Although she left us more than two years ago, Toni Morrison and her singular oeuvre live on in our hearts and mind, rippling like concentric circles over fathomless depths as she upends and transforms myths of race and redemption, personal and political. One of only 12 Americans to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, and raised in Lorain, Ohio, earning degrees from Howard and Cornell. Then, as a divorced mother of two, she became the first Black female editor at Random House, where she shepherded luminaries such as Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones into print. Her passion, though, was for writing and teaching; she traded the editor’s desk for the typewriter and a lectern at Princeton. She mentored writers such as David Treuer and Mohsin Hamid—by all accounts, her finger went straight to the pulse of a workshop piece, unerring in its aim, precise in its criticism.
But we know her today as she asked us to know her: through her novels and one published short story. On what would have been her 91st birthday, we raise a toast to 13 of her groundbreaking books—13 ways Toni Morrison gazed unflinchingly at the world, its beauty and cruelty and marvels—and once again plunge into her rich narratives and stirring language.
The Bluest Eye (1970)
This debut novel follows a young Black girl named Pecola growing up in Lorain, Ohio—Morrison’s hometown—in the years following the Great Depression. Pecola is consistently teased about her dark skin, hair, and eyes, causing her to long for the white features she perceives to be more beautiful, such as blonde hair, light eyes, and fair skin. But as the young girl prays for the miracle of blue eyes, her personal life takes a heartbreaking turn. From racial conflict to sexual abuse to her characters’ inner demons, Morrison boldly announces the themes that will propel her lengthy career, literary jet fuel.
Sula takes you through the lives and diverging paths of two best friends: Nel and Sula. One decides to stay in their hometown and raise a family, while the other leaves home for college, enjoying the city life. They soon reunite, coming to terms with their differences and the consequences of their own life choices. Morrison explores broader historical arcs and their imprint on us all.
Song of Solomon (1977)
One of Morrison’s most celebrated works—a blend of realism, fable, and fantasy—Song of Solomon earned the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978, and was an Oprah’s Book Club pick in 1996. It follows the life of Macon Dead, Jr. (a.k.a. Milkman), from birth into adulthood, probing the many mysteries and unforgettable characters that surround him and the brutality of racial violence. “Few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this wise and spacious novel,” the New York Times’ Reynolds Price said of Morrison in a 1977 review.
Tar Baby (1981)
This romance depicts the unlikely love affair of a young Black couple from two different worlds: Jadine is a beautiful fashion model accustomed to the life of the rich due to her family’s wealthy, white employers; Son is a poor fugitive. Together, they seek a world where superficial differences don’t pit people against each other. Morrison’s lighter register is deceptive, though, as she sifts through the layers of class struggle.
Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this novel is perhaps Morrison’s best-known. Based on the true account of Margaret Garner, Sethe, Beloved’s protagonist is a former slave who escapes to Ohio in the 1870s. Despite her freedom, she’s haunted by the trauma of her past. In 1998, Oprah starred in the film adaptation. “Beloved is written in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point,” wrote The Handmaid's Tale’s Margaret Atwood in a 1987 review for The New York Times.
Set in 1920s Harlem, this historical story depicts the dramatic love triangle of door-to-door salesman Joe, his wife, Violet, and his teenage girlfriend, Dorcas. In a sudden twist of events, after Dorcas begins to resent and reject Joe, he kills the young girl. In the aftermath, a timeline is pieced together that reveals the motivations and inner turmoil of Morrison’s cast.
Chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 1998, Paradise concludes the Beloved trilogy, chronicling the events that lead to a shocking act of violence in Ruby—a patriarchal all-Black Oklahoma town. Morrison’s intricate narrative structures mirror her perspicacious gaze at Black history, a world-building tour de force both anchored in reality and brimming with speculative buoyancy.
Centered around a deceased hotel owner named Bill Cosey—who died under suspicious circumstances—Love unfolds as a split narrative that follows the lives of the many women who shared relationships with him. From his granddaughter to his widow, these women filled Cosey’s life with love and misery. As with Beloved, Morrison illuminates the many ways the dead hold the living in a vise-like grip.
A Mercy (2008)
Here Morrison peers further into the past, portraying the slave trade of the 1680s. A Mercy follows an Anglo-Dutch adventurer who takes in a young girl named Florens after being traded in a debt payment. With the ability to read and write, she works on his farm, searching for connection and protection from her fellow workers in a kind of parable, a pilgrim’s faltering path toward reconciliation.
Frank Money, a young Black veteran of the Korean War, returns home only to be thrust back into America’s race wars while also dealing with the specter of combat. He eventually finds himself in his once-hated Georgia hometown to save his abused younger sister—a journey that seems to be his saving grace.
God Help the Child (2015)
The first of Morrison’s novels to be set in the 21st century, God Help the Child deals with the subject of colorism. Its main character, Bride, is a gorgeous and confident dark-skinned woman, but her features cause her fairer-skinned mother to withhold love and instead subject her to abuse. Once again Morrison delves further into the tensions inherent in among mothers and daughters, the rifts that lurk in even the most intimate relationships.
The Source of Self-Regard (2019)
As the last book published before her death, this nonfiction collection is a stunning culmination of some of Morrison’s most powerful speeches and essays. From a James Baldwin eulogy to meditations on Gertrude Stein, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the painter Romare Bearden, she reflects brilliantly on wealth, female empowerment, and the Black imagination.
First published in 1983 and released as a hardcover last month, Morrison’s only short story is a formal experiment that both stokes and defies our expectations, a chess game she’s destined to win. As 8-year-olds, Twyla and Roberta are “dumped” for four months into a home for runaway and orphan girls; as Twyla notes, “my mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” Within St. Bonaventure, they’re hapless pawns near the bottom of the social pecking order, just above Maggie, the mute, disabled kitchen aide. But the literary queen has a gambit up her sleeve: One girl is white and the other Black, and Morrison jumbles their racial identities through a series of moves that undermine historical hierarchies and simple binaries. When the girls reunite as women, they seek out the truth about what, exactly, went down so many years earlier. Zadie Smith offers an incisive, surprising introduction, limning the burdens the author placed on herself and us all, stepping out of her comfort zone while tirelessly advocating for “the African American culture out of which and toward which Morrison writes.”
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