Art Works Blog

Toni Morrison: An Appreciation

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Toni Morrison during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, May 29, 2012. Of Morrison's work, the president said, "I remember reading Song of Solomon when I was a kid and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think." Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Before Toni Morrison was a cultural icon, before she received the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, before there was a Toni Morrison Society, before she co-wrote books for children and taught at Princeton and served on the NEA's National Council on the Arts and fostered the careers of countless other superb black writers, she was a writer not unlike many other writers trying to find the time and energy to keep at it. Like me---and I say this humbly and only to illustrate the depth of her inspiration---she was a working mother of two boys who stayed committed to her writers group and published her first novel just shy of her 40th birthday.

It’s easy to forget her early struggles and motivation in the midst of all her accomplishments and astounding talent. President Obama, though, didn't forget when he recently awarded her the Medal of Freedom. “As a single mother working in a publishing company by day, she would carve out a little time in the evening to write, often with her two sons pulling on her hair and tugging at her earrings,” he said. “Once a baby spit up on her tablet, so she wrote around it. Circumstances may not have been ideal, but the words that came out were magical.”

I first encountered Morrison’s writing through her novel Beloved. It was recommended by a staff person at a bookstore I wandered into (remember those days?). I had just graduated college, excited that I had time to read for pleasure. So it came to me as a good read, a book that had just come out, the writer a good writer whom I’d never heard of, as simple as that.  And it blew me away. The characters, the writing, the heart-wrenching scenes, the idea as it was stated in the novel that “freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

I’ve since read many of her astounding books, some in grad school, some on my own. I love that she has the chops to give her novels single-word titles like Home and Love and Jazz. (For the rest of us that would just be chutzpah.) Beloved, though, is still my favorite, perhaps because that was my entry point. With so many new books crossing my desk, it’s not very often I reread a novel. But I pulled my aged copy of Beloved off my shelf to write this post, and spent the next hour rereading passages from it while my sons slept in the next room, remembering why I loved it all those years ago and love it still.

To anyone who has read Morrison's work, it's no surprise she's celebrated as an elder stateswoman of literature. But I still like to think of her as she started out, someone who persevered despite all the hurdles, big and small, and---thankfully for all of us---graced the world with her art and vision.

Toni Morrison served on the National Council of Arts from 1980-1987. In 1993, she received the Nobel Prize for Literature. You can read her acceptance speech here.

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