Nobel Prize-winning author and alumna Toni Morrison MA ’55 died Monday, Aug. 5, in New York City. She was 88.
She wrote 11 novels that explored and illuminated the black American experience, including “Beloved,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and “Song of Solomon,” which received a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. She also wrote “The Bluest Eye,” “Jazz,” “Sula,” “Tar Baby” and “Paradise,” as well as children’s books and essay collections. In 1993, Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
“Toni Morrison was a writer whose words seared with their moral clarity and lodged themselves inside both individual readers and entire nations,” said Noliwe Rooks, Cornell professor of Africana studies and director of the American Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Her sanity-confirming wisdom explained troubled times and soothed restless souls. In one work she declared that love that wasn’t thick, was no kind of love at all. In another she asked us what we were prepared to do with our hard-won freedoms to make them matter. In yet another she asked us to contemplate the fact that black people might—if they only believed they could—fly.
“She was masterful, purposeful, precise, challenging, and insightful,” Rooks said. “She was also kind.”
“The loss of Toni Morrison is incalculable,” said Gerard Aching MA ’90, PhD ’91, professor of Romance and Africana studies. “Rarely have we had the opportunity to listen to a voice who is able to deliver such acute analyses, insights and prescience when it comes to American life, the experiences of African Americans, and human struggles in general through such an astounding and always instructive mastery of the written word.”
Kenneth McClane ’73, MA ’74, MFA ’76, the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Literature Emeritus, said that while Morrison was “heralded mightily and rightly so” and read by millions, most crucially, she was “a writer’s writer.”
“Her prose is lyrical, multilayered, luminous, and always trenchant. For those of us who write, Morrison showed us not only how to imagine the black experience but how to foreground it,” McClane said. “[She] made black life central, mythical and revelatory. … It is not an overstatement to suggest that Toni Morrison was America’s Cervantes, and one could not have Jesmyn Ward or Gloria Naylor without her.”
Morrison was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Emerson-Thoreau Medal in 2016, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and the National Humanities Medal in 2000. Earlier this year, she was chosen to receive the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ highest honor for excellence in the arts, the Gold Medal for Fiction.
Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-mill town west of Cleveland. She earned a BS in English in 1953 at Howard University and a master’s degree in American literature in 1955 at Cornell, where she wrote her thesis on “Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s treatment of the alienated.”
An A.D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell from 1997 to 2003, Morrison was the Robert F. Goheen Professor Emerita of the Humanities at Princeton, where she taught from 1989 to 2006. She also held numerous lectureships and academic chairs at universities across the U.S. and in Europe, and was a senior editor at Random House for nearly two decades.
Morrison returned to the Ithaca campus numerous times over the years. “It’s always nice for me to come back,” she said in 2009. “My memories are strong about this place; important. And the two times I have been here for sustained periods have always been extraordinary.”
She most recently returned to Cornell in 2013, where she spoke about literature, politics and language. In particular she discussed how, when she began writing in the 1950s, she did not follow the path that much African American literature and poetry was taking at that time: responding to “the white gaze,” the idea of the white oppressor.
“I thought, ‘I can’t do that,’” Morrison said. “What is the world like if he’s not there? And the freedom, the open world that appears is stunning. … There was this free space opened up by refusing to respond every minute to … somebody else’s gaze. So that flavored a great deal of what I was writing. It still does.”
Rooks said she first met Morrison about 20 years ago while Rooks was working at Princeton. One of the first events Rooks attended there, with her husband and son, was a conference in Morrison’s honor.
Rooks recalled that after the talk, her son, then 6 years old, had a question for Morrison. Rooks said she doesn’t recall either the question or the answer: “What I remember is that she took the time and care to answer him and explain. That is what he remembers as well. That Toni Morrison looked him in the eye and explained. That is the feeling I have had over the decades when reading her works. I felt that she looked us in the heart and explained it all.”
Morrison is survived by her son Harold Ford Morrison; she was predeceased by her son Slade.
This story was written by Joe Wilensky, and also appears in the Cornell Chronicle.