This week, we lost a hero. American novelist and professor Toni Morrison passed away on Monday at the age of 88 due to pneumonia complications.
Through storytelling, Morrison was able to not only shed light on and give voice to the racially oppressed, but become an inspiration to all women in spite of the critics. She was an icon, a leader and the kind of badass woman we need more of in the world today.
Morrison was born in Ohio in 1931. When she was just two years old, her family home was set on fire by the landlord – while they were inside – because they couldn’t pay rent. “It was this hysterical, out-of-the-ordinary, bizarre form of evil,” she told The Washington Post. “For $4 a month somebody would just burn you to a crisp.” Instead of crying, Morrison’s family laughed. “That’s what laughter does. You take it back. You take your life back. Your take your integrity back.”
Perhaps it was these early experiences that gave Morrison the strength to succeed later on. In 1949, she attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she encountered racial segregation and was told by her professor that writing a paper on the role of black people in Shakespeare was “low-class.”
Morrison went on to get married, divorced, and become to mother of two sons. She also became the first black woman senior editor in the fiction department at Random House where she helped bring black literature and African-American authors into the mainstream.
In 1988, Morrison’s novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and ten years later was turned into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. In the early ‘90s, she became the first black woman of any nationality to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five years later, she became the second female writer of fiction, and second black writer of fiction to appear on the cover of TIME magazine.
Another instance in which Morrison depicted her inner strength against adversity was during a 1998 interview with Jana Wendt for the program Toni Morrison: Uncensored. When Wendt asked Morrison when she would “incorporate white lives” into her books, the author had a powerful response.
“You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?” she asked. “You could never ask a white author, ‘When are you going to write about Black people?’ Whether he did or not, or she did or not. Even the enquiry comes from a position of being in the centre.”
Morrison’s ability to stand strong in the face of racism, suffering and hardship, and continue to tell the stories that desperately need to be heard will continue to inspire women, and men, in the world today. Here’s hoping we can find some of her strength in the future.