Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 Top Ten List #9 Toni Morrison: The People I Am

Morrison with students at Princeton, 1993

Morrison receives the Nobel prize for literature from King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1993

President Bill Clinton embraces Morrison after awarding her a National Humanities medal in 2000

Morrison at a party for Maya Angelou

Morrison receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012

TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM                 A-                   
USA  (120 mi)  2019 d:  Timothy Greenfield-Sanders              Official site

I don’t want to hear about your little life.
―Toni Morrison’s advice for incoming students in her creative writing class at Princeton University

Despite the conventional style, looking very much like your standard documentary, this is an inspiring and emotionally powerful work, dramatic in tone and intellectually inquisitive, though it’s made as part of the PBS American Masters series for television, much like Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (2017), which was also excellent, so occasionally gems appear in the banal vacuum of television documentaries, expected to reach viewing audiences in the fall, though nothing compares to the original and rarely seen 3-part Charlie Chaplin series THE UNKNOWN CHAPLIN (1983) that inaugurated the program.  Being familiar with her work may make this film more emotionally invested for viewers, yet her jaw-dropping intelligence is off the charts.  Not as incendiary as Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin documentary, 2017 Top Ten List #3 I Am Not Your Negro, which featured a blistering commentary on American history from an unpublished book Baldwin never completed, what’s unique here is getting to spend two hours with someone as hugely influential as Toni Morrison, who demonstrates an extraordinary elegance before the camera, as her command of the English language is simply magnificent.  As America’s most venerated living writer, she’s like a brilliant Supreme Court judge, among the most gifted academically and culturally enriched human beings on the planet, not only knowledgeable but wise, with a gift for appreciating the sacrifices made for human progress.  Likely the smartest person in any room, she also has a gift for staying humble, out of the limelight, living a relatively private life, despite her rock star reputation in the literary world.  An avid reader at an early age, where her entire life has revolved around books, this film allows us to see a human side of her, one with genuine warmth and grace, a living icon who is also the epitome of authenticity, who can’t help but laugh at some of the things coming out of her mouth, having lived through it all, still able to smile about it…now.  Raised in a working-class environment emblematic of the traditional values that come with hard work, she lived in a melting pot community where differing immigrant groups contributed to the whole, it was only years later that she came to appreciate what she experienced, suggesting blacks were the pot in the melting pot, that other groups came and went, but blacks were always in the pot. 

While in school at Howard University in the early 50’s, she would steal the “Colored” and “Whites Only” signs she came across in Washington, D.C. and send them back home to her mother in Lorain, Ohio, finding them relics of a disturbed mentality.  She was flabbergasted to discover sororities at Howard University, a historically black college, were based on darkness or lightness of skin color, creating skin castes, ranking color in terms of its closeness to white people, associating privilege through historically perpetuated racial misconceptions and stigmatizations even within their own black culture.  Morrison eventually became a distinguished professor at Princeton, the first black woman to hold a chair at an Ivy League school, teaching a creative writing class filled with students who had been told all their lives to write about what they knew.  Morrison, on the other hand, in her introductory remarks told them not to pay any attention to that, because at their tender ages they haven’t learned anything yet.  The film broadens our view of what she’s accomplished, accentuating her influence in the world of publishing, having gotten her start as an editor at Random House after years of experience teaching in college classrooms, working there for nearly 20 years, becoming their first black woman senior editor in the fiction department.  When she realized men were receiving larger raises than she did, she directly confronted her boss, claiming “I am head of household, just like you,” having to repeat the words, this time slower, adding emphasis.  She got the raise.  Among her biggest supporters was Robert Gottlieb, a highly distinguished Random House publisher who went on to edit most of her books, with pages of his corrections viewed onscreen.  He speaks of the brilliance of her “structural mind,” with the camera displaying various diagrams she sketched for Beloved that are stunning.  Reaching out to a broad group of eclectic black writers, which included social activist Angela Davis, Morrison supported marginalized writers to fill the holes previously neglected by primarily white publishing houses, creating a foundation of African-American literature, going on book tours with Mohammad Ali, who she speaks of fondly, as he had a particular reverence for women, particularly older women, with a reputation for treating them with kindness and respect, offering a different side of a boxing legend.  Simultaneous to a teaching career and a publishing career, she continued to write, publishing at a later stage in her life, nearly 40 when she published her first novel, so she was already an adult in the room. 

Describing how she likes to rise early in the morning just before the sun comes up, this is the best time to write, a habit she developed with two small children, ensuring a peaceful time before they awoke, claiming by noon she has already lost some of her mental focus, and by evening, forget about it, always working with the door open, remaining accessible to her family.  Writing with a pencil, she completed notebooks, spending five years writing her first novel, hiring a team of typists at Random House to transcribe what she had written into a legible format, which became The Bluest Eye (1970), which has repeatedly been banned from schools, described as pornographic, accentuating the internal pain of a young black girl who prays for blue eyes, who wanted to be that white doll that everybody loved, spending years wanting to be something other than black, nothing less than a cruel and horrible internalized experience.  Yet one of the characteristics of a Toni Morrison novel, according to Oprah Winfrey, who adores her writing, is a universal theme of transcendence in her books, where characters deal with a gut-wrenching pain that must be endured and overcome, so by the end, somehow transformed, it leads to the capability of love.  In all her books, according to Winfrey, this is what she’s writing about, which makes her work so essential.  Viewing Morrison as the nurturing mother of us all, she shows us a roadmap of how to survive the pain we endure, where the secret to our survival is the capacity for love.  This view is echoed throughout the film, as others find her equally inspiring, with countless voices offering their views of Morrison both as a person and as a writer, recounting various experiences with her, including Angela Davis, who credits her with asking the right kinds of questions, essentially broadening her view by making her aware of so many other factors that add to the human experience, adding humorously that Morrison “persuaded me that the book she wanted to publish was the book I wanted to write, only I was not aware of it at that time.” 

New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, who wrote this extensive piece in 2003 (How Toni Morrison Fostered a Generation of Black Writers | The New ...), describes how she essentially compiled a Black Studies curriculum, all but non-existent in the late 60’s, now a staple in any college experience.  Among the other voices includes one of her closest friends, American humorist author Fran Lebowitz, who assures us Morrison loves presents, and is legendary for baking the absolute best carrot cake, spending so much time in Morrison’s office that she was actually kicked out, apparently viewed as preventing Morrison from getting her work done, but also author Russell Banks, Columbia University’s academic scholar Farah Griffin, and American poet Sonia Sanchez who tearfully acknowledges “a white light around Toni, that some people you know really are the blessed ones, that they are put here to make us review ourselves, so we can walk, finally, as human beings,” who each speak eloquently about Morrison’s impact as an editor in filling the holes of black history, giving voice to black characters who had been ignored or excluded from literature, ordinary people just like us grasping at the unfathomable, experiencing indescribable setbacks (where according to Oprah “ it allows you to understand that pain is OK”), yet they’re capable of overcoming the unthinkable, adding an expanded internalized dimension to our lives, or offering a voice of much needed black feminism.  According to Harvard’s David Carrasco, Morrison’s work is nothing less than “The Emancipation Proclamation of the English language,” where one of her most successful Random House books published was The Black Book in 1974, a scrapbook or photo-album, becoming a purely subjective experience, from which an undated history of black life and culture emerges through the use of abundant photographs, drawings, songs, letters, and highly diverse articles (including racist caricatures and a newspaper article on Margaret Garner, the subject of her most infamous novel, Beloved) that document and chart black American history from slavery through Reconstruction to modern times.   

The personal anecdotes are eye-opening, recalling an early childhood memory of writing words on the sidewalk with her older sister, like “cat” or “dog” or “it,” copying other words seen, where they began to write “F…U…” but her mother came running out of the house in a rage, angrily handing them soap and water to clean it up, never explaining what it was that caused such a commotion, but Morrison understood even at that age the power contained in words, as she had never seen anything affecting her mother that strongly before, but it’s something she never forgot.  Morrison also mentioned that hanging in her bathroom is a letter from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice banning her novel Paradise (1997) for fear of provoking a prison riot.  “How powerful is that?” Morrison ponders with a noticeable smile, “I could tear up the whole place.”  Mostly the film highlights Morrison’s early novels, which show a complete absence of sentimentality, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), offering critical appraisals alongside the author’s own comments, where it’s rare to hear her own internalized reflection about her own work, where it’s clear she views herself as a master of her craft, reading various passages from her books, offering personal insight.  There are those that denounced her writing in the beginning, claiming she was too good a writer to simply restrict herself to the black experience, suggesting if she wanted to gain importance she needed to include the white world.  This is something Morrison vehemently rejects, claiming Irish novelists aren’t criticized for writing about the Irish, suggesting she knows who she is and what she’s writing about, and she decries black literature that has to explain things to a white audience, something that would need no explanation before a black audience.  Claiming this was something James Baldwin also experienced, as she had to literally expunge from her writing “the white gaze,” this little voice on her shoulder that analyzed and critiqued her every thought, suggesting this was a judgment she could do without, careful to remove it from all her books. 

In light of that, the white director (who has known her for over 35 years) had to walk a fine line when making the film, making sure it was the authentic person he knew that was coming across onscreen.  In what was a white literary establishment, described as “the unbearable whiteness” of American literature, Morrison broke new ground, but success didn’t come early, as mostly white male critics searched for reasons to excoriate her work, some stunningly ignorant.  A New York Times review called Sula provincial, while a Washington Post article quoted male writers who felt she was receiving undeserved praise.  While Beloved is her most praised book, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but also the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she is the first black woman in history to be recognized.  The day after the announcement, however, The Washington Post ran a story with a blistering collection of bitter, withering put-downs from her “peers,” with one particular critic (black jazz critic Stanley Crouch) calling Beloved a fraud (which elicited gasps in the viewing audience), loathing the book as a “blackface holocaust novel,” proving the subject of slavery continues to be a testy issue dividing Americans.  According to Morrison, “I’ve never read of a controversy over an American winning the Nobel except when it was a black woman,” when suddenly the power to define importance comes under question.  Morrison embraced and celebrated the experience, viewed through the caustically irreverent eyes of Fran Lebowitz, one of Morrison’s invited guests, claiming the Swedes really know how to throw a party, keeping the mood light and not too heavy, offering her view, “I highly recommend that you have a friend who wins the Nobel Prize.”  Raising a family is one of her proudest accomplishments, no small feat when she constantly worked in different cities, remaining close to her two sons (who are not interviewed, nor is anyone from her family), one developing an interest in children’s literature (dying from cancer at the age of 45) while the other is an architect, recognizing the help she received along the way.  It’s curious that Morrison’s voice is higher pitched later in life, with earlier clips revealing a much deeper voice, but one of her startling revelations was the discovery of her own personal happiness, something that took her completely by surprise, as work had always defined her life and career.  Normally films like this are made as tributes after the featured subject dies, this one premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, so it’s remarkable that Morrison, now 88-years of age, can appreciate all the love extended to her, a subject she knows all too well, quoting from a funeral service at the end of Song of Solomon, with one of Morrison’s characters angrily shouting “And she was loved!”   


Toni Morrison died at the Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx, New York City, on August 5, 2019, from complications of pneumonia.  She was 88 years old.  Having already written a eulogy for James Baldwin at his passing in 1987, her words for that occasion will be reprinted here along with an obituary for Morrison from The Guardian. 

published New York Times, USA, Life in His Language - Movies - The New York Times, December 20, 1987

Jimmy, there is too much to think about you, and too much to feel. The difficulty is your life refuses summation - it always did - and invites contemplation instead. Like many of us left here I thought I knew you. Now I discover that in your company it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish. We are like Hall Montana* watching ”with new wonder” his brother saints, knowing the song he sang is us, “He is us.”

I never heard a single command from you, yet the demands you made on me, the challenges you issued to me, were nevertheless unmistakable, even if unenforced: that I work and think at the top of my form, that I stand on moral ground but know that ground must be shored up by mercy, that “the world is before [ me ] and [ I ] need not take it or leave it as it was when [ I ] came in.”

Well, the season was always Christmas with you there and, like one aspect of that scenario, you did not neglect to bring at least three gifts. You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention. I have been thinking your spoken and written thoughts for so long I believed they were mine. I have been seeing the world through your eyes for so long, I believed that clear clear view was my own. Even now, even here, I need you to tell me what I am feeling and how to articulate it. So I have pored again through the 6,895 pages of your published work to acknowledge the debt and thank you for the credit. No one possessed or inhabited language for me the way you did. You made American English honest - genuinely international. You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern dialogic, representative, humane. You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity. In place of soft plump lies was a lean, targeted power. In place of intellectual disingenuousness and what you called “exasperating egocentricity,” you gave us undecorated truth. You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance. You went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it, “robbed it of the jewel of its naivete,” and un-gated it for black people so that in your wake we could enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion - not our vanities but our intricate, difficult, demanding beauty, our tragic, insistent knowledge, our lived reality, our sleek classical imagination - all the while refusing “to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize [ us ] .” In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.

It infuriated some people. Those who saw the paucity of their own imagination in the two-way mirror you held up to them attacked the mirror, tried to reduce it to fragments which they could then rank and grade, tried to dismiss the shards where your image and theirs remained - locked but ready to soar. You are an artist after all and an artist is forbidden a career in this place; an artist is permitted only a commercial hit. But for thousands and thousands of those who embraced your text and who gave themselves permission to hear your language, by that very gesture they ennobled themselves, became unshrouded, civilized.

The second gift was your courage, which you let us share: the courage of one who could go as a stranger in the village and transform the distances between people into intimacy with the whole world; courage to understand that experience in ways that made it a personal revelation for each of us. It was you who gave us the courage to appropriate an alien, hostile, all-white geography because you had discovered that “this world [ meaning history ] is white no longer and it will never be white again.” Yours was the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges, to see and say what it was, to recognize and identify evil but never fear or stand in awe of it. It is a courage that came from a ruthless intelligence married to a pity so profound it could convince anyone who cared to know that those who despised us “need the moral authority of their former slaves, who are the only people in the world who know anything about them and who may be, indeed, the only people in the world who really care anything about them.” When that unassailable combination of mind and heart, of intellect and passion was on display it guided us through treacherous landscape as it did when you wrote these words - words every rebel, every dissident, revolutionary, every practicing artist from Capetown to Poland from Waycross to Dublin memorized:  “A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one's compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there is a level on which the mockery of the people, even their hatred, is moving, because it is so blind: It is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction.”

The third gift was hard to fathom and even harder to accept. It was your tenderness - a tenderness so delicate I thought it could not last, but last it did and envelop me it did. In the midst of anger it tapped me lightly like the child in Tish’s** womb: “Something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart . . . the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of water, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better . . . in the meantime - forever - it is entirely up to me.” Yours was a tenderness, of vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything and, like the world’s own Merlin, provided us with the ways and means to deliver. I suppose that is why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished, and wanting to be steady enough to witness the pain you had witnessed and were tough enough to bear while it broke your heart, wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary.

You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. “Our crown,” you said, “has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do,” you said, “is wear it.”

And we do, Jimmy. You crowned us.

* A character in “Just Above My Head”;

** a character in “If Beale Street Could Talk”; two novels by James Baldwin.

Toni Morrison obituary | Books | The Guardian  Lyn Innes from The Guardian, August 6, 2019 

Toni Morrison, who has died aged 88, was the only African American writer and one of the few women to have received the Nobel prize for literature. The announcement of her 1993 award cited her as a writer “who, in novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”. In her acceptance speech Morrison emphasised the importance of language “partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as an agency – as an act with consequences”.

She expressed her own credo, and indicated the core preoccupations of her fiction, in the fable at the heart of her speech, where she imagines young people telling an old black woman: “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created ... For our sakes and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light ... Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.”

When she started producing fiction, she was editing other writers for the publishers Random House in New York and began to feel the lack of novels which spoke to readers such as herself. Beginning with The Bluest Eye (1969), her novels portray the psychic and social lives of African American women, as well as men, covering the trauma of slavery and its economic and psychological consequences during and after the 19th century.

Her second novel, Sula (1973), provides a terse and vivid contrast between two black women, one a rebel and the other a conformist, whose stories and struggle to come to terms with one another and their community set the pattern for some of her later fiction. Song of Solomon (1977) is wider ranging historically and geographically and, unusually within Morrison’s oeuvre, has a black male character, Milkman Dead, as its main protagonist. Here the elements of magic realism suggested in Sula are developed and Morrison draws on the African American myth of slaves escaping by flying away as an image of Milkman’s discovery of his roots in a southern African American tradition. For this novel Morrison won the National Book Critics’ Circle award.

Many readers and critics on both sides of the Atlantic regard her highest achievement to be Beloved (1987), the first novel in a trilogy chronicling black American small town and urban communities over the past 150 years. It is based on a factual incident that she uncovered while preparing a historical collection, The Black Book (1974), and explores the terrible impact of slavery, its brutality and its dehumanisation, on a young mother who murders her child to prevent her being repossessed by the slave-owner from whom she has escaped. The mother and those who live with her are haunted by the memory of the dead child, and the novel is also a more general representation of the terrible history that continues to haunt African Americans, a history that must be confronted in all its anguish before black people can learn to love themselves and one another.

The New York Times columnist Michiko Kakutani wrote that Beloved “possesses the heightened power and resonance of myth – its characters, like those in an opera or Greek drama, seem larger than life and their actions, too, tend to strike us as enactments of ancient rituals and passions. To describe Beloved only in these terms, however, is to diminish its immediacy, for the novel also remains precisely grounded in American reality – the reality of black history as experienced in the wake of the civil war.”

Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1988, although not before a letter signed by more than 40 of America’s leading black writers and scholars had decried the lack of recognition for this outstanding novel. However, the New Republic critic Stanley Crouch felt the book was over-written, and at times became trite and sentimental. Crouch was among a number of black critics who dismissed the award of the Nobel prize as a mark of her ties to a European literary tradition rather than an African American one. Morrison won it following the publication of Jazz (1992), a novel set in Harlem in the 1920s concerning a love triangle in which a husband murders his teenage mistress, which employs a narrative structure akin to jazz, with the opening statement of a theme and a series of elaborations. Paradise (1998) returned to the small-town setting in rural Ohio that had featured in Beloved. Like the two preceding novels, it evolves from a catastrophic act of violence, in this case a murderous attack on a community of women.

Five years later, she published Love (2003), a family saga that has some similarities to The Song of Solomon in that it weaves its story around the lasting impact of a wealthy black patriarch and entrepreneur, Bill Cosey, the owner of Cosey’s Hotel and Resort, whose fortunes rest on the need for a holiday resort for black people in segregated America. His character becomes the focus of various generations of women’s longing for father, husband, lover, guardian and friend. Some critics have cautiously noted the teasing similarity between the central male protagonist’s name and that of the millionaire African American entertainer Bill Cosby.

Like The Song of Solomon, this novel records the historical and cultural changes affecting African Americans from the 1930s till the 80s, before, during and after the civil rights movement. Although many reviewers hailed the publication of Love as demonstrating a return to the kind of writing that had made Morrison a Nobel laureate, Kakutani wrote in The New York Times that “the story as a whole reads like a gothic soap opera, peopled by scheming, bitter women and selfish, predatory men: women engaged in cartoon-violent catfights; men catting around and going to cathouses”.

Morrison’s ninth novel, A Mercy (2008), is set in 1682 in the early years of colonial Virginia, where English, Dutch, African, Portuguese and Native Americans compete to survive and rule. Her next novel, Home (2012), moves forward to the 20th century, portraying the life of a Korean war veteran in segregated 1950s America and his attempt to save his sister from medical experiments carried out by a white doctor. It is dedicated to her son Slade, who died in 2010 aged 45, and with whom she had written several books for children. God Help the Child (2015) returns to the theme of her first novel and traces the life of a young woman in the fashion industry tormented by memories of her mother’s dislike of her dark skin.

In an interview recorded soon after the publication of Love, Morrison spoke of her lifelong concern as a writer to move away from a notion of writing by African Americans as sociology, influenced by its awareness of a white readership, and concerned with the encounter between black people and white people. She had declared in a 1998 interview: “The black narrative has always been understood to be a confrontation with some white people ... They’re not terribly interesting to me. What is interesting to me is what is going on within the community. And within the community, there are no major white players. Once I thought: ‘What is life like if they weren’t there?’ Which is the way we lived it, the way I lived it.”

Morrison sought to change not just the content and audience for her fiction; her desire was to create stories which could be lingered over and relished, not “consumed and gobbled as fast food”, and at the same time to ensure that these stories and their characters had a strong historical and cultural base. She also compared her writing and its technique to music whose enjoyment and significance can change on a second hearing, and which has a style, structure and tone that is specifically African American.

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, she was the second of four children of working-class parents, George Wofford, a shipyard welder, and his wife, the former Ella Ramah Willis, who had migrated to Ohio from the south. When she was about two years old her family’s home was set on fire by the landlord while she and her family were in it. “People set our house on fire to evict us,” Morrison later told an interviewer, but her father refused to be intimidated by white hostility and told her that such actions merely demonstrated the inferiority of white people.

Her parents encouraged her early interest in literature, which encompassed Austen, Flaubert and Tolstoy. But an interest in narrative and the African American tradition was also nurtured by her father, who told her stories and anecdotes he had heard as he grew up in the south. She graduated with honours from Lorain high school and studied humanities at Howard University in Washington DC, the most prestigious of the historically black universities founded in the 19th century.

At Howard she changed her name from Chloe to Toni (having taken the name Anthony on becoming a Roman Catholic at the age of 12), apparently because she found that people constantly mispronounced “Chloe”. However she later regretted the name change, saying in 1992: “I am really Chloe Anthony Wofford. That’s who I am. I have been writing under this other person’s name. I write some things now as Chloe Wofford, private things. I regret having called myself Toni Morrison when I published my first novel, The Bluest Eye.”

In 1954 Morrison went on to study for an MA in English at Cornell University, writing a dissertation on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Thereafter she taught at Texas Southern University in Houston, and then Howard University.

In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, an architect. They were divorced in 1964, and Toni moved to New York with her two sons, Harold and Slade, to become a senior editor at Random House, a position she held for 20 years. One of her achievements there was, in her own words, to help develop “a canon of black work. We’ve had the first rush of black entertainment, where blacks were writing for whites, and whites were encouraging this kind of self-flagellation. Now we can get down to the craft of writing, where black people are talking to black people.” Among the distinguished black Americans she helped publish were Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali. Her projects at Random House also included editing The Black Book, an anthology of items illustrating the history of African Americans.

In 1989, following the success of Beloved, Morrison was appointed professor of humanities at Princeton University. She was a visiting professor at Yale University and Bard College, and found teaching and being with young people an important way of “staying current”. Her 1990 series of Massey lectures at Harvard were published as Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), and explore the construction of a “non-white Africanist presence and personae” in the works of Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Cather and Hemingway, arguing that “all of us are bereft when criticism remains too polite or too fearful to notice a disrupting darkness before its eyes”.

Twenty-five years later, a few months after the election of Donald Trump as US president, Morrison published The Origin of Others (2017), essays on the “literature of belonging” based on her Norton lectures given at Harvard in 2016. She examined the ways in which categories of otherness are invented and reinforced in literature, the media, and everyday speech to dehumanise others. And she analysed fiction by writers Flannery O’Connor, Harriet Beecher Stowe and others, including her own, to illustrate constructions of whiteness.

Her play, Dreaming Emmett, was first performed in 1986. A film version of Beloved, directed by Jonathan Demme, scripted by three other writers, and starring Oprah Winfrey, was released in 1998 to mixed reviews. An opera, Margaret Garner, based on the same story with a libretto by Morrison and music by the American composer Richard Danielpour was premiered in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2005, and received much more favourable notices. Morrison also wrote the lyrics for André Previn’s song cycle Honey and Me (1992), for his Four Songs for Soprano, Cello and Piano (1995), and for Danielpour’s Spirits in the Well (1998).

In 2011 she worked with the opera director Peter Sellars and the Malian singer Rokia Traore to create Desdemona, a mixture of words, song and music premiered in Vienna. The following year Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

Morrison’s collected essays and speeches written between 1976 and 2013 were published as Mouth of Full Blood in February this year. They explore the history of enslavement and its consequences, the power of language and the responsibilities of writers, the problem of being a “consciously raced” writer who is also confined by that category, the significance of writers such as James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe. Like Baldwin’s essays, Morrison’s have a searing force. As Arifa Akbar wrote in her review of this collection, “Morrison’s words possess a contemporary resonance, delivering unwavering truths with an intelligent rage that is almost equal to hope.”

A quotation from Morrison’s Nobel speech provides an appropriate epitaph: “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

She is survived by her son Harold, and three grandchildren. 

• Toni Morrison (Chloe Anthony Wofford), writer, born 18 February 1931; died 5 August 2019

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