Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient told Black life like it was
By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
When the late, iconic author and educator Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, it was such a regal affair, which was summed up by one of her contemporaries in this manner: “The Nobel committee needed the presence of Morrison, a celebrated Black, female writer, as much as Morrison revered the recognition.” This was because before Morrison, mostly old, white men had been awarded the same honor.
Indeed, Morrison, who passed away earlier this week in New York at the age of 88, reportedly due to complications related to pneumonia, wholeheartedly deserved this award and the many accolades given to her before and after this record-breaking event. Morrison was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and may be best known for her book “Beloved,” a novel based on the true story of an enslaved Black woman and made into a movie produced by media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
However, Morrison was much more than this book, as greatly detailed in a recently released documentary titled “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” The documentary offers an artful and intimate meditation on the life and works of the legendary storyteller—from her childhood in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, to ’70s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali, from the front lines with Angela Davis to her own riverfront writing room—Morrison leads an assembly of her peers, critics and colleagues on an exploration of race, America, history, and the human condition as seen through the prism of her own literature.
Inspired to write because no one took a “little Black girl” seriously, Morrison reflects on her lifelong deconstruction of the master narrative. Woven together with a rich collection of art, history, literature, and personality, the film includes discussions about her many critically acclaimed works, including novels “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” and “Song of Solomon;” her role as an editor of iconic African-American literature; and her time teaching at Princeton University.
Her birthplace in Ohio struck Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who issued this statement on behalf of herself and the city of Chicago: “I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Toni Morrison, one of our country’s greatest authors, storytellers, and visionaries. Over a writing career that spanned nearly five decades—and a career as a scholar and teacher that spanned even longer—Toni gave a profound and transcendent voice to our nation’s African-American experience, which had long been silenced, deeply touching our common humanity and capturing the imagination of readers worldwide.”
Mayor Lightfoot continued: “As a fellow Ohio native, I know of the excitement I felt when a new work of hers hit the bookshelves, and the untold hours I spent lost in the eloquent beauty and complex and vivid truths of her stories and characters, from Pecola, to Milkman, Denver, and countless others. Like many of her characters, Toni’s own story is one of perseverance, self-discovery, and ultimately triumph. Though her career saw her reach the pinnacle of professional success and public adulation, Toni never lost sight of who she was or her mission to speak to an essential part of the American story.”
Finally, the mayor added: “As painful as her loss is, I take personal comfort knowing her work will continue to live on as new generations of readers rediscover new meaning and purpose in her writing, her insight, and her grace. Both my and Amy’s thoughts are with Toni’s incredible family and legions of fans during this difficult time.”
A few years before Morrison’s Nobel Prize, other Black literary icons rallied on her behalf for her work to be more widely recognized. In the documentary, the author and activist Sonia Sanchez recounts the protest of 48 Black writers shortly after James Baldwin’s death in 1987, which posited the reality that Morrison hadn’t been awarded any major literary prizes, even though her work showed “what it was to be Black and human—showing Black men and women in roles that weren’t subservient.” The writers included Maya Angelou, John Edgar Wideman, Amiri Baraka and Henry Louis Gates, among others. Afterward, she also won the American Book Award in 1988 for “Beloved.”
Morrison, whose first book was “The Bluest Eye,” written in 1970, said that until she had written her third book, “Song of Solomon” in 1977, she had only considered herself an editor who wrote, or a teacher who wrote—but finally she considered herself a full-fledged writer.
During televised interviews with Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose, Morrison talks about her career and other folks’ admiration of her body of work: “There were people who wanted to ghettoize her work,” said Angela Davis. The theory was that humanity could only be colored white—and not through the chracters in Morrison’s work.
“People didn’t know what to do with what she was writing,” said Sanchez. “Then, she became popular overseas, and we began teaching her work, and people started buying her books.”
Morrison said that while growing up “poverty wasn’t shameful,” and she showed the many layers of it in her works. She wasn’t afraid to be Black.
Said Morrison, “I wrote books that I wanted to read. Free of codes and descriptions [that most white writers had to use when writing about Blacks]. The white gaze—or little white man that sits on your shoulder—knock him off, and you’re free.”
This sentiment and the work that arose from it were appreciated by the Chicago Teachers Union, which also offered condolences upon Morrison’s death.
“There is no public education without a treasure and an educator like Toni Morrison, who gave life to Black consciousness through her words and her influence on generations of writers.
“As she ascended to professional heights most of us can only dream of, she remained, simply, ‘Toni,’ with her work rooted in the struggle of her people. She was a Nobel Laureate, and a Pulitzer and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, but also a matriarch of countless Black families—real and adopted—uplifting a culture that spanned spirituals in the fields of the Deep South to beauty shops at 87th and Stony. Her mere existence was the embodiment of the soul of Black folk as she gave complexity to the American experience in all of its splendor and suffering.
“Toni Morrison did not live to write. She wrote as she lived, from her early works as a single mother to recognition as one of the greatest artists in American history. Our union sends condolences to her friends, family and colleagues. We are blessed to have been among the many lives she so greatly touched.”
And finally, the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago offered their thoughts and shared information about the next screening of the documentary.
“As a venue that celebrates all art forms and a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Gene Siskel Film Center mourns the loss of the celebrated Black author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and had already scheduled a run of the acclaimed documentary ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’ to be presented one week only from Friday, August 23, through Thursday, August 29 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Directed by longtime friend and noted photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, this documentary portrait of the great African-American novelist is as rich and abundant as the extraordinary woman it depicts. At its heart is a meaty interview with Morrison, a warm but formidable presence as she recalls her remarkable life as a book-crazy girl in an Ohio steel town, a schoolteacher raising two children on her own, an influential editor at Random House, and an author who revolutionized writing about race in America en route to winning the Nobel Prize. The film’s perspective is broadened by friends and admirers including Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, and Fran Lebowitz, while, in the manner of Morrison’s celebrated anthology The Black Book, a steady stream of archival materials and works by notable Black artists (Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Kara Walker, et al.) evokes the immensity of the African-American experience to which she gave such eloquent shape.
For information on the screening to be held at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, located at 164 N. State St., visit http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/toni-morrison-the-pieces-i-am.
The Chicago Crusader will keep readers posted on any local memorial services that may be held to honor Toni Morrison’s memory.