Toni Morrison, who died Tuesday, changed the voices of American literature. For those who would listen, she changed how the world is.
Born in integrated Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, she was unaware as a child that race was a dividing characteristic. There were no other black children in her first grade. She said she felt different only because she already knew how to read.
By the time she became an editor for Random House, she had learned other things. She used her talents to sharpen the voices of black activists like Angela Davis and Mohammed Ali.
As a novelist, Morrison had become noteworthy for stories about black life in the 1960s and ’70s when black characters were little more than background in descriptions of reality. One respected critic actually criticized her writing because she had no white characters, according to National Public Radio arts writer Lynn Neary.
Then, at age 54, she released “Beloved,” a seminal novel based on the true story of a mother who kills her child rather than have it endure the brutal, dehumanizing reality of slavery.
“Beloved” shocked and disturbed white readers, who were used to textbook versions of European and American history. Black readers were uneasy about this first-ever recounting of the experience of being a slave in America. Morrison did not turn away.
Asked where she had learned the soul-crushing details of life as a less-than-human object, of the complete powerlessness of slavery, Morrison told Neary that slave narratives in letters and books are full of such detail—if people cared to look. One place they weren’t available, she said, was Williamsburg’s historic living-museum of early American history.
“Beloved” haunts in the ways Morrison intended. Elena Nicolaou wrote that Morrison “sought to demolish what she called the ‘lobby,’ or the comfortable, inviting threshold between a white reader and Black text.”
“Racists always try to make you think they are the majority, but they never are. It’s always the minority against all of the poor, all of the women or all of the blacks,” Morrison believed.
“Beloved” earned Morrison the first Nobel Prize ever awarded to an African-American woman. Her life and writings can help America finally earn its place as the world’s most multicultural and multiracial nation.