Once upon a time.
Those are some of the first words we remember from our childhood, author Toni Morrison said in 1993 when she received her Nobel Prize in Literature.
Morrison died Monday night at age 88, Vulture reported. She was surrounded by loved ones and died after a short illness at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, her family said in a statement released by her publisher, Penguin Random House.
Born Chloe Ardella Wofford, Morrison is best known for her novel “Beloved”, which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She was the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Morrison’s work was rooted in African-American life and culture and she dominated in an industry where Black life was often depicted in stereotypes, NPR reported.
“Beloved” was inspired by Margaret Garner, a woman who escaped slavery and tried to kill herself and her children rather than be caught and returned to a plantation.
As a child growing up in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison said she listened to the stories adults told about the homes they’d left behind in the segregated South to migrate north. Their language stayed with her, she said in a 2010 interview, NPR reported. “There was street language, there was sermonic language. You know, people actually quoted the Bible to you.”
Morrison wrote 11 novels including the latest, “God Help the Child”, published in 2015. Her stories weaved fantasy and reality. Mother-daughter love was a theme in “Beloved” and “A Mercy,” where women had to make terrible sacrifices for their children. In “Song of Solomon”, once upon a time was an ancient folk tale about Black people flying home to Africa to escape slavery.
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She broke barriers as an editor for Random House, where she worked for 19 years, seeking out a new generation of Black writers including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Angela Davis. She edited Muhammad Ali. She was chairwoman of Humanities at Princeton, where she taught from 1989 to 2006.
While Morrison was editing, she was secretly writing for herself, waking up before her children. When she wrote, she said she was free from pain. “It’s where I have control,” she said. “It’s where nobody tells me what to do. It’s where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. … I’m thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place.”
She attended Howard University, where she changed her name to Toni after her baptismal saint, Anthony. There, she said she learned for the first time about a hierarchy of color in the African-American community. “And it was stunning to me,” she said in 2015. It influenced her work. Her first book, “The Bluest Eye” (1970) is about a dark-skinned girl who believes blue eyes will make her beautiful and cherished.
For many, news of Morrison’s death was personal.
“The Bluest Eye changed my entire life and perspective on what it is to be and love being a black girl. Rest easy Toni Morrison,” @lilmsawkward tweeted.
Generations of Black women writers were touched by her, said Richard Yarborough, who teaches African-American literature at UCLA. “Morrison is such a monumental figure, that there is no way you could write about Black women’s experiences without taking her into account.”
“She made me fall in love with words. Rest in Power,” @TheHopeAlyssa tweeted.
Morisson earned her master’s degree at Cornell University and married architect Harold Morrison. They had two sons and divorced after seven years. She wrote through the worst of times, including the death of her son in 2010.
Morrison’s frankness about race made her work essential reading, said Piper Huguley, a professor at Atlanta’s Spelman College. “She belongs for us here at Spelman, and no doubt elsewhere, as part of the African-American literary canon, that is, an author who must be read.”
In her Nobel speech, Morrison said, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”