SHE GOT A LOT DONE. On Monday, Toni Morrison (1931-2019) died at the age of 88. The announcement of her death prompted an outpouring of laudatory tributes to the author who wrote with authority and aplomb about the lives of black people, with black women at the center of her narratives.

Artists were among those who shared how Morrison and her work moved them. “Thank you for being a lion for your people and for all people,” Glenn Ligon wrote on Instagram. Toyin Ojih Odutola posted: “She taught us how creating is an act of commitment—to oneself and to those who don’t think of themselves as worthy or seen… The day started out heavy, but her words…her words ‘gathered me,’ in the end. They always will, and that is no small thing.”

“The day started out heavy, but her words…her words ‘gathered me,’ in the end. They always will, and that is no small thing.” — Toyin Ojih Odutola


In memoriam, Toni Morrison’s portrait is on view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through Jan. 31, 2020. Shown, ROBERT MCCURDY (born 1952), Toni Morrison, 2006 (oil on canvas). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; on loan from Ian and Annette Cumming, © Robert McCurdy

 

Morrison’s storytelling—complex, heartbreaking and humorous—earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for the novel “Beloved” and she was the first African American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 2012, President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The first black female editor at Random House, from 1967 to 1983, Morrison worked on books with Muhammad Ali, Toni Cade Bambara, Lucille Clifton, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and Gayl Jones, among others. Before artist Barbara Chase-Riboud focused on sculpture and drawing, she had a literary career. Morrison edited “From Memphis & Peking” (1974), Chase-Riboud’s first volume of poetry.

For more than 50 years, Morrison taught writing and literature at several institutions, including Howard University, her alma mater, Bard College, Yale University, Rutgers University, and Princeton, from which she retired in 2006.

The wisdom she imparted on her students, went beyond literature. In November 2003 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, Morrison said: “I tell my students, ‘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.”

At her core, Morrison was a writer of books. She left behind many gifts of her powerful, critically recognized authorship. Morrison published 11 novels. Her first was “The Bluest Eye” (1970) and most recent “God Help the Child” (2015). She wrote children’s books, nonfiction books, including “The Black Book” (1974) and earlier this year, “The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, and Meditations,” and edited anthologies.

Her projects also included stage and musical collaborations. She penned the libretto for the opera “Margaret Garner,” which was based on the slave whose story inspired “Beloved.” In 2007, when the opera was presented at Lincoln Center in New York City, 42 prints from Kara Walker‘s “Emancipation Approximation and Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” series were on display. Since its founding in 1943, it was the first time the New York City Opera organized an exhibition to accompany a production.

Most recently, Morrison worked with her friend, the photographer and director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, on “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a must-see documentary about her life. Mickalene Thomas created the opening sequence, a live-action collage portrait of Morrison. Art by 21 artists, including works by Thomas and a print from Walker’s Emancipation Approximation series, are featured throughout the film.

An editor and a teacher who wrote all kinds of books and an opera, she got a lot done. “I know it seems like a lot,” Morrison said in a 2003 profile by Hilton Als in The New Yorker. “But I really only do one thing. I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.”

“I know it seems like a lot. But I really only do one thing. I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.”
— Toni Morrison


Kara Walker illustrated the Aug. 19, 2019, cover of The New Yorker, with a portrait in tribute to Toni Morrison (1931-2019), which she titled “Quiet As It’s Kept,” referencing an opening line from “The Bluest Eye.”

 

PRIOR TO DOING THAT ONE JOB with sustained dedication, she shared her early work with a writing group at Howard University, during her tenure on the faculty there from 1957 to 1964.

At first, she read “old junk” she wrote in high school, but then decided to work on a new story. In his profile, Als reports that Morrison began writing what became “The Bluest Eye” while she was in the group. One member in particular—painter and playwright Charles Sebree (1914-1985)—was impressed with what he heard. “When Morrison read the story to the writing group,” Als writes, “Sebree turned to her and said, ‘You are a writer.'”

In the decades that followed, many artists joined Sebree in recognizing Morrison’s exceptional storytelling. Deana Lawson said the author inspired her photography. In a conversation with Arthur Jafa published last year in Garage magazine, Lawson said:

    I remember this one line I took out of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), of course, where she says about the women: “They wash themselves with orange-colored Lifebuoy soap, dust themselves with Cashmere Bouquet talc, clean their teeth with salt on a piece of rag, soften their skin with Jergens Lotion.” After I read that, I realized I was familiar with the scent of a woman who wears Jergens lotion, or the kind of woman who wears Jean Naté After Bath Splash . . . I wanted to make a picture of what that woman smelled like. I wanted to make a picture of the women who would wear deep plum lipstick in New York City. Toni Morrison brought out the olfactory sense in writing.

Closing today, painter Marcus Brutus titled his exhibition at Harper’s Books in East Hampton after advice Morrison recalled on several occasions that she had received from her father. The show is called, “Go To Work. Get Your Money and Come Home. You Don’t Live There.”

Thomas and Walker offered expressions of awe and admiration in the wake of Morrison’s passing. Thomas called her “one of the ‘Greatest Literary Queens.'”

Walker had a few connections to Morrison. In addition to the exhibition of her work displayed at Lincoln Center in conjunction with “Margaret Garner,” the artist contributed five letterpress silhouettes to “Five Poems,” a limited-edition art book signed by Morrison and Walker, produced by Rainmaker Editions in 2002 to benefit Black Mountain Institute. Walker also wrote a critical review of “God Help the Child,” Morrison’s last novel, for The New York Times.

On Tuesday, Walker posted an image of a new work on Instagram (which was removed this morning). Morrison, she said, inspired her to try an unfamiliar medium: clay portraiture. Turns out, it was an early version of what would become a portrait of the author for the Aug. 19 cover of The New Yorker. Walker ditched the clay and also abandoned attempts using watercolor and charcoal, settling on a familiar approach—a cutout silhouette.

Accompanying the image of her Morrison sculpture, which she described as “a clumsy attempt,” Walker wrote: “Trying to process the words the woman the image and her unrepentant play with language and story. She wove and spun and told yarns and barbed histories and gave so so much permission for us to do the same… I learned so much about picture making from Ms. Morrison. And I’m ever grateful for her existence in our lifetime…” CT

 

READ Alfred A. Knopf statement announcing Toni Morrison’s death

READ Toni Morrison’s obituary in The New York Times

 

LISTEN to Toni Morrison deliver her Nobel Prize lecture

LISTEN to interviews with Toni Morrison on Fresh Air and with Hilton Als

 

READ a profile of Toni Morrison by Hilton Als in The New Yorker

READ remembrances of Toni Morrison from poets Tracy K. Smith, Kevin Young, and John Hoppenthaler

 

BOOKSHELF
Toni Morrison published 11 novels and many more books. Her first novel “The Bluest Eye” (1970) was followed by “Sula” (1973). Additional novels included “Beloved” (1987) for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. “The Black Book” offers a visual journey exploring the black experience in America. A 35th anniversary edition was published a decade ago. Among her children’s books, she co-wrote with her son Slade Morrison, The Big Box, “Peeny Butter Fudge,” and “Please, Louise.” Morrison’s last novel, “God Help the Child,” was published in 2015 and earlier this year, she released “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations,” a book of essays.

 
 
 

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Texted a friend this morning when hit by the news: I’m not ready to speak of her in the past tense…I don’t think I ever will. There’s something about the presence of her words—they are so formidable, yet malleable; you can picture them in any context. They give you pause, gift you courage, inspire a rhythm and possibility…. I cannot picture the source of those words no longer with us. She taught us how creating is an act of commitment—to oneself and to those who don’t think of themselves as worthy or seen. In the doing, we make our own; in her text she made her own and ours—it was so expansive. So grateful for her existence, her arrangements, her consideration and daring, her curiosity…so grateful for HER VISION. The day started out heavy, but her words…her words “gathered me,” in the end. They always will, and that is no small thing. Rest in Power, #ToniMorrison.

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Thank you

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A true genius. #thankyou #Rip #tonimorrison

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