Toni Morrison has died at the age of 88. The famed African-American author and Nobel Prize winner’s death was announced August 6 by her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, in a statement. Morrison died at Montefiore Medical Center on August 5 after a brief illness.
The announcement of her death included a quote from Morrison, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
In the statement, the publishing company said, “Morrison’s novels were celebrated and embraced by booksellers, critics, educators, readers, and librarians. Her work also ignited controversy, notably in school districts that tried to ban her books. Few American writers won more awards for their books and writing.”
In 1988, Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her work “Beloved.” She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, becoming the first African-American female author to receive the award, in 1993, with the Swedish Academy saying she was an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
President Barack Obama, who presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, said in a statement after Morrison’s death, “Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.”
Morrison’s family wrote in a statement, ““It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends. She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life.”
Her family added, “While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family. We will share information in the near future about how we will celebrate Toni’s incredible life.”
Here’s what you need to know about Toni Morrison:
1. Morrison Was Born in Ohio & Graduated From Howard University
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931, as the “second of four children in a black working-class family,” according to The Nobel Prize website. According to The Guardian, Morrison became a Catholic at the age of 12 and took the baptismal name Anthony, after St. Anthony, which led to her nickname of Toni.
She said in 2017, “everybody was dirt poor, that was what we had in common.”
After graduating from Lorain High School, Morrison attended Howard University, where she graduated in 1953 with a degree in English. She then completed her master’s degree at Cornell University in 1955.
Morrison said in a speech at Princeton that she first learned of race while in Washington D.C. at Howard. “All of a sudden, the buses have labels on who sat where, and there were fountains that said ‘colored’ and ‘white.’ And I thought that was a hoot because who would spend money on doing that twice? How wasteful,” Morrison said.
Along with her career as a writer and editor, Morrison spent many years in the academic world. She taught English at Texas Southern University and at Howard University. She later returned to teaching, working as a professor at Princeton University from 1989 to 2006.
In a statement after her death, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber said, “Toni Morrison’s brilliant vision, inspired creativity, and unique voice have reshaped American culture and the world’s literary tradition. Her magnificent works will continue to light a path forward for generations of readers and authors. She revised this University, too. Through her scholarly leadership in creative writing and African American studies, and through her mentorship of students and her innovative teaching, she has inscribed her name permanently and beautifully upon the tapestry of Princeton’s campus and history. We are fortunate that this marvelous writer made Princeton her home, and we will miss her dearly.”
2. She Had 2 Sons With Her Ex-Husband
Morrison met Harold Morrison, an architect, while she was teaching at Howard. They were married in 1958. She and her husband had two sons, Harold Ford Morrison and Slade Morrison. They divorced in 1964.
Slade Morrison died in 2010 while in his 40s. He and his mother collaborated on five children’s books, according to Simon & Schuster, his publisher.
Morrison’s oldest son, Harold Ford Morrison, is an architect at Princeton University. He said in 2016, “It now feels fantastic to see her continue her work. As a child I felt some curiosity and wonderment when it came to her writing. Beloved was a revolutionary work. The notion of killing one’s own children to protect them from slavery has reached a wide audience.”
Morrison told the Nashville Public Library in 2012, “Each generation has a kind of love. Some of it’s really tough. What my grandmother thought was love of her children was really staying alive for them. What my mother thought was love of her children was to get a better place, maybe get enough money to send you to college if you wanted to. What I thought was love of my children was giving them the maximum amount of freedom, setting an example of how you could make choices in your life.”
Morrison is also survived by her three grandchildren.
3. Morrison Worked as an Editor at a Publishing Company & Didn’t Publish Her First Novel Until She Was 39
Toni Morrison began working as an editor at Random House in 1964, becoming the first African-American woman to be an editor at the publishing company. She worked there until 1983.
“There, she published Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Huey P. Newton, Muhammad Ali, and Angela Davis, among others,” her publisher said in the statement announcing her death. “Her work as an editor and publisher at Random House demonstrated a unique commitment to writers of color, and helped in opening industry doors to them.”
Morrison did not publish her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” until she was 39.
“I was young. I started writing when I was 39. That’s the height of life. The real liberation was the kids, because their needs were simple,” she told The Guardian. “One, they needed me to be competent. Two, they wanted me to have a sense of humour. And three, they wanted me to be an adult. No one else asked that of me. Not in the workplace – where sometimes they’d want you to be feminine, or dominant, or cut.”
Robert Gottlieb, her editor at Knopf, said after her death, “She was a great woman and a great writer, and I don’t know which I will miss more.”
Knopf chairman Sonny Mehta said in a statement, “Toni Morrison’s working life was spent in the service of literature: writing books, reading books, editing books, teaching books. I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni. Her narratives and mesmerizing prose have made an indelible mark on our culture. Her novels command and demand our attention. They are canonical works, and more importantly, they are books that remain beloved by readers.”
4. While Presenting Her With the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Obama Said Morrison’s Writing ‘Brings Us That Kind of Moral & Emotional Intensity That Few Writers Ever Attempt’
While awarding Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, President Barack Obama said, “Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt. From ‘Song of Solomon’ to ‘Beloved,’ Toni reaches us deeply, using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct, and inclusive. She believes that language ‘arcs toward the place where meaning might lie.’ The rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride. I remember reading ‘Song of Solomon’ when I was a kid and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think.”
After her death, Obama issued a statement saying:
Time is no match for Toni Morrison. In her writing, she sometimes toyed with it, warping and creasing it, bending it to her masterful will. In her life’s story, too, she treated time nontraditionally. A child of the Great Migration who’d lifted up new, more diverse voices in American literature as an editor, Toni didn’t publish her first novel until she was 39 years old. From there followed an ascendant career—a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and so much more—and with it, a fusion of the African American story within the American story. Toni Morrison was a national treasure. Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful—a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy. She was as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. And so even as Michelle and I mourn her loss and send our warmest sympathies to her family and friends, we know that her stories—that our stories—will always be with us, and with those who come after, and on and on, for all time.
Oprah Winfrey, who helped Morrison’s writing reach a larger audience, wrote on Instagram after Morrison’s death, “In the beginning was the Word. Toni Morrison took the word and turned it into a Song…of Solomon, of Sula, Beloved, Mercy, Paradise Love, and more. She was our conscience. Our seer. Our truth-teller. She was a magician with language, who understood the Power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them. It is exhilarating and life-enhancing every time I read and share her work.”
Winfrey added, “She was Empress-Supreme among writers. Long may her WORDS reign!
5. Morrison Wrote & Spoke About Race in America, Including in a 2016 Essay After Trump’s Election Titled ‘Mourning for Whiteness’
Morrison wrote and spoke often about race in America. In 2016, she published an essay in The New Yorker titled “Mourning for Whiteness,” following the election of President Donald Trump.
“To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets,” she wrote. “Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that. Right?”
Morrison continued, “On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.”
She concluded, “William Faulkner understood this better than almost any other American writer. In ‘Absalom, Absalom,’ incest is less of a taboo for an upper-class Southern family than acknowledging the one drop of black blood that would clearly soil the family line. Rather than lose its ‘whiteness’ (once again), the family chooses murder.”
The NAACP said in a statement about Morrison’s death, “Our hearts are heavy over the loss of our sister, Toni Morrison. Morrison, a renowned teacher, professor, and award-winning novelist, revealed the unspoken truths of Black life in America and provided us with a deeper understanding of what it meant to be loved. Among the many prestigious awards Morrison received throughout her life, she was notably the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. She also received an NAACP Image Award for her novel, Love. Her legacy will live on through her contributions to the literary community, and the world as a whole.”
Morrison said in 2015 at Princeton, “Of course I am a storyteller and therefore an optimist, a firm believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s appetite for truth and its disgust with fraud. “I’m a believer in the power of knowledge and the ferocity of beauty, so from my point of view your life is already artful — waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.”
In “Beloved,” Morrison wrote, “The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life — every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem.”