Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
Today we want to celebrate the author Toni Morrison, whose birthday is on the 18th of February. Her thought-provoking, impassioned books explore the African American experience. This provides vital black representation, where in Morrison’s own words, “black people are talking to black people.”
Morrison was born in 1931, the second child of four children born to working class parents, who migrated to Ohio from Southern America. She experienced racism from just two years old, when the landlord set her home on fire, with her family still inside. Morrison grew up reading classic literature such as books by Jane Austen. Her father supported her knowledge of the African American tradition, telling her stories from his childhood in the South.
She studied Humanities at Howard University in Washington DC and began writing fiction while working as an editor at Random House publishers in New York. Here, she noticed the lack of novels that spoke to readers like herself. One of her goals was to establish a ‘canon of black work’, which led her towards projects such as editing The Black Book. This is an anthology of items illustrating the history of African Americans.
In 2019, Morrison died aged 88, and today she would have been 90 years old. Her work provides a mouthpiece for the histories of black people, allowing them to reclaim their heritage.
Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1969) looked at the social lives of African American women, particularly focusing on the trauma of slavery during and after the 19th Century. Thought by many to be her greatest work, her novel Beloved (1987) is based on real histories from The Black Book. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, after more than 40 of America’s leading writers and scholars signed a letter to highlight its outstanding nature.
Morrison also produced several vibrant picture books alongside her son, Slade Morrison. With a set of diverse characters and a fearless attitude towards morals, these books challenge and inspire readers. Take Peeny Butter Fudge (2009), for example, where a group of children experience a domestic adventure when their Nana looks after them for the day. Or explore The Big Box (1998), a gripping tale where Patty, Mickey and Liza Sue must live within big cardboard containers, but find their own way to fit in to the world around them.
Illustration by Jon Shariat