Obituary: Toni Morrison

image copyrightReuters
image captionToni Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature

Known for her searing and lyrical works about slavery and the history of African Americans, novelist Toni Morrison was widely regarded as one of the leading lights of US literature and a champion for repressed minorities.

A prolific writer of novels, essays and song lyrics who first came to prominence in the early 1970s, Morrison focused particularly on the experience of women within the black community. Her work earned her numerous awards, most notably the Nobel Prize for Literature, for which she broke new ground as the first African American winner.

Her books The Bluest Eye, Beloved, Paradise and Love also led to Morrison winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize - and a global network of admirers including Hillary Clinton, Marlon Brando, Oprah Winfrey and fellow writers Margaret Atwood and AS Byatt.

Speaking about her writing and its preoccupations, Morrison said in an Observer interview: "When I began, there was just one thing that I wanted to write about, which was the true devastation of racism on the most vulnerable, the most helpless unit in the society - a black female and a child."

Though her name was known around the world, Morrison was born with a different identity, Chloe Ardelia Wofford, on 18 February 1931. She was the second of four children.

After her parents decided to leave the south of America, the family settled in Lorain, Ohio. Her father worked mainly as a welder but also held down other out-of-hours jobs in order to support his family.

Morrison's mother was both musical and highly imaginative and inspired her daughter's blossoming love of literature through the sharing of songs and folklore.

Morrison took on the middle name Anthony, from the saint, when she converted to Catholicism at the age of 12. Friends at university in Washington later shortened it to Toni.

Writing group

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionBarack Obama presented Toni Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012

Given she was already reading Austen and Tolstoy at a very young age, Morrison's decision to study English seemed a natural choice, setting her on the path to her future career.

But the undergraduate experience also gave her her first real taste of racism and segregation. Even though Howard University was an all-black establishment, students were defined and set into groups by the degree of darkness of their skin.

In 1953 she went on to take a masters at Cornell University, choosing for her thesis The Treatment of the Alienated in Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, focusing on the theme of suicide.

A teaching career back at Howard followed, as did marriage to Jamaican-born architect Harold Morrison in 1958, and motherhood with the birth of two sons.

The relationship crumbled after only a few years, but Morrison's future was about to begin. She joined a writing group and authored her first story, about a young black girl that prayed for blue eyes - based on the true feelings of one of Morrison's friends.

The need to support herself and her children led to Morrison taking a job as an editor for Random House publishing in New York in 1963, a company with which she was eventually associated for 18 years.

Her editing career became significant in that it fuelled some of her strongest interests and convictions, as she worked on anthologies of African authors such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Morrison also strove to bring black writers onto the mainstream market.

Nobel honour

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionOprah Winfrey starred in the film adaptation of Morrison's Beloved

It was also in her early years at Random that her novelist's career truly began. In 1970 she published The Bluest Eye, a fully formed version of her early story, set in Lorain during the Depression.

Her second novel Sula, published three years later, was also set in Ohio and spanned 46 years from 1919 to 1965.

But it was 1977's epic Song of Solomon, the first in a succession of historical novels about the black American experience, that truly marked Morrison out as a talent. It won her the National Book Critics Circle Award, the first of many career accolades.

It follows the life of Macon "Milkman" Dead III, an African-American male living in Michigan, from birth to adulthood.

Despite the abundance of acclaimed works in her subsequent career, Beloved remains Morrison's best-known novel and was later made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionToni Morrison was always in demand at many events, such as the Sundance Film Festival where she enjoyed time with stars including Glenn Close

The story is based on the true case of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed her daughter rather than see her recaptured.

Her next novel was Jazz, published in 1992, which told a story of violence and passion set in New York City's Harlem during the 1920s. Then, in 1993, Morrison won the ultimate honour of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Toni Morrison novels

The Bluest Eyes - 1970

Sula - 1973

Song of Solomon - 1977

Tar Baby - 1981

Beloved - 1987

Jazz - 1992

Paradise - 1997

Love - 2003

A Mercy - 2008

Home - 2012

God Help the Child - 2015

In choosing Morrison, the Swedish Nobel Academy singled out the way she "delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race".

And in an interview with the Observer, Morrison said of the honour: "I felt representative, I felt American, I felt Ohioan, I felt blacker than ever. I felt more woman than ever."

Songs and academia

Morrison went on to write other novels including Paradise, from 1998, a portrait of a black utopian community in Oklahoma which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Love, from 2003, was an intricate family story about the many facets of love. A Mercy, from 2008, dealt with slavery in 17th Century America, while Home, published in 2012, documented a traumatised Korean War veteran who faced racism after returning home.

She also wrote a number of children's book in collaboration with her younger son Slade, a painter and musician, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at the age of 45. Home was unfinished at the time and Morrison stopped working on it.

She later revealed she found the attempts of comfort from friends left her numb. "What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren't," she told The Guardian.

"Somebody tries to say, 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.' People say that to me. There's no language for it. Sorry doesn't do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something."

Eventually, she said, she found the strength to complete Home because it was what her son would have wanted.

In 2015, Morrison brought out her last novel God Help the Child, which told the story of a beautiful young woman who is tormented by the emotional abuse her mother subjected her to as a child because she had dark skin.

Alongside her novel writing, Morrison proved herself as an essayist, specialising in race issues, a playwright and a songwriter. Most notably, she was commissioned by Carnegie Hall to write the lyrics for six songs for the soprano Kathleen Battle, set to music composed by Andre Previn.

On top of these activities, Morrison had an illustrious career as an academic, regularly lecturing at universities across the US and earning a professorship at Princeton.

Her other accolades included being made an officer of the French Legion of Honour in 2010. Two years later she was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.