A Tribute: Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

These thoughts were shared by our SSAWW members following Toni Morrison’s passing.

I am deeply sadden to learn that Toni Morrison passed away last night and so am sad at the loss of such a gifted writer, thinker, and cultural producer.   Someone whose words have changed lives.  Morrison’s work enriched our lives, made the invisible visible, forced us to confront ugliness and rethink beauty.  Toni Morrison is the American equivalent to William Shakespeare.  She is as essential as he to a sound education. Her works teach us about humanity and speaks to the human condition as only few artists do.  She shows us what it means to be human and the multitude costs of dehumanization.  If you have never read a Morrison work, I urge you to dive deep, and let yourself be immersed in language that flows like a succulent river and images that linger for years.  

I am forever grateful to have Toni Morrison’s presence in this world and to know her work.  Please take time to read, or reread, a Morrison piece; let its beauty wash over you,  let it inspire you to appreciate the value of every human being.  I believe the work we do at as scholars-teachers-activists: producing scholarship; educating students; recovery work; public humanities; engaging communities; and preparing students for professions and life-long learning are all in the same vein as Morrison’s work.  Maybe our contributions are not as elegant or graceful, but we do make a difference and change lives.  So thank you Toni Morrison for inspiring us and leaving a legacy by which we can grow, progress, make ourselves more fully human. 

– In peace, DoVeanna Fulton

I think in my career of academics, I was first influenced by Toni Morrison as feminist. Her deep rooted understanding of being progressive, pragmatic and preventive is far more in meaning and common sense, that made me first work on her essay – playing in the dark –  and on her fiction – the bluest eye – . Her thoughts to pick pace with the mobile world and to leave behind what not required, made me connected with her. Her sensitivity to create world of freedom and Self- realisation is an awesome gift to all who think God help those who help themselves.My sincere tribute to the lady of independence Toni Morrison. May her Soul rest in peace.

-Jayshree Singh

Twenty + years ago, I was a graduate student at Georgia State University, when the Toni Morrison Society was inaugurated there. Morrison attended the opening ceremony just after winning the Nobel Prize. As she entered the room to the sound of African drummers, we stood in awe in the presence of greatness. The meaning of her writings to my students in rural Appalachia has opened windows on worlds, communities, historical eras they could not have otherwise imagined. Her insistence that the American saga continually confront and reassess itself is her legacy and our ongoing challenge.


I tell my first-year literature students that in contemporary American letters there is a trinity. Cormac McCarthy is God — wild, mysterious, violent and gentle. Marilynne Robinson is the Holy Spirit, that quiet voice of conscience that encourages us to do better and be better to each other. And Toni Morrison is the Salvific figure — the sacrificial scapegoat who takes our national and historical sins upon her back, and invites us to follow her into paradise. The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert designates Toni Morrison as “the grande dame of American letters.” So she is. So she has been. And so she will be for decades, and perhaps centuries, to come.

Makayla C.

Morrison removed the caul of white worship, colorism, and anglophilia so that we and I could see ourselves more clearly. She was a modern day literary and cultural Harriet and Sojourner, and we are blessed the world over to have had her. What a gift and a legacy.

-Dr. Cheryl Hopson

She was an unwavering voice that demanded to be heard and for characters to be seen and recognized. There are some reading experiences that you remember vividly — *Beloved* was one of those for me. I remember thinking how wonderful and devastating the novel was. You can still see water spots on the pages where I cried out of frustration and anger at generational pain and trauma that the cruel cudgel of white supremacy, slavery, and history had produced. As a white southerner and as an American, I am a product of that history too, but in a very different way. All of my privilege and all of my opportunity comes at the very real physical and psychological cost of the trauma that my ancestors inflicted on black bodies. In reading Toni Morrison, there were times that I was afraid to go on. Afraid to be implicated in the soulless crimes that I, and indeed all of white America, built its fortune.

I know Morrison was not writing for me. I know that the guilt and white-gaze that I brought to my reading experience was anathema to what Morrison was trying to accomplish. I remember reading an interview with her in which she said, “It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. It is good—and universal —because it is specifically about a particular world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective, there are only black people. When I say “people,” that’s what I mean. Lots of books written by black people about black people have had this “universality” as a burden. They were writing for some readers other than me.”

Eventually I learned to read her without making it about me, but her writing grabbed me and never quite let me go because it showed me that one of powers of a writer is to force us to look at the thousand pains and horrors that go hand in hand with oppression, and finally to heed those who are silenced.

– Ben Compton

As an undergraduate at Emory University in the late 80s, I had the life-altering experience of reading THE BLUEST EYE. After reading the opening, I had goosebumps and felt inexplicable dread over what was to come for poor Pecola Breedlove. Still, I couldn’t put the slim book down. It made me FEEL. It made me THINK. It made me become an English major. Now, 30 years and a PhD later, it is a book I have had the privilege of sharing with hundreds of undergraduates at a small Midwestern college. And, as the news of Toni Morrison’s passing broke today, I have received an overwhelming number of messages of grief and thanks from my former students. We are all mourning. There will be no more marigolds…

-Dr. Susan M. Stone, Loras College

For me, reading (and teaching) Toni Morrison’s work is about rereading. Every passage contains multiple meanings and levels of importance, and poring over her books has made me and my students switch from sadness to hope, from despair to joy. I often think her writing is why I became a professor. I am grateful for her in so many ways.

-Kristen Lillvis

I read Sula for the first time when I was fifteen. The others came rapidly in grad school because her novels reminded me of what it meant to take pleasure in reading. My favorite one is A Mercy. It was the first novel I read that gave me a sense of place in early America.

-Jordan Von Cannon

When I was a brand new Asst Prof in Lit at UCSD I got a flyer in my box asking for nominations to bring non-academics for short residencies. I ingenuously put in Tillie Olsen, Ursula LeGuin and Tony Morrison. Stunned. I got to host all three. Morrison was then working as an editor at Random House. In every talk she reminded us to tell stories. And why telling stories makes us attentive and better humans.

– Jean Pfaelzer

Feeling sad, as if someone I knew well has died. Toni Morrison spoke to the human in us. I hope she is flying as her characters in Song of Solomon. RIP.

– Souad

Toni Morrison’s writing means to me the power of black women’s identity

-Nadilza Moreira

When freedom is fatigued from vain calls Beloved boosts it up over us When the black can no more match colours the Bluest Eye confirms its compatibility The anniversary to celebrate the witty sensitive Morrison is the rebirth of a living sense. Morrison frees the minds yet left us forlorn enslaved by the talent she heals the injury but bleeds ours by her farewell Adieu to the warrior for peace died a martyr for eternal love; rest in peace.

-Prof. Ilhem Serir, Algeria

Perhaps I wasn’t even ready for Toni Morrison when I first read Jazz and Sula at nineteen. The novels challenged and perplexed me, because they showed me that I didn’t know as much about novels or being a woman as I thought I did. Reading Morrison coincided with a long period of deep questioning that was often uncomfortable and unpleasant. A decade later, after my children were born, I returned to Morrison, reading and rereading her work, and it felt new and different, always raising new questions. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Beloved and each time I ask and find something different. Reading Morrison changed me.

-Marlowe Daly-Galeano

Toni Morrison is THE reason I’m pursuing a PhD in English. Her work inspires and drives me. I have tattooed on my arm the outline of a house and inside it, “124 was spiteful.” Whenever I start to question what I’m doing in grad school/academia, I look at it and Morrison’s words re-center me.

-Patrick S Allen

“I can’t begin to express how much we will miss her imaginative voice, her wise take on American society and culture. And her optimism. No matter how dark some of her characters or plots may have been, ultimately Morrison‘s work always offered hope – hope that we could aspire to and become our better selves.

Barbara McCaskill

excerpt from “The Soaring Legacy of Toni Morrison” written by Alan Flurry, director of communications for the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences

Sarah Ruffing Robbins shares a lovely post on how Toni Morrison can still teach us in an essay on her blog Moving from Archive to Action

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