Toni Morrison, an iconic figure in literature, appeared as a significant African-American writer who was familiar as a vociferous voice of the exploited black people as well as a master craftsman of the dominant artistic form. Her life came to an end on Monday, August 5, 2019, while she was surrounded by her loved ones, following a short illness. Before she left, she had lived a successful literary career. She was a novelist, essayist, editor, teacher and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.
Born on February 18, 1931, in Ohio, she had to start her childhood in a multicultural environment where she found people of Czech, German, Irish, Greek, Italian, Serb, Mexican and black suburbanites. This mixed-up cultural background influenced her to grow up extra-ordinarily. "She was very much influenced by southern traditions though she grew up in the north. In Ohio, though she experienced exclusion, she was not tormented by intense racism".
The brilliant Toni Morrison topped in her class when she graduated from Lorain High School and her family was surprised when she declared that she would have to leave for Lorain to obtain a college degree. Many critics have commented that this was her beginning to be free as a bird, to think in her own mind and to be recognized as one of the best writers as she is now today. This ambitious decision was the first footstep to be today's Toni Morrison.
She got admitted in Howard University in Washington D.C. and began studying under strong African-American spokesman including poet Sterling Brown. She graduated with a B.A. in 1953 and completed a Master's degree in English at Cornell two years later. At that time, her focus was on the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.
She started teaching Humanities and English at Texas Southern University in 1957. She also worked for eight years as an English instructor at Howard University. From 1965 to 1983, she worked as a textbook editor at Random House in Syracuse, New York. In the meantime, she was divorced and had to grow up her two sons as a single mother. In this arduous period, she had to face a lot of challenges, even she managed time to write 'The Bluest Eye', which was completed in 1968, where she put her therapy of depression and isolation.
The way she started her writings was a strong background to produce such books, like, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1991), Paradise (1998), and many others. All these writings have made her career rich as she mostly focused on gender solidarity, African dilemma, including her fight against racism and sexism.
In 1987, Morrison published her most celebrated novel, Beloved which drew the readers' attention to the psychological turmoil experienced by Sethe in the context of slavery. The entire history of slavery in America is stretched out on a giant canvas here - the inhuman treatment of slaves, both male and female, children and adults, as beasts of burden, the sexual exploitation of black women by white men.
This great novel brought her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. The Nobel Committee celebrated her as an author "who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote in a review for the New York Times, "Ms. Morrison's versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, 'Beloved' will put them to rest."
According to Trudier Harris, "By any standard of literary evaluation, Toni Morrison is a phenomenon in the classic sense of once-in-a-lifetime rarity, the literary equivalent of Paul Robson, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Chris Evert, or Martin Navratilova, the superstar whose touch upon her profession makes us wonder if we shall ever see like her again".
Toni Morrison belongs to a group of writers in America- Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor- for whom writing is a liberating tool, a revolutionary strategy and artistic mode of self-expression, says K. Sumana in her assessment of Morrison as a novelist.
Like a 'Black Woman Writer', Morrison claimed to be concerned, above all, with the idea of a 'black community'- what such a community once meant, how it has changed, and how, despite those changes, it is and should be maintained. In an interview with Salman Rushdie, she says, "I am not sure what the word 'Negro' means, which is why I write books. What is black/ woman/ friend/ mother? What is black person? It seems to me that there are so many that inform blackness. One of the modern qualities of being an African-American is the flux, is the fluidity, the contradictions."
"I write for black women. We are not addressing the men, as some white female writers do. Black women writers look at things in an unforgiving, loving way. They are writing to repossess, rename, renown."
While writing was her only way to express her feelings, she never wanted to stop it. She wrote through the toughest of times, including the death of her son in 2010. "I stopped writing until I began to think, he would be really put out if he thought that he had caused me to stop," Morrison told Interview magazine around the release of her ninth novel, Home, in 2012.
In her Nobel acceptance speech, Morrison talked about the power of storytelling. To make her point, she told a story. She spoke about a blind, old, black woman who is approached by a group of young people. They demand of her, "Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? … Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story." This inspiration will be alive till all her writings are read and she will be immortal through her wonderful pen points in the world literature.
Everyone has to give a full stop in their career, as well as in their life, but the footsteps they marked in different arena will remain a sign of their existence. "We die," Morrison closed her Nobel Prize address. "That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."
The writer is an English teacher at BIT School.
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