I remember I was in college and being a big Oprah Winfrey fan, I watched her show regularly and followed her book club as well. In one of her shows she was discussing The Bluest Eye with Toni Morrison. That was the first time I had heard of Toni Morrison and her books. The title captivated me, so I read more about it, then brought the book read it, and immediately I understood what made Toni Morrison great. That was her first novel. Although, later I came to know that Beloved and Song of Solomon were known as her better works.

Last evening when I first got the news of Toni Morrison’s demise, the above memory came rushing back to me. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf announced that she died Monday night at Montefiore Medical Center in New York after a brief illness. She was 88 years old.

Toni Morrison was a giant among her contemporaries in modern American literature, she will always be remembered as one of the most accomplished and impactful writers of our times. There was no one better than her to chronicle the agonies and joys of African-American communities; she was literally the conscience keeper of the American literary world. Her canvas was wide, it encompassed the not-so-highlighted marginalised lives which had well-carved characters within histories of these marginalised communities, but she will mostly be known for her tragic plot turns.

Toni Morrison was a giant among her contemporaries in modern American literature, she will always be remembered as one of the most accomplished and impactful writers of our times.

Her body of work

In her career which stretched over six-decades, she wrote 11 novels, five children’s books, two plays, a song cycle and an opera. To go back to her first novel The Bluest Eye, published in 1970 tells the tale of an adolescent black girl who, obsessed by white beauty standards, begs God to turn her eyes blue.  The book received modest success. But, in 2000, when The Bluest Eye became a selection for Oprah’s Book Club, it sold more than eight hundred thousand paperback copies. The Black Book, which is an anthology of African-American life and history was published in 1974. It had a great impact on the perception of black anthropology and culture. In the 70’s she wrote two more novels — Sula released in 1973, which traced a black Ohio neighbourhood through the eyes of two best friends and in 1977 Song of Solomon came out. The novel chronicles the life of a black man through decades. Song of Solomon went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award. And in 1981 she released her fourth novel Tar Baby.

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Beloved, her best-known work was published in 1987.  She discovered this story while publishing The Black Book, it follows the life of a runaway slave who kills her infant daughter after being recaptured by enslavers and now she was haunted by the child she killed. This novel was a runaway success and was on top of the bestselling lists for 25 weeks, Further, it was added to school reading lists across USA. The novel finally won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988.

She went on to write two more novels Jazz and Paradise and extensive essays about the controversies of her era. But, even though her body of work was revered she did face some flak too, for the graphic violence or sexually explicit content in her works. Paradise was supposedly banned in Texas prisons as it was feared that it would cause a riot.

Toni Morrison was an active member of the community till the end, commenting on political issues, giving interviews, and she never stopped writing. With her demise a powerful voice has become silent.

Awards and accolades

What came as the biggest validation for her craft were awards and accolades she received throughout her writing career. She was chosen for a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, the Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1996, and the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

In the new millennium, Morrison released four more novels which garnered great acclaim. She taught at Princeton till she retired in 2006. Finally, former President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Toni Morrison was an active member of the community till the end, commenting on political issues, giving interviews, and she never stopped writing. With her demise a powerful voice has become silent.

If her books were part of school curriculum that speaks volumes about her skill, the least we can do is appreciate the talent she was born with. As a tribute to an author, what would be better than to pick up one of her books? Read, let it sink in and be a part of you forever.

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Smita Singh is an editor with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are her own.

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