Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has died at the age of 88, her publisher Alfred A. Knopf confirmed Tuesday morning. Morrison, the writer of acclaimed and influential novels like Beloved and Song of Solomon, was a giant of American literature.
Born Chloe Ardella Wofford in 1931, Morrison’s first novel was The Bluest Eye, about a young African-American girl growing up in the Depression who longs for the blue eyes she sees in white-skinned dolls. The legacy of slavery and the reality of racial oppression were major themes in Morrison’s work. Her most famous novel, Beloved, was published in 1987 and centers on a woman who killed her baby daughter rather than let her become a slave. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and inspired a 1998 movie adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The former president spoke glowingly of her work, telling The New York Times in 2017 that “Song of Solomon is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery.”
In 1993, Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first black woman of any nationality to do so. In her famous award speech, she related a parable from “the lore of several cultures” in which young people make a visit to an old, blind, wise woman. They tell her they hold a bird in their hands, and ask her if the bird is alive or dead. Being blind the woman can’t see for sure if the bird is alive or dead, but she tells the young people that it’s their responsibility either way. Morrison used the bird to stand in for language, and our collective responsibility to shape language into something living and inspiring rather than limited and dead.
“We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Morrison said. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Morrison’s 11th and final novel, God Help the Child, was published in 2015.