“We die. That may be the meaning of life.
But we do language.
That may be the measure of our lives.” — Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s publisher, Knopf confirmed that the literary giant died on Monday evening, aged 88.
After studying English literature at Howard University and obtaining a Masters from Cornell University, Morrison became an English lecturer, before taking up the role of an editor in the textbook division of publisher Random House. While there she became the first black woman to occupy the senior editor chair of the publishing house’s fiction division.
During her time in this position she made waves for the black literary world by giving a home to the words of authors such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Athol Fugard, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, and Henry Dumas. Then at the age of 39 Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), followed by Sula (1973) and then Song of Solomon (1977).
And while she received national attention for writing Song of Solomon because it was the second book written by an African American to make it onto the Book of the Month Club’s list, Beloved (1987) is arguably the most celebrated. Following the publication of Beloved, she was recognised with the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction writing.
At face value the 1987 novel tells the fictional story of an African American woman who remained captive after escaping slavery. However its careful and sincere detail speaks to the restrained lived experiences that black folk often have to survive long after slavery and colonisation. Her literary canon continues to do so today.
In 1992 Beloved was followed by Jazz and then Paradise in 1997 to form a loose trilogy. Shortly thereafter, when she became the first black woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, the Nobel Prize committee described her as a novelist “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
While her words appealed to and taught many, across identities, she will be dearly missed by black womxn for how her literary contributions relentlessly acknowledged, humanised and canonised the many variations of black femmehood and the overall black experience.
Whether a quotable when one’s own words fail them or a writing “compass”, as academic and queer activist Lethabo Mailula put it, her essence remains with many of us as a living reference.
For this reason, she lives on, immortalised.