Toni Morrison, who died at 88 years old on Monday, might be gone in the corporeal sense — which is not, one could argue, the most important iteration of self to a writer — and yet, more certain than her death is surely her legacy.
Morrison has always been a storyteller and a teacher, and it has always seemed as though she knew everything and was always available, even willing, to lovingly impart that knowledge. The province of those teachings has been lush and eternal, and nobody seems to know more about the world — about history, about love, about motherhood — than her.
“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all,” she once wrote. It’s no surprise that Morrison’s most famous novel, and the one that won her a Pulitzer Prize, is “Beloved,” the wrenching, heartbreaking story of a mother’s love. Motherhood courses and ripples through her work and life as though the two were surgically conjoined, and they very well may be (metaphorically speaking).
Here, some moving and memorializing facts about Toni Morrison as a mother — of her own children, of children that were not hers, and of a whole beating culture.
When Morrison speaks, she has a particular cadence and rhythm, a moral weight, that reminds you of her history in Black oral tradition. When she appeared on Oprah — who had long been a champion of Morrison’s work — in 2000, she revealed parenting advice about the face you present to you children.
“When a kid walks in the room … does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for,” she said. She explained when her children used to walk into a room, she would be checking to make sure everything was in order — if their hair was combed, if their pants were buckled. “You think your affection, and your deep love, is on display,” she continued. “It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face.” Morrison finds it important to allow your face to show what’s in your heart — to show your children you’re happy to see them, you care about them, you love them.
Morrison: There was something so valuable about what happened when one became a mother. For me it was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me.
Moyers: Liberating? Isn’t every mother a hostage to love?
Morrison: Liberating because the demands that children make are not the demands of a normal “other.” The children’s demands on me were things that nobody else ever asked me to do. To be a good manager. To have a sense of humour. To deliver something that somebody could use. And they were not interested in all the things that other people were interested in, like what I was wearing or if I were sensual … Somehow all of the baggage that I had accumulated as a person about what was valuable just fell away. I could not only be me—whatever that was—but somebody actually needed me to be that … If you listen to them, somehow you are able to free yourself from baggage and vanity and all sorts of things, and deliver a better self, one that you like. The person that was in me that I liked best was the one my children seemed to want.
Morrison’s marriage dissolved in 1964 and left her, at 34, with a three-year-old son and another baby on the way. She needed a job to support her family, but she also needed, desperately, to write. (She may or may not have had what Hilton Als has called “a terrible need to confess.”)
Morrison landed a gig at a publishing house in New York, and, while working there, began expanding a short story she’d written while teaching at Howard University, about a young Black girl who wanted blue eyes. After getting the job and moving to Syracuse, she would wake up every morning at 4 a.m. to write, would write on scraps of paper, on hotel stationary, on anything she could.
“If it arrives you know. If you know it really has come, then you have to put it down,” she once said. She wrote on subway commutes to and from work. “She wrote when she could—usually after the children went to sleep,” Als wrote in a profile of Morrison in 2003.
“And since she was the sole support for her children, she couldn’t sacrifice the real world for her art. ‘I stole time to write,’ she said. ‘Writing was my other job—I always kept it over there, away from my ‘real’ work as an editor or teacher.’ It took her five years to complete the book, because she enjoyed the process so much.”
She was 39 when she published “The Bluest Eye.”
Following the publication of “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison became a trade editor at Random House. At the time, “there was no real Black Studies curriculum in the academy,” and Morrison worked tirelessly to expand the canon of Black literature to include writers — many of them other Black women — who had something to say about the rich experience of Black life.
She published authors such as Chinua Achebe, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Gayl Jones, among others. She launched the careers of writers who’d never been published in America. She cared for the women she worked with on a level that transcended a conventional work relationship. If Morrison made extra money — say, working freelance — she would send it to one of her writers, pretending they’d won some grant or another, in an effort to support them. She mothered these writers as she catalyzed what many people call the rebirth of Black women’s fiction.