“When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
—Toni Morrison, in an interview for O: The Oprah Magazine
Toni Morrison is an American author, editor, literary critic, playwright, and professor. She has won numerous honorable literary and humanitarian distinctions throughout her life, such as the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Morrison’s focus on the black experience in America, as well as her refusal to include the white gaze in her works or to write for a white reading audience, is something she credits to making her works standout amongst other writers.
Morrison’s most notable works of fiction include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and her most recently published work God Help the Child. Some of her noteworthy nonfiction titles are Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Birth of a Nation’hood, and Burn This Book.
At 84, she sits comfortably as one of the greatest authors in American history, even as her uncompromising dream for black literature seems farther away than ever.
The opening to a feature on Toni Morrison in the New York Times Magazine describes her as one of the great American authors, whose voice is powerful and authentic. Morrison once described the novel as that which “has always functioned for the class or the group that wrote it.” This places the novel as a powerful piece of culture, and Morrison has proven it as such by her legacy of authorship: 11 novels, a Nobel Prize in Literature (1993) and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988), and her continuing work.
On one level, Morrison’s project is obvious: It is a history that stretches across 11 novels and just as many geographies and eras to tell a story that is hardly chronological but is thematically chained and somewhat continuous. … But then there is the other mission, the less obvious one, the one in which Morrison often does the unthinkable as a minority, as a woman, as a former member of the working class: She democratically opens the door to all of her books only to say, “You can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I’m glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn’t built for you or by you.”
As a former editor at Random House, Morrison has done battle with the question of diversity in publishing.
But what has remained more elusive is the part that Morrison figured out as an editor: What happens after the workshop and the head count? How do people change an establishment? How do people change an industry?
Morrison is prolific, and not just for her writing. The NYT piece that Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah wrote about Morrison is long, but it is compelling and describes the mission and life of Toni Morrison far better than I can. So, really, check it out.
“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
-Toni Morrison, author of The Bluest Eye