured a generation of black writers, including Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.

With cultural specificity, she recalibrated American arts, expanding communities in her wake because she knew that community is the greatest organizing principle of humanity. The unspeakably horrifying story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who also inspired Morrison’s Beloved, now soars in beautiful song in Morrison’s libretto about Garner. And who can now read Shakespeare’s Othello without also reading Morrison’s play Desdemona (2012)?

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