Toni Morrison, a major contributor to the African-American literary canon and the subject of the newly released documentary “The Pieces I Am,” died Monday at the age 88.
Her family and publisher Knopf confirmed Tuesday that the author died at Montefiore Medical Center in New York on Monday night after a short illness.
Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in the steel mill town of Lorain, Ohio in 1931 where her father, George, worked primarily as a welder but held several jobs at once to support the family. Her mother, Ramah, was a domestic worker.
Morrison, a voracious reader, got her first job as a library attendant and worked there until she went off to college.
She went to Howard University and received her bachelor’s in English in 1953 and a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955.
After completing her studies, she returned to Washington, D.C. as a college professor, married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison then gave birth to two sons, Harold Ford and Slade.
It was 1965, after splitting from Harold, when she began her career as an editor at Random House where she was instrumental in publishing American writers and luminaries such as Angela Davis, Henry Dumas and Muhammad Ali.
Yet, she knew there was a story that still needed to be told, one she hadn’t read or seen before.
At first, she was private about her own writing and would do so as a pastime very early in the morning before her boys would wake.
“I remember reading the ‘Bluest Eye’ and thought it was wonderful,” said Robert Gottlieb, a Random House colleague and the chief editor of the Alfred Knopf sub-division.
When Random House got wind of the fact that she was publishing, they wanted to keep her work in house and so, with the exception of one book, Gottlieb got to edit all of her books while they were published through Knopf.
Her first book, as Morrison claimed, intentionally eliminated the white gaze without “codes or notes explaining things to white people,” as she decided to put the entire plot on the first page.
“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”
It was 1970 and “The Bluest Eye” boasted a story inspired by a conversation Morrison had had with an elementary schoolmate in Lorain many years before.
Her friend told her she had been asking God to give her blue eyes and he never did.
“How painful … can you imagine that kind of pain?” Morrison recounted for filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders in the “The Pieces I Am” documentary. “So, I wanted to say, this kind of racism hurts. This is not lynchings and murders and drownings. This is interior pain. It’s so deep to know that an 11 year old would think that if only she had some characteristic of the white world, she would be OK.”
Greenfield-Sanders, a Miami Beach native, was Morrison’s photographer and friend for 40 years, yet was very conscious of his own white male gaze while creating ‘The Pieces I Am.” So, he found it important to question and challenge it with the unique perspectives of other diverse media-makers.
“For me, Toni has been a treasured collaborator, a monumental inspiration and, most importantly, a cherished friend. We will all miss her, but the gifts she left us — her written works that have transformed so many lives around the world — live on ... to educate, empower and nourish us,” he said. “For this and all she shared with us, I say thank you Toni.”
He recounts that Morrison did not jump at the chance to have a documentary made about her life, but she also didn’t say ‘no.’
“She was the inspiration for my 2008 film, “The Black List.” That’s when I first started to seriously think about Toni as the subject for a film. It wasn't until around 2014 that I felt there was urgency,” he said in an interview with Beandra July earlier this year. “We live our lives, get older, and often miss the right moment to capture an extraordinary life, with the subject fully engaged. And, there hadn’t been a proper documentary about her. Since Toni did not dismiss the idea immediately, which is often her way, I knew it was a good sign.”
“The Pieces I Am” is currently available on Hulu and will receive its exclusive U.S. broadcast premiere as part of the “American Masters“ series in late 2020 on PBS.
A fan of Morrison, Dinkinish O’Connor is a Miami-born writer and professor of Communication and English both at St. Thomas University and UNILATINA International College.
“The first work I read was the ‘Bluest Eye.’ I just remember being stunned by a body of work that was addressing an issue that has such a dynamic history in Caribbean culture. My family is from Jamaica. There was a level of poignancy in her style,” said O’Connor.
In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature then, three years later, she was honored with the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation.
Tragedy struck, however, in 2010 when her youngest son Slade died of pancreatic cancer.
Slade and his mother had co-written a series of books for children. These eight titles include “Little Cloud and Lady Wind;” “Peeny Butter Fudge;” “Please, Louise;” “The Lion or the Mouse?;” “The Big Box.” The books are still available on Amazon for purchase.
Out of all of Morrison’s work, though, O’Connor believes “Beloved” is the stand-out.
“I read it in high school. Our teacher introduced it to us. But I wasn’t ready,” she said. “Perhaps, I didn’t have the intellectual or spiritual tools to understand the work … or I probably wasn’t ready for the conversation…the fact that a slave mother would kill her babies to free them.”
O’Connor now believes that “it is critical for all Black students to read “Beloved.”
“There is something about “Beloved” that creeps into your subconscious. It apprehends your indifference …. your fear of America’s true identity,” she said.
Morrison published 11 best-selling and highly acclaimed works of fiction, including “Beloved,” which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, “Sula,” “Tar Baby,” “Paradise” and “Song of Solomon,” the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
“What a rich life and language and storytelling,” said O’Connor. “Toni Morrison can now be on the other side with the characters she wrote about. There is going to be a feast waiting for her. Beloved is going be there. Sula is going to be there. Pecola is going to be there. They are going to be welcoming mama home.”
Morrison is survived by her son Harold Ford and several grandchildren.