And the woman died. At the ripe age of 88. But the world had not had enough of her creativity, her wit, her profundity, her amazing positive disruptiveness, her books, her well lived life. Ms Morrison, African American, multiple award winning author, writer, essayist, America’s consciousness, anti-racist symbol, Nobel laureate for literature, teacher and editor was everything every young female African American wanted to be growing up. Outspoken and full of candour, she never suffered fools gladly and always let it be known where she stood on the race radar and any other issue for that matter. Upon her death, her numerous quotes dot the landscape of our minds, appearing on numerous platforms reminding us of who she was but more importantly, reminding us of who we are and what humanity is all about, what creativity is and how racism impacts us all. Two of her famous quotes continue to resonate with us. “We die, that maybe the meaning of life. But we do language, that may be the measure of our lives” and “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” Tributes have continued to pour in for this grand dame of literature, from actors to actresses, from academics to fellow authors and from writers to students of literature. And Barrack Obama who during his presidency had awarded her one of America’s highest honours presenting her with the presidential medal for freedom delivered an unflappable tribute. He remembers her as “a national treasure who was as good a storyteller, as captivating in person as she was on the page.” He adds, for good measure, that “her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her if only for a while.” Indeed she was a very rare literary and human gift and we celebrate her today in this column with five books that immediately speak to her essence and her unwavering candour. Here then are five books in honour of Toni Morrison.
1. The Bluest Eye was Toni Morrison’s first book written in 1970 when there were no authors writing about race. In a tribute paid by a fellow academic in the United States, he described Morrison’s first book with a young black female protagonist going through a full racist cycle as a book that broke grounds on writing for and about coloured persons. In it was truth telling about race at its ugliest, yet written in such grandeur and beauty. In this book the protagonist believes that to have blue eyes like white people is akin to beauty and will make you more acceptable. This is because of her mannerisms and the colour of her skin, she is laughed at and described as ugly. It’s a beautiful book about self-loathing, racism, incest and child molestation. There were many attempts to ban it in many American schools because of its themes.
2. Many years ago in my usual surfing at bookshops anywhere for unusual and interesting books, I ran into a book quaintly titled Burn this Book and picked it up. It is pure Toni Morrison along with several other writers in a collective rant about society’s injustice and the major issues of writing and censorship.t. It is rebellious literature at its finest. Written from the heart, parading literary heavyweights like Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk and David Grossman among many others. Get a copy of this phenomenal book that will spark conversations that are as provocative as they are timely.
3. Song of Solomon, Morrison’s book about the 20th century experience of what it means to be African American was written in 1977. Our protagonist Mason Milkman Dead 3 is born upon the death of a certain Robert Smith who commits suicide at the opening of the novel. Macon Dead’s mother, Ruth who watched the” flight” as Robert jumped from the rooftops goes into labour and births the man whose story is well woven by Morrison in the novel Song of Solomon. We follow Macon through the novel as he grows into adulthood and re-discovers himself in tales of slavery while being exposed to violent deaths. A book full of incredible characters and told in poetic highs and amazing descriptive power propels Morrison to the frontline of literature. She had before this book dismissed the power of the muse but admits that her doubts are shattered in the writing of this book as she could hear her father’s voice in the writing and many other muses. Morrison says this book helped her to depart from the totalising view of literature where there is only one version of a story. She concludes that the African American culture is the more powerful because of its variety of characters and she tried to represent them in her writings. Song of Solomon has indeed become the book to read now and always and is considered one of the top 100 books and is rated number 25 of the best English books of the 20th century. Grab a copy.
4. Any book on race relations will speak to Toni Morrison’s legacy. Indeed, it is difficult to speak about race and its inherent challenges, danger and ethos without the mention of the great Toni Morrison.
5. Beloved by Toni Morrison is considered one of her most difficult works. A true story written about a freed slave Margaret Garner who kills her daughter when she is faced with returning to slavery won her the Pulitzer prize. She says in discussing the book that racism has no language for its description, not in English or any other language and she had to think out of the box to produce the book.