Toni Morrison M.A. '55 at a party in 2009.

Chad Batka / The New York Times

Toni Morrison M.A. '55 at a party in 2009.

August 6, 2019

Toni Morrison M.A. ’55, Nobel Laureate and Prominent Black Author, Dies at 88

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One of Cornell’s most prominent alumnae, Toni Morrison M.A. ’55, died on Monday night, her publisher confirmed on Twitter. She died at Montefiore Medical Center in New York after a brief illness. Morrison was a prize-winning author who penned eleven books, including “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye”.

“It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends,” Morrison’s family said in a statement shared by Princeton University.

“While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family,” the statement continued. “We will share information in the near future about how we will celebrate Toni’s incredible life.”

After her death, many took to social media to mourn the death of one of America’s most prominent authors.

“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity,” Morrison wrote in “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations,” her most recent book that was published this year.

Toni Morrison M.A. '55 at her home in New York in 1998.

Sara Krulwich / The New York Times

Toni Morrison M.A. ’55 at her home in New York in 1998.

Throughout her career as an essayist, professor and editor, Morrison penned nearly a dozen books. She also wrote children’s books with her son, Slade Morrison, who passed away in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.

Her work centered around African Americans, a decision that was deliberate on Morrison’s part. When asked about writing about white people, Morrison referenced how other authors structure their work.

“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you,” Morrison said in conversation with Thomas LeClair in 1981.

As the first African American woman to be an editor at Random House, she made a point to work with black authors including Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Muhammad Ali and Gayl Jones.

“I look very hard for black fiction because I want to participate in developing a canon of black work,” Morrison said in an interview quoted in The Dictionary of Literary Biography the New York Times reported. “We’ve had the first rush of black entertainment, where blacks were writing for whites, and whites were encouraging this kind of self-flagellation. Now we can get down to the craft of writing, where black people are talking to black people.”

Her accolades, spread out throughout her life, included the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her book Beloved and a 1993 Nobel Prize in literature. She was the first African American woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature and one of only two Cornellians to be awarded both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes according to Prof. Corey Ryan Earle ‘07.

In 1978, she was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Song of Solomon”. In 2016, she was honored with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Emerson-Thoreau Medal. Additionally, she received the National Medal of Humanities in 2000.

Morrison also achieved international acclaim, and was chosen for the French Legion of Honor in 2010 and the Commandeu de l’Orde des Artes et des Lettres in 1993.

This summer, a documentary on her life entitled “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” was released.

This past May, she was one of four Cornellians who received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2012, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Toni Morrison M.A. '55 and President Barack Obama at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony.

Luke Sharrett / The New York Times

Toni Morrison M.A. ’55 and President Barack Obama at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony.

“Toni Morrison has, over the years, shaken us out of the ruts of our ordinary perspective,” the Academy of Arts and Letters said in May of Morrison. “She has allowed us to walk through various shades of the national experience, always incisively, provocatively, generously.”

Morrison was born as Chloe Ardelia Wolford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio.

When Morrison was baptized at the age 12, she took up the saint name “Anthony,” which was shortened to Toni.

When she attended Howard University, people struggled to pronounce the then-uncommon name Chloe, so she went by Toni according to an NPR interview with Morrison in 2016. At Howard she studied English and graduated with a B.A. in 1953. During her time there, she joined the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha.

After graduating from Howard, Morrison studied creative writing at Cornell, and graduated with an M.A. in 1955. At Cornell her master’s thesis was entitled “Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s Treatment of the Alienated.”

Toni Morrison M.A. '55 in New York in 2008.

Damon Winter / The New York Times

Toni Morrison M.A. ’55 in New York in 2008.

After graduating from Cornell, she did not immediately embark on a writing career. Instead, she ventured into the world of academia, teaching English at Texas Southern University for two years and at Howard University for seven years. During this time, she gave birth to two children and married Harold Morrison in 1958.

After her divorce from Harold in 1964, Morrison then started working in the publishing industry. Her first job was as a textbook editor in Syracuse before she began her tenure at Random House in New York as a fiction editor for nineteen years.

In 1970, she published her first book, “The Bluest Eye”, about a black girl who yearned for blue eyes. She originally thought of the concept two decades prior, during a creative writing workshop at Howard University according to her profile on Cornell’s Graduate School site.

After nearly two decades of publication, her work was largely unrecognized, prompting a 1988 open letter in the New York Times signed by leading black Authors including Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Beginning with the publication “Beloved”  she began seeing widespread critical acclaim and recognition.

Her full roster of work includes “The Bluest Eye” (1970), “Sula” (1973), “Song of Solomon” (1977) “Tar Baby” (1981), “Beloved” (1987), “Jazz” (1992), “Paradise” (1997), “Love” (2003), “A Mercy” (2008), “Home” (2012) and “God Help the Child” (2015).

In 1989, she joined the faculty of Princeton University teaching humanities and African American studies courses in addition to being a part of the creative writing program. She worked there until she retired in 2006.

Morrison is survived by her son Harold Ford Morrison and her three grandchildren.

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” Morrison said during her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1993.

This post has been updated.