American novelist Toni Morrison died at the age of 88, her publisher announced Tuesday. Morrison received a master's in English from Cornell University in 1955 and was the first African-American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her work, which centered around issues of black identity and race, was “masterful, purposeful, precise and challenging,” says Noliwe Rooks, professor in the Africana Studies & Research Center.
“Toni Morrison was a writer whose words seared with their moral clarity and lodged themselves inside of both individual readers and entire nations. Her sanity-confirming wisdom explained troubled times and soothed restless souls. In one work she declared that love that wasn’t thick, was no kind of love at all. In another, she asked us what we were prepared to do with our hard-won freedoms to make them matter. In yet another, she asked us to contemplate the fact that Black people might, if they only believed they could, fly. She was masterful, purposeful, precise, challenging and insightful.
“She was also kind. The first time I met her was roughly 20 years ago when I was working in African American Studies at Princeton. Her office was a few doors down from mine. One of the first events I worked on after arriving at Princeton was a conference in her honor. My husband, Bill, and 6-year-old son, Jelani, both came to hear her closing remarks. Jelani had a question about something she said and afterward my husband told him he should ask Prof. Morrison what she meant. Jelani didn’t know enough to be intimidated in the asking, and I don’t know remember either the question or the answer. What I remember is that she took the time and care to answer him and explain. That is what he remembers as well. Toni Morrison looked him in the eye and explained. That is the feeling I have had over the decades when reading her works. I felt that she looked us all in the heart and explained it all.”
Kenneth McClane ’73, M.A. ’74, MFA ’76, the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Literature Emeritus, also reflected on Morrison's passing.
"Toni Morrison was heralded mightily and rightly so: the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and books that are read by millions.
"But most crucially, Ms. Morrison is a writer’s writer. Her prose is lyrical, multi-layered, luminous and always trenchant. For those of us who write, Morrison showed us not only how to imagine the black experience but how to foreground it. Before Morrison, most books in the African American canon seemed to be written from the vantage point of the white gaze: Black experience might be central but it was filtered through the distorting lens of the white experience. Morrison, however, made black life central, mythical, and revelatory. In books like Sula, Beloved, and Song of Solomon, black life was greeted with the erudition, gravitas, and mystery that characterized the world’s greatest writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. It is not an overstatement to suggest that Toni Morrison was America’s Cervantes, and one could not have Jesymn Ward or Gloria Naylor without her."