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Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison: In Memoriam

Toni Morrison lived in the USA from 1931-2019. Her literary work has provided a nuanced language for speaking about Black experiences, and has been a source of inspiration to many. In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In her work, Morrison repeatedly contests the status quo and directly addresses both the deliberate and unconscious invisibilization of white supremacy in the literary scene. In 1992, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, she poses very specific questions: What happens to the literary imagination of a Black author who is in some way always conscious of representing Blackness in a context that sees itself as universal or free of racist divisions? How does the division into white or Black literature come about and what are the consequences of these constructions? With regard to different positionalities: How are literary texts read and by whom?

Morrison is appreciated for the complexity of her works, which include insights into racist structures from a Black perspective, even when these are not the central concern. The author herself says that this is exactly what she remains aware of throughout her work:

“My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world.”

Playing in the Dark

Morrison’s first novel, published in 1970, The bluest eye, examines whiteness as a norm and points to the negative effects of this unattainable standard in the lives of Black people. The young Black protagonist Pecola perceives herself as ugly and desires nothing more than blue eyes, which she equates with being white. She hopes that blue eyes will not only make her beautiful, but also solve all the problems of family and material misery in which she grows up.

All of Morrison’s works have an exploratory character with regard to being a woman and Black. In 1987, Morrison achieved international fame with her novel Beloved. In this epic, Morrison examines the consequences of slavery on the lives of Black people in the USA. The novel speaks to the question of what people are prepared to do to protect their children from a life of torture.

Morrison writes for a Black readership and gives careful attention to the mental health of Black people in her work. She was a remarkable writer, and her achievements are all the more inspiring for having been reached at a time when the literary landscape was an even more white-man dominated industry than it is now.