Representation in the world is something everybody strives for. To be noticed, for a collective to be seen and their voice heard. For minority groups of any kind, to be represented in a way which shows them as real people existing in the world, outside of stereotypes, expressing struggles and showcasing the beauty of different cultures, races, orientations and genders is something that is still fought for and hard-won to this day.

Toni Morrison, may she rest in peace, undertook this challenge throughout her career, in the attempt to represent black Americans in a country that, in regards to their representation in the media, fiction, great literature and just about every profession and platform, has come up severely short. Her work, especially from the 70’s-90’s made the African-American experience visible in a white-dominated world.

In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate. – Toni Morrison

What Happened?

It was on the 5th August 2019 that Morrison’s family confirmed with “profound sadness” that Toni Morrison drew her last breath at 88 years old after suffering a short illness. She died at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York and was announced dead by her publisher Mr Alfred A. Knopf due to a series of complications brought on by pneumonia.

Who exactly was Toni Morrison?

Toni Morrison was the author of eleven books ranging for 1970 to 2015 her most famous consisting of her debut novel ‘The Bluest Eye’ published in 1970, a story of colourism and the obsession of European facial features and the Gothic tale of a runaway slave girl ‘Beloved’ published in 1987 for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. It was later released as a film in 1998 staring Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah staring in the movie ‘Beloved’ in 1998 (SOURCE: rogerebert.com)

You wanna fly, you got to give up the sh*t that weighs you down. – Toni Morrison

Morrison was also the first African-American editor at Random House, the world’s leading trade publisher, from 1967 to 1982 and taught at Princeton University.

Throughout her life she was awarded with countless awards. Not only is she the FIRST African-American to ever win a noble prize (hers being in literature in 1993) but she has also won the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by Obama who remembered her as a national treasure on the day after her death and a National Book Critics Circle Award for her novel ‘Songs of Solomon’ as well as many other prestigious literature awards.

A colleague from Princeton working with her at the time of her days as a lecturer, Professor Noliwe Rooks, told the BBC about her breakthrough debut album, asking – “At this moment when {The Bluest Eye} comes out – who’s writing about black girls? Who’s writing about this kind of trauma? Who’s writing about black communities”

So what did she write about?

As you can infer from the quote above Toni Morrison wrote about black lives, with a large emphasis on the lives of black women, an area of literature that is constantly forgotten about or plagued with stereotypes. Of course in this current age the numbers of books by black authors about black lives continue to grow but back when she began writing, she was among the only voices speaking of the beauty and devastation which manifests in the lives of those deemed as others.

If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it. – Toni Morrison

Why is she important? Why should she be remembered?

Toni Morrison’s novel “Jazz” published in 1992 had great importance to me when I studied literature at A Level. Hers was the only black writers work I had read on the UK national curriculum. There is a disappointment inherent in seeing a single writer of colour on a list to reach a diversity quota. However, to me her work over-delivered. She was so far from a disappointment.

She touched on a huge range of issues which plagues black communities specifically in the United States and arguably all around the world.

Having written with such grandeur and unique prose, as well as highlighting the black female perspective – though African American – her work was revolutionary to the classroom. Students of different backgrounds could learn to comprehend the complicated dynamics of institutional racism, colourism and how the legacy of slavery and the struggles of living in a post-colonial society may impact your life and sense of self. She combined the darkness of life with the culture and flow of black oral tradition, underused and forgotten by modern literary techniques.

Ex President Obama and Toni Morrison embracing (SOURCE: hollywoodreporter)

All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. – Toni Morrison

But it is also the manifestations of the importance of community and family which allowed her novels to embody a sense of identity and belonging, giving her often dark plots a sense of hope and safety within the familial mainframe. Her stories offered a sense of escape, spoke of real historical events and people, as well as presenting layered diverse perspectives on differences of age, gender, race, and background.

She will go down in history as one of the greatest writers in our day for her unique tell-all writing style and her perseverance to constantly push for representation and for the truth of black lives to be told.