On August 5, 2019, Toni Morrison passed away at the age of 88. She was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and her work illuminated the realities of African American lives with unparalleled force.
In honor of her life and work, Agate authors have offered reflections on what Toni Morrison meant to them.
“I read several of Toni Morrison’s books; my favorite one being Song of Solomon. As a bookseller, I had the honor of meeting Ms. Morrison––who was quite pleasant and gracious––when she did a huge event for Karibu Books at Prince George’s Community College. With her passing, we lost more than a literary treasure; we lost a special human being.” –Simba Sana, author of Never Stop: A Memoir
“Toni Morrison stepped beyond mere storytelling to reveal the raw truth. May her soul rest in peace and her word live forever.” –Gil Robertson, author of Family Affair: What It Means to be African American Today, Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community, Where Did Our Love Go: Love and Relationships in the African-American Community
“It was first through Pecola Breedlove’s blue eyes I learned of the perilous nature of coming into one’s own identity, the fear of being disremembered and unaccounted for. It is from her story––a child whose abandonment began before she was even born––that I understood the bone-deep necessity to protect my own progenies from the legacy of generational failure.” –Regina Louise, author of Someone Has Led This Child to Believe: A Memoir
“Toni Morrison taught me that I matter. I grew up reading, but I never read a novel by a black woman until I was out of college. Then I read Toni Morrison’s Sula. I read a little, and then put it down. I’m not sure if I was put off by it, or if it was just over my head. It was years later when I picked it up again, and this time I got it; the language, the boldness, the daring and bravery in removing the veil from the lives of black women––our story, my story. From then on, when a novel by Toni Morrison was released, I marked the day on my calendar. As a young woman, her words changed how I saw myself as black and female in a world both overwhelmingly white and male. Her writing changed how I saw myself as a writer. It changed me then, and it still does now.” –Rosalyn Story, author of Wading Home: A Novel of New Orleans and More Than You Know
“Toni Morrison’s novels were not easy reads. Her prose elicited a gut-punch of raw emotion, emotions that often took me out of my comfort zone. Thank you, Toni Morrison, for being the voice I needed to hear and providing the journey I needed to take.” –Dawson Perkins, author of The Team
“My book, Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, would have been a somewhat different book if not for the work—and persona—of Toni Morrison. At different parts of the book, I quoted her spectacular description of a dreadlock shampoo from Tar Baby; I quoted her description from Sula of black men as “the envy of the world”; and I suggested that it was Toni Morrison who argued, “if there were no black people, America would have had to invent them.” Toni Morrison’s work has done much to shape our thinking about blackness in the second half of the twentieth-century and beyond. But it just so happened that, roughly halfway through Twisted, I mentioned her appearance during the spring of 1998 at the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, in the wake of Paradise’s publication. After her talk I stood in line and met her, and we briefly chatted about David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, a book, it turns out, she admired as much as I did. It wasn’t a long conversation, it wasn’t especially in depth, but it was enough. I cherish that small exchange.” –Bert Ashe, author of Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles
“Song of Solomon. I read—no, devoured—it in a matter of two days. And my life was changed forever. FOREVER. It was so goddamn Black. So goddamn unapologetic. So goddamn BOLD. So beautiful . . . . every word, a gift. A calling. Toni Morrison is the reason I picked up a pen. She introduced me to myself. She is the reason I chose to focus my art, these words, on US. She is the reason I’ve done so, without apology. She has been my light. My foundation. The core. My heart. Today, my heart is broken.” –Denene Millner, author of My Brown Baby and Early Sunday Morning
“On June 25, by the grace of God, I invited a small group of writer pals to go see the documentary on Toni Morrison, The Pieces I Am. The screening was held at the Motion Picture Academy. We were like anxious children sneaking in to see our Christmas presents early. We sat in stunned attention to this gorgeous film––the music, the elegant use of paintings by renowned artists. But most enjoyable, most haunting, was Ms. Morrison speaking directly into the camera, which gave us the feeling that she was speaking directly to each of us. We were breathless!! Her humor and her unassailable brilliance shone throughout. To awaken today to this news of her passing felt like being told a lie, but the “lie” persisted––she was indeed gone from us. We have her books. We have her film. We are grateful.” –Denise Nicholas, author of Freshwater Road: A Novel
“She was a master. Actually, she was the master. No one could tell a story like Toni Morrison. She drew you in, and oftentimes, her work required that you read and re-read a few times over. When I read The Bluest Eye, I remember going back-and-forth between pages and passages, just to make sure that I got it, that I understood. Her storytelling was––is––that rich, complex, and so beautifully crafted. Her words make you stop and think . . . and imagine. Along with weaving narratives that spoke to readers from every corner of the world, she encouraged generations of writers––myself included––to always dig deeper and reach higher.” –Regina R. Robertson, editor of He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories, and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers
“‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet,’ Toni Morrison once famously said, ‘then you must write it.’ It sounds simple, but there is a world of profundity in that advice. Frankly, it is advice without which none of my four novels could exist. More importantly for history, it is advice Morrison first embodied herself, writing black life—
and particularly black women—into glorious, multifaceted existence for a literary canon and nation that had long rendered them invisible and mute. From Pecola, the little black girl desperate for the beauty she imagines blue eyes would give her, to Sethe, the former slave tormented by the ghost of her murdered child, she brought them all to unforgettable life—and in so doing changed American literature and the nation itself, forever. —Leonard Pitts, Jr., author The Last Thing Your Surrender, Grant Park, Freeman, and Before I Forget