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Black History Month 2022

February is Black History Month in the U.S., and this year's theme is Black Health and Wellness. NPR has compiled a list of stories, music performances, podcasts and other content that chronicles the Black American experience.

Toni Morrison's only short story is available in book form for the first time

Rachel Treisman

toni morrison short essay

Author Toni Morrison pictured at Princeton University in New Jersey in October 1993. She is known for her 11 novels, but her single short story has often been forgotten. Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

Author Toni Morrison pictured at Princeton University in New Jersey in October 1993. She is known for her 11 novels, but her single short story has often been forgotten.

Toni Morrison — the late author and Nobel laureate whose work focused on Black life and culture — published 11 acclaimed novels, several essay collections, about half a dozen children's books and just one short story: "Recitatif ."

"Recitatif" was originally published in a 1983 anthology that has since gone out of print and was rarely seen in intervening decades, as The Associated Press has reported . But it's making a comeback, this time in book form.

Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted In Black Lives, Dies At 88

Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted In Black Lives, Dies At 88

The republished story is hitting shelves and online stores on Tuesday in what Knopf Doubleday says is the first-ever hardcover edition. The book includes an introduction by writer Zadie Smith, and the audio edition is read by actor Bahni Turpin.

Its title refers to the French word for "recitative," which Merriam-Webster describes as a "rhythmically free vocal style that imitates the natural inflections of speech."

"When you think about the short story, there's always this sort of humming under the surface," said Honorée Fanonne Jeffers , a poet who teaches at the University of Oklahoma. "And that humming under the surface is race, in America."

The story follows two girls, Twyla and Roberta, who spend several months as roommates in a children's shelter and run into each other on occasion as adults. One is Black and one is white — but Morrison doesn't tell the reader which is which.

Morrison once described the book as "an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial." She refers to things like hair length, social status and family memories throughout, keeping readers guessing — and thinking.

Jeffers told Morning Edition that she noticed the story challenged stereotypes she herself held about Black and white people.

She described searching for clues about the characters' races, only to eventually step back and ask herself: "Why did I need to know so badly?" When she stopped focusing on race, she said, she saw the story in a different light.

"You begin to see a domestic story emerge, about how girls grow up in our society, about how women are shuttled into these smaller categories, many times," Jeffers said. "And then it becomes, or at least it became for me, a story about gender."

Autumn M. Womack, a professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University, told the AP that "Recitatif " speaks to themes found in Morrison's novels, like the complicated relationship between two women in 1973's Sula and the racial blurring she used in Paradise in the late 1990s.

'I Regret Everything': Toni Morrison Looks Back On Her Personal Life

Author Interviews

'i regret everything': toni morrison looks back on her personal life.

But she also noted the important differences between the short story and Morrison's longer works.

"One of the main takeaways from ["Recitatif"] is that you'll begin to think of her as someone who experimented with form," Womack said. "You'll get away from the idea that she was solely a novelist and think of her as someone who was trying all kinds of writing."

Jeffers says republishing also offers another opportunity to examine the way Black writers are critiqued.

"These issues of race constantly come up in ways that they don't come up for white writers," she explains. "White writers are never asked why they wrote about white characters, white writers are never asked to justify the importance of what they're writing. Only writers of color and, in particular, African American writers, are asked to do that."

Audio for this story was produced by Ziad Buchh and Ben Abrams.

The digital version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog .

NPR has compiled a list of stories, performances and other content that chronicles the Black American experience for Black History Month. See the whole collection here.

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Morrison's "Peril" (2009): Overview

“Peril" is a short essay by Toni Morrison published in both The Source of Self-Regard (2019) and Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word (2009). The essay is, in general, a vigorous defense of the freedom of expression of writers in various states of unfreedom, whether from totalitarian regimes or threats of violence or intimidation.  Here, Morrison writes of three different threats that writers pose. First, writers are a threat to authoritarian regimes, which is why, Morrison suggests, even the most foolish of governments know better than to give “perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts.” Indeed, she argues that “writers—journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights,” serve an important dissident function within the social and political landscapes, for they can “disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace”; moreover, writers can “stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to” ( Source of Self-Regard,  1).

However, Morrison makes a notable distinction—what she describes as “their,” the oppressors’ peril, and “ours,” which “is of another sort” (2). She defines this second peril by first reminding us of how “unlivable” and “insufferable” life would be without the richness of great artwork and writers’ capabilities, in particular, to “translate…trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination” (2; 4). As such, “the life and work of writers facing peril” demands urgent protection—not only for their sake, but for society’s as well, for “the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us” (2). One important theme Morrison brings up here is the capacity of writers to engage in naming:

I have been told that there are two human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. When the chaos is simply the unknown, the naming can be accomplished effortlessly--a new species, star, formula, equation, prognosis. there is also mapping, charting, or devising proper nouns for unnamed or stripped-of-names geography, landscape, or population." (2)

The theme of naming will of course be familiar to readers of many Morrison novels, where her characters' often-ad hoc names contain the seeds of the stories of their lives (one thinks of Baby Suggs' chosen name in Beloved , Milkman's search for his family name in  Song of Solomon,  and many other instances).  Because “truth is trouble” for “the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system,” and a “comatose public”; and, because writers uncircumscribed by the national silencing of their fingers and minds are “trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world’s resources,” we must recognize, Morrison claims, not only the importance of the dissident capabilities of writers, but what their existence, and, more importantly, what their absence, signifies, foreshadows, warns of (2). As Morrison explains,

The historical suppression of writers is earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow. The history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself. And the efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear sings that something important has taken place. (2) 

This “something,” for Morrison, may cause the “perception of chaos,” to which there are three responses: naming, violence, and stillness (3). Stillness does not have to mean “passivity and dumbfoundedness” or “paralytic fear”; rather, it “can also be art” (3). Morrison emphasizes, then, that the writers who “construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected” (3). In a call-to-arms, Morrison suggests that this protection begin with other writers themselves.       

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Toni Morrison called her only short story ‘an experiment.’ But it’s no game

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On the Shelf

By Toni Morrison Knopf: 96 pages, $16 If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from , whose fees support independent bookstores.

I’m at a bit of a loss over how to write about Toni Morrison’s “ Recitatif .” The only short story ever written by the late Nobel laureate , who would have turned 91 this week, “Recitatif” was originally published in 1983 in “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women,” a collection edited by Amiri and Amina Baraka. Now it’s been issued as a book of its own, with a typically insightful introduction by Zadie Smith .

“The fact that there is only one Morrison short story,” Smith writes, “seems of a piece with her oeuvre. There are no dashed-off Morrison pieces or ‘occasional essays,’ no filler novels, no treading water, no exit off the main road. There are eleven novels and one short story, all of which she wrote with specific aims and intentions.”

Morrison never writes without purpose. “ Toni Morrison does not play,” Smith observes. “When she called ‘Recitatif’ an ‘experiment’ she meant it. The subject of the experiment is the reader.” The story is an extended attempt to write about race by, in the most fundamental sense, writing around race as a strategy not so much for making us complicit — Morrison understands that we are already complicit — as for provoking us to confront that complicity.

As for how she manages this, if you’ve read “Recitatif” — it has been discussed and taught since its initial appearance — you understand already. If not, discovery is a key reason we come to narrative. The turn here, the twist if you will, comes in how Morrison addresses (or doesn’t) the racial identities of her characters, the way she uses the story to show us our preconceptions, offering details that are by turns sharp and ambiguous. What she’s doing is not to implicate us so much as to lead us to implicate ourselves.

To experience “Recitatif” for the first time is to remember that books, at their best, teach us how to read them. The story is so simple yet at the same time so ingenious. We wonder: Is she really doing what I think she is? Then you realize: Yes, she is. In the spirit of that fresh approach, I won’t be more specific about the experiment. In fact, I might suggest you read Morrison’s story first and Smith’s introduction afterward. The pieces are very much in conversation with each other. Equally important, both seek to be in conversation with us.

WASHINGTON, D.C. Toni Morrison poses for a portrait at the Four Season's Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, December 3, 2008. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Appreciation: Toni Morrison was both a mirror and a map who reflected experience back to us

Toni Morrison, the author, essayist and winner of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, famously encouraged would-be writers to take action.

Aug. 6, 2019

Do I need to say that this is a form of generosity? But, of course, that’s what literature — what Morrison — offers: an angle of engagement with the world. Consider how she frames “Recitatif,” as if we were already in the middle of things. “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick,” the story opens. “That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s.”

The narrator is an 8-year-old named Twyla, although she is also, we will learn, the adult looking back. She and Roberta meet as roommates at a New York orphans shelter. One is Black and one is white, “like salt and pepper standing there.” Even as they form a society of two, Twyla recognizes that theirs is a relationship of convenience. “We didn’t like each other all that much at first,” she confides, “but nobody else wanted to play with us because we weren’t real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky. We were dumped.”

"Recitatif," by Toni Morrison

What strikes you first is the language, the way Morrison makes it do so much. That riff about the beautiful dead, which repeats more than once, clearly represents the 8-year-old’s perspective. Yet underneath its surface we intuit the older Twyla peeking through. Parents in the sky — it’s the kind of euphemistic deflection offered by adults such as “the Big Bozo,” as the orphans call their overseer. Twyla, though, is too smart for that. When her neglectful mother comes to visit, she is flush with glee.

“I was feeling proud,” she tells us, “because she looked so beautiful even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out. A pretty mother on earth is better than a beautiful dead one in the sky even if she did leave you all alone to go dancing.”

A similar double vision recurs throughout “Recitatif,” which moves from St. Bonny’s to a highway Howard Johnson’s , where Twyla and Roberta reencounter each other, and later to the Hudson Valley community of Newburgh , where both settle as adults. The location is hardly coincidental: “Geography, in America, is fundamental to racial codes ,” Smith asserts. “[A]nd by the time Morrison wrote ‘Recitatif,’ Newburgh was a depressed town, hit by ‘white flight,’ riven with poverty and the violence that attends poverty.”

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It’s a perfect place, in other words, for the pair of reckonings that bring the story to fruition: the first about busing (Twyla and Roberta are on opposing sides of the issue) and the second involving an incident from St. Bonny’s, in which a mute woman named Maggie — “She was old and sandy colored and she worked in the kitchen” — fell while walking to the bus. “We should have helped her up,” Twyla admits, but instead she and Roberta mocked her. “And it shames me even now,” Twyla continues, “to think there was somebody in there after all who heard us call her those names and couldn’t tell on us.”

It is with Maggie that Morrison’s purpose reveals itself. That first description of the incident is a throwaway; it is forgotten, or set aside, as soon as it is over. And yet, as Faulkner wrote, the past is never past, which means the incident must fester for Twyla and Roberta both. Was Maggie Black or white? The two have different recollections. Their memories shift each time they come up. Did she fall or was she pushed? Did Twyla and Roberta participate in the aggression? Does it matter if they meant to cause her pain? “[W]anting to is doing it,” Roberta says during their final encounter. Even as the story ends, the truth remains beyond their reach.

It would be enough if this was where Morrison had chosen to leave us, in the slipstream of her characters’ subjectivity. It is so if you think so, to borrow a phrase from Luigi Pirandello : the notion that narrative, or identity, must be conditional, a reflection of the observer more than the observed. Morrison, however, doesn’t stop there; throughout “Recitatif,” she turns that conditionality back on us.

“A black girl and a white girl meeting in a Howard Johnson’s on the road and having nothing to say,” Twyla remembers. “Two little girls who knew what nobody else in the world knew — how not to ask questions. How to believe what had to be believed.” She and Roberta are all this and more. What’s essential, though, is that the way the characters flow in and out of one another requires us to confront something about ourselves. What are your preconceptions? Morrison demands. What do you take for granted in the world? And what if you are wrong? Not about everything, necessarily, but about the most important thing?

What does it mean not to know?

CHICAGO - OCTOBER 20: Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison attend the Carl Sandburg literary awards dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on October 20, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic)

Toni Morrison dead at 88: ‘Beloved’ author captured tragic and joyful complexion of life and race

With “Beloved” and other writings, Toni Morrison gave voice to the silences in the past and created some of the most memorable characters in American literature.

Ulin is the former book editor and book critic of The Times.

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American Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison at the Edinburgh international book festival in 2004.

'I wanted to carve out a world both culture specific and race-free': an essay by Toni Morrison

In this piece from her personal archive, Morrison reflects on how ‘the pitched battle between remembering and forgetting’ powered her novels, and in particular, Beloved

I suspect my dependency on memory as trustworthy ignition is more anxious than it is for most fiction writers – not because I write (or want to) autobiographically, but because I am keenly aware of the fact that I write in a wholly racialised society that can and does hobble the imagination. Labels about centrality, marginality, minority, gestures of appropriated and appropriating cultures and literary heritages, pressures to take a position – all these surface when I am read or critiqued and when I compose. It is both an intolerable and inevitable condition. I am asked bizarre questions inconceivable if put to other writers: Do you think you will ever write about white people? Isn’t it awful to be called a black writer?

I wanted my imagination as unencumbered as possible and as responsible as possible. I wanted to carve out a world both culture specific and “race-free”. All of which presented itself to me as a project full of paradox and contradiction. Western or European writers believe or can choose to believe their work is naturally “race-free” or “race transcendent”. Whether it is or not is another question – the fact is the problem has not worried them. They can take it for granted that it is because Others are “raced” – whites are not. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. The truth, of course, is that we are all “raced”. Wanting that same sovereignty, I had to originate my own fictional projects in a manner I hoped would liberate me, the work and my ability to do it. I had three choices: to ignore race or try to altogether and write about the second world war or domestic strife without referencing race. But that would erase one, although not the only, most impinging fact of my existence and my intelligence. Two, I could become a cool “objective” observer writing about race conflict and/or harmony. There, however, I would be forced to surrender the centre of the stage to received ideas of centrality and the subject would always and forever be race. Or, three, I could strike out for new territory: to find a way to free my imagination of the impositions and limitations of race and explore the consequences of its centrality in the world and in the lives of the people I was hungry to write about.

First was my effort to substitute and rely on memory rather than history because I knew I could not, should not, trust recorded history to give me the insight into the cultural specificity I wanted. Second, I determined to diminish, exclude, even freeze any (overt) debt to western literary history. Neither effort has been entirely successful, nor should I be congratulated if it had been. Yet it seemed to me extremely important to try. You will understand how reckless it would have been for me to rely on Joseph Conrad or Mark Twain or Herman Melville or Harriet Beecher Stowe or Walt Whitman or Henry James or James Fenimore Cooper , or Saul Bellow for that matter, or Flannery O’Connor or Ernest Hemingway for insights into my own culture. It would have been equally dim-witted, as well as devastating, for me to rely on Kenneth Stampp or Lewis Mumford, or Herbert Gutman, or Eugene Genovese or Daniel Patrick Moynihan, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Thomas Jefferson or any of those sages in the history of the United States for research that would enlighten me on these matters. There was and is another source that I have at my disposal, however: my own literary heritage of slave narratives.

For imaginative entrance into that territory I urged memory to metamorphose itself into metaphorical and imagistic associations. But writing is not simply recollecting or reminiscing or even epiphany. It is doing; creating a narrative infused (in my case) with legitimate and authentic characteristics of the culture. Mindful of and rebellious towards the cultural and racial expectations and impositions my fiction would encourage, it was important for me not to reveal, that is, reinforce, already established reality (literary or historical) that the reader and I agree upon beforehand. I could not, without engaging in another kind of cultural totalising process, assume or exercise that kind of authority. It was in Beloved that all of these matters coalesced for me in new and major ways. History versus memory, and memory versus memorylessness. Rememory as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past. And it was the struggle, the pitched battle between remembering and forgetting, that became the device of the narrative. The effort to both remember and not know became the structure of the text. Nobody in the book can bear too long to dwell on the past; nobody can avoid it. There is no reliable literary or journalistic or scholarly history available to them, to help them, because they are living in a society and a system in which the conquerors write the narrative of their lives. They are spoken of and written about – objects of history, not subjects within it. Therefore not only is the major preoccupation of the central characters that of reconstituting and recollecting a usable past (Sethe to know what happened to her and to not know in order to justify her violent action; Paul D to stand still and remember what has helped to construct his self; Denver to demystify her own birth and enter the contemporary world that she is reluctant to engage) but also the narrative strategy the plot formation turns on the stress of remembering, its inevitability, the chances for liberation that lie within the process. In the final pages memory is insistent yet becomes the mutation of fact into fiction then folklore and then into nothing.

  • Toni Morrison

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Sweetness by Toni Morrison

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In “Sweetness,” a powerful short story by the acclaimed author Toni Morrison, we delve into the complex realms of love, sacrifice, and the burdens of societal expectations.

Morrison’s evocative narrative weaves together the stories of mothers and daughters, exploring the profound impact of choices and the enduring strength of familial bonds.

This article delves into the depths of “Sweetness” and illuminates its themes, characters, and the poignant messages that Morrison conveys through her masterful storytelling.


Sweetness by Toni Morrison: Exploring the Depths of Human Experience

The significance of the title sweetness by toni morrison.

The title “Sweetness” holds a multi-layered significance within the context of the story. It alludes to the sweet and tender nature of love, highlighting the central theme of compassion and its transformative power.

Additionally, it serves as an ironic contrast to the bitterness and hardships faced by the characters in their pursuit of happiness and self-acceptance.

The Power of Love and Sacrifice

In “Sweetness,” Morrison beautifully portrays the extraordinary lengths a mother would go to protect her child.

The story revolves around a mother’s decision to pass her light-skinned daughter as white, sacrificing their relationship and her own happiness to shield her child from the oppressive realities of racism.

Through this narrative, Morrison explores the profound power of maternal love and the sacrifices made to ensure a better life for future generations.

Unraveling the Complexities of Race

Morrison confronts the complex issue of race and its impact on individual identity. “Sweetness” presents a thought-provoking exploration of the intricacies of racial identity, challenging societal norms and expectations.

The story prompts readers to reflect on the ways in which race shapes personal experiences and perceptions of self, and the inherent difficulties individuals face in navigating a world marked by prejudice and discrimination.

Motherhood and Identity : Sweetness by Toni Morrison

Central to “Sweetness” is the exploration of the intricate relationship between motherhood and identity. The protagonist’s decision to conceal her daughter’s racial background reflects the struggle of mothers to protect their children from the harsh realities of the world.

Morrison delves into the complexities of identity formation, emphasizing the profound influence of parental choices on a child’s sense of self.

The Burden of Societal Expectations

The story delves into the burdensome weight of societal expectations and the toll it takes on individuals.

“Sweetness” explores the concept of passing as a survival strategy, showcasing the lengths individuals go to in order to fit into societal norms and avoid the consequences of nonconformity.

This examination of conformity invites readers to question the fairness of societal standards and the impact they have on personal freedom and fulfillment.

The Role of Language and Narrative

Morrison’s masterful use of language and narrative technique adds depth and resonance to “Sweetness.” Through her poetic prose, she draws readers into the emotional landscape of the characters, evoking empathy and understanding. The story showcases the power of storytelling and the ability of narratives to shape individual perceptions and challenge dominant ideologies.

Themes of Individuality and Self-Expression

“Sweetness” explores the themes of individuality and self-expression within the constraints of societal expectations.

The protagonist’s decision to conceal her daughter’s racial heritage raises questions about the suppression of personal identity for the sake of conformity.

Morrison emphasizes the importance of embracing one’s true self and the transformative power of self-expression.

The Impact of Historical Context : Sweetness by Toni Morrison

Set against the backdrop of racial tensions in mid-20th century America, “Sweetness” sheds light on the historical context that shaped the characters’ lives. Morrison skillfully interweaves historical events and cultural references, providing readers with a nuanced understanding of the societal dynamics that influenced the characters’ choices and experiences.

Symbolism and Metaphor in “Sweetness” by Toni Morrison

Morrison employs rich symbolism and metaphorical devices throughout “Sweetness” to enhance its themes and meanings. From the recurring motif of sweetness to the symbolism of light and darkness, the story is layered with symbolic representations that invite readers to delve deeper into the narrative’s hidden depths.

The Influence of Morrison’s Writing Style

Toni Morrison’s unique writing style is renowned for its poetic beauty and emotional resonance. In “Sweetness,” she crafts sentences that linger in the readers’ minds, evoking a range of emotions and inviting profound contemplation. Morrison’s ability to convey complex ideas with eloquence and simplicity is a testament to her mastery of the written word.

The Relevance of “Sweetness” Today

Despite being set in a specific historical period, “Sweetness” remains relevant today. Its exploration of race, identity, and societal expectations raises important questions that continue to resonate in contemporary society.

The story prompts readers to examine their own biases, confront the consequences of conformity, and advocate for a more inclusive and equitable world.

Critically Acclaimed Reception

Since its publication, “Sweetness” has garnered critical acclaim for its compelling storytelling and thought-provoking themes.

Morrison’s work continues to captivate readers and elicit deep emotional responses, solidifying her legacy as one of the most influential writers of our time.

Lessons Learned from “Sweetness”

“Sweetness” offers valuable insights and lessons that extend beyond the confines of its narrative.

It encourages readers to reflect on the power of love, the complexities of racial identity, and the importance of embracing one’s true self.

Morrison’s work serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring strength of familial bonds and the resilience of the human spirit.

In “Sweetness,” Toni Morrison delivers a powerful and poignant exploration of love, sacrifice, and the complexities of racial identity.

Through her masterful storytelling, Morrison challenges societal norms and prompts readers to question their own beliefs and biases.

“Sweetness” stands as a testament to the enduring impact of literature in illuminating the depths of the human experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, “Sweetness” delves into the complexities of race and its impact on individual identity and societal expectations.

Toni Morrison is renowned for her novels such as “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon,” and “The Bluest Eye,” among others.

While “Sweetness” is a compelling and thought-provoking story, sensitive readers should be aware of its exploration of racial themes and the harsh realities faced by the characters.

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Toni Morrison

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Full Plot Summary

The story begins when Twyla and Roberta, two eight-year-old girls, are introduced to each other as roommates at a children’s shelter called St. Bonaventure’s, or St. Bonny’s. One of the girls is Black while the other is white. The narrator does not specify which child is which race. Twyla says her mother would not like her being roommates with Roberta, but Roberta misunderstands and thinks Twyla means her mother would not like her being at the shelter. Roberta reveals she’s been brought there because her mother is ill. Twyla explains she is there because her mother likes to dance all night. Twyla notices that the children’s shelter houses children of many backgrounds. With the exception of Roberta and Twyla, all of the children who live at the shelter have been orphaned. 

The other children ignore them, so the girls spend their time together. Twyla and Roberta form a friendship as they discover what they have in common. They both dislike Mrs. Itkin, one of the shelter workers, and they call her “the Big Bozo.”  The girls both enjoy playing games like jacks together. Neither girl is a good student. Twyla likes the food at St. Bonny’s because her mother doesn’t feed her well at home. Roberta does not like the food because she is used to eating well, and she lets Twyla finish her meals. Twyla doesn’t think St. Bonny’s is that bad. Both Twyla and Roberta are afraid of the tough, older girls who live at St. Bonny’s because they bully the younger girls. They begin to call the older girls “gar girls” after Roberta mishears the pronunciation of gargoyles . The gar girls hang out at an orchard close to St. Bonny’s. Twyla and Roberta like to watch them from afar. Sometimes Maggie, the kitchen woman, cuts through the orchard. Maggie is mute, sandy-colored, short, and bowlegged. She dresses like a child. The gar girls mock her, and Twyla and Roberta call her names. When reflecting on Maggie as an adult, Twyla feels ashamed.

One day around Easter, Twyla and Roberta’s mothers visit St. Bonny’s. The girls try to pretend they are not excited, but their actions, such as curling each other’s hair, show their anticipation. Twyla is ashamed of her mother’s tight green pants and lipstick. However, she softens when her mother hugs her. Roberta’s mom is big and wears a large cross. She refuses to shake Twyla’s mother’s hand. Twyla’s mother insults her and begins to make a scene, but she quiets down when Twyla squeezes her hand. They all attend chapel, and Twyla laments the fact that her mom does not dress or act appropriately for church. After, the girls eat lunch with their mothers. Twyla’s mother fails to bring a meal, so they have to eat her Easter jellybeans. Roberta’s mother brings chicken legs and ham sandwiches. Not long after, Roberta goes home. The girls promise to keep in touch but never do. Twyla begins to forget what Roberta looks like.

Some years later, the girls, now young women, run into each other at a Howard Johnson restaurant near Newburgh, New York. Twyla is working there as a waitress while Roberta is passing through with two male friends. Before Twyla approaches her, she worries Roberta won’t remember her or won’t want to. Roberta does remember her, but she is not friendly. Roberta says they’re on their way to meet famous musician Jimi Hendrix, and she mocks Twyla for not knowing who he is. They exchange questions about their mothers, and both claim their mothers are fine. At the start of this encounter, Twyla makes several positive comments about her life and workplace, but after Roberta’s rudeness, she feels self-conscious about her appearance as well as her job.

The story flashes forward twelve years. Twyla is now married to a man named James Benson, and they have a nice middle-class life. Twyla loves her husband’s big, loud family. The Benson family has lived in the same area for decades, and they still view the city with pleasant nostalgia, but Twyla reflects that Newburgh has changed. Wealthy people are moving to some parts of Newburgh, while other residents of the town are struggling to make ends meet. On a trip to a new upscale grocery store, Twyla runs into Roberta again. This time, Roberta recognizes Twyla first and acts friendly. She invites Twyla to catch up over coffee. Twyla agrees but worries about the melting ice cream bars she’s just purchased as a splurge. Then she sees that Roberta has come grocery shopping in a limousine. Twyla tells Roberta about her husband and son. Roberta reveals she has married a wealthy widower with four children and is now Mrs. Kenneth Norton. The two women make inside jokes and are soon giggling like long-lost sisters. 

When Twyla talks about the day Maggie fell in the orchard, Roberta corrects her. She says the gar girls pushed her down and attacked her. The two women go back and forth over their differing memories. Roberta tells Twyla that she went back to St. Bonny’s two more times after Twyla was gone and eventually ran away. She also tells her the Big Bozo was fired. Twyla tells Roberta she was hurt by the way she acted at their last run-in at the Howard Johnson, but Roberta says the tension between them was a result of the uneasy climate between the races in the 1960s, not anything personal. Twyla remembers the atmosphere among the races differently. She thinks Black and white people were very friendly to each other when she worked at the Howard Johnson. Roberta asks if Twyla’s mother ever stopped dancing, and Twyla says no. Twyla asks if Roberta’s mother ever got better, and Roberta says she did not. When the women leave, they promise they will remain in contact, but Twyla knows she won’t. She keeps thinking about Maggie and wondering what really happened to her that day in the orchard.

That fall, Twyla is overwhelmed by the saturated news coverage of racial tensions in Newburgh. She learns that her son will be bussed to a new school for integration and thinks it’s a good thing. Then she hears it might be a bad thing, and she isn’t sure what to believe. One day while driving by her son’s new school, she notices picketers outside. Roberta is among them. Twyla stops and the two women argue over the idea of bussing students to new schools. Roberta claims mothers have rights. Twyla is offended and says she is a mother too. She wonders aloud what made her think Roberta was different and Roberta says the same thing back to her. The picketers attack Twyla’s car and only stop when police break it up. Roberta accuses Twyla of kicking Maggie, a Black mute woman, all those years ago at the orchard. She claims they both kicked her. Twyla calls Roberta a liar. She says Maggie wasn’t Black and that she never kicked her.

The next day, Twyla begins to picket on the opposite side of Roberta. She makes picket signs that respond to Roberta’s signs. The other picketers think she is crazy because her signs don’t make sense. Finally, Twyla brings a sign that says, “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?” and Roberta stops coming. Twyla stops going soon after. The schools don’t open until October because racial tensions continue. Twyla and some of the other mothers homeschool their kids to keep them up to date on their studies. Twyla thinks about what Roberta told her about Maggie. She knows she never kicked her, but she can’t remember if Maggie was Black or not. She didn’t think she was before, but now she isn’t sure. She realizes it doesn’t matter if she actually kicked Maggie because she wanted to. She watched it happen and didn’t try to help because she wanted Maggie to get hurt.

One winter after her son has left for college, Twyla is out shopping for a Christmas tree when she runs into Roberta at a diner. Roberta is dressed in a gown and is a little drunk. Roberta tells Twyla that she did think Maggie was Black, but now she isn’t sure. She tearfully confesses that she lied about them kicking Maggie, but that she wanted to kick her and that wanting it is the same thing. Twyla says they were just lonely kids. Roberta agrees. Twyla thanks her and asks if she ever told her that her mother never stopped dancing. Roberta says she did, and before Twyla asks, says that her own mother never got better. Roberta cries. The story ends as Roberta wonders aloud about what really happened to Maggie.

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toni morrison short essay

Morrison’s Things: Between History and Memory

by   Kinohi Nishikawa

toni morrison short essay

Toni Morrison remains the most influential theorist of the black past in contemporary letters. Since the publication of  Beloved  and its companion essay “The Site of Memory” in 1987, Morrison has provided the impetus and vocabulary for those wishing to claim that the past is never past but always present. Indeed, the closest thing to a prevailing method in African American literary criticism could be described as the Morrisonian imperative to read how the past haunts the present, making itself known and felt among the living in ways both explicit and subtle. The field’s current keywords—aftermath, afterlife, repetition, and return—reflect that orientation. Christina Sharpe has gone so far as to describe the object of African American criticism as “the ditto ditto in the archives of the present.” [1]

Ironically, what’s been forgotten in this canonization of the Morrison of 1987 is that she began to formulate her engagement with the black past over a decade earlier, in a project for which she served as editor and makeshift curator of objects. In 1974 Random House brought out a book that Morrison had spent 18 months assembling with four collectors of black memorabilia. Though already a twice-published novelist, Morrison used her status as an influential editor at Random House to see the project through. The result was  The Black Book : a 200-page, oversized compendium that conveys the story of African and African-descended people in the New World, from the era of colonization, through the age of chattel slavery, and up to the waning days of Jim Crow. “Conveys” because  The Black Book  does not offer a textual narrative of events. Instead, it relies on pictures—that is, photographic reproductions of specific objects Morrison culled from her collaborators’ collections—to evoke what Sharpe has called the “total climate” of blacks’ experience of transatlantic slavery and its aftermath. [2]  The pictures tell their own story, one that is impressionistic rather than authoritative, fragmentary rather than whole. And that is the point. Unlike books written by academic historians, which tend to ascribe a telos to narratives about the past (i.e., from slavery to freedom), Morrison envisioned her work as a “genuine Black history book—one that simply recollected Black Life as lived.” [3]  This notion of recollection—of literally re-collecting and figuratively recollecting “Black history”—is the forgotten materialist basis of what Morrison would famously term “rememory” in 1987.

Though a wide body of scholarship has been built up around Morrison, surprisingly little has been written about  The Black Book . The oversight is odd since putting the volume together not only launched Morrison’s theorization of the black past but also introduced her to the source material for her best-known work. A nondescript clipping from the February 1856 issue of the  American Baptist  relates the story of an enslaved woman, Margaret Garner, who tried to kill her young children rather than have them grow up in bondage. Recounted by the Reverend P. S. Bassett, the episode is didactic, highlighting for a white abolitionist readership the impossible decisions enslaved people were compelled to make between freedom and survival. While this story has long been recognized as the inspiration for  Beloved , only the critic Cheryl A. Wall has devoted more than passing attention to its place in  The Black Book . Yet even she contends that the clipping’s significance lies in the way it prefigures  Beloved ’s imperative to read the past in the present. [4]  This despite the fact that the excerpt appears early in the book (page 10), when the reading experience is most disorienting, and is easily missed among two densely packed facing pages of clippings and text. Fifteen independent items—some photo-reproduced from original sources, others quoted and set in uniform type—crowd the layout. Smudges and other errors from the copying process further diminish the readability of the text. In the actual composition of  The Black Book , nothing makes Garner’s story stand out, which, again, is the point: it is merely one piece of the dizzying puzzle of history.

What was distinctive about Morrison’s engagement with the black past in 1974? How might a historicist obsession with 1987 obscure what she set out to do in  The Black Book ? I take a first step toward answering these questions in what follows. I propose that  The Black Book  advances a more contingent and discontinuous view of history than the one usually attributed to Morrison. This view, I argue, owes much to the book’s composition, which is pictorial and iconic rather than textual and discursive. By “flattening” history into a series of decontextualized images,  The Black Book encourages glossing, skipping pages, reading out of order, and finding meaning only in visual or “surface” resemblances. These (non-)reading practices are further encouraged by the fact that Morrison does not discriminate when it comes to identifying things that evoke the black past. Examples of black ingenuity and perseverance appear alongside those of racial parody and animus, while handcrafted wares and mass-produced commodities vie for attention in the same span of pages, confusing the distinction between folk and market. In short,  The Black Book  gives one access to the black past only through an inquisitive perusal—an actual looking at things. Accordingly, its view of history is premised on an awareness that readers’ grounding in the present is far from certain. Not everyone can or will want to engage  The Black Book ’s arrangement of things. What matters for Morrison, here and in her work to come, is not the fact of recovery but the question of how one re-collects the past at all.

The first thing to note about  The Black Book  is that it’s chock-full of text. Captions and explanatory notes appear underneath or alongside most pictures. Several types of documents—letters, certificates, applications—naturally feature handwritten or printed text. And newspaper clippings and other text-heavy ephemera take up a lot of space in the book, especially early on. Still, I would maintain that  The Black Book ’s composition is essentially pictorial insofar as it decouples “understanding” the text from reading it closely. Morrison lends meaning to any given thing by how she associates it with other things—on a single page, over facing pages, or across successive pages. Think of it like reading a museum catalog: the point is to get the gist of its visual organization, not to linger over every word.

At a pictorial level, certain layouts in  The Black Book  give a fairly coherent impression of the meaning behind the assembled artifacts. One facing-page layout, for example, combines the following: five fugitive slave ads printed in 1790; two undated classifieds, likely from the mid-1800s; W. H. Siebert’s 1896 historical map “‘Underground’ Routes to Canada”; Samuel Rowse’s 1850 lithograph  The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia ; and an 1857 letter from William Brinkl[e]y, one of Harriet Tubman’s associates in Delaware. All of these things appear under the bold heading “I rode a railroad that had no track. ” [5] True, the individual pictures are decontextualized (supporting information on the lithograph and Brinkley do not appear in  The Black Book ), with only Brown’s fugitive plot given an explanatory note. Still, the layout’s overall composition conveys the resolve and resourcefulness of fugitives from slavery as they ran toward freedom, as well as the desperate efforts of white enslavers to retrieve them. Sides are drawn, sympathies are channeled, and the “goal,” Canada, is clearly delineated. In this way, Morrison’s things not only document something called the Underground Railroad; they also evoke, in the present tense, what it would have meant and felt like for an enslaved person to take flight.

Yet the coherence of this particular display is a rarity in  The Black Book . Discordant juxtapositions are far more common, such that any impression of historical perspective is immediately undercut with confounding, contingent details. One page, for example, has a small photograph that shows a black woman holding a white infant in her lap. The original caption reads “Slave and Friend.” But printed next to this image are lyrics for “All the Pretty Little Horses,” and underneath both is Morrison’s clarification that the song is “an authentic slave lullaby [that] reveals the bitter feelings of Negro mothers who had to watch over their white charges while neglecting their own children.” Trying to exert a measure of control over the artifact and its description, Morrison inserts another artifact whose narrativization is supposed to guide the reader toward a “correct” reading of the image. Yet the page’s pictorial composition is irreducible to that gesture, for underneath this tableau are antebellum newspaper clippings addressing black westward expansion (one from the  New York Tribune , the other from the  Liberator ) and a maniculed notice prohibiting “the employment of free colored persons on water-craft navigating the rivers of [Arkansas].” [6]  What these artifacts have to do with each other from a historical perspective is a mystery. But their visual organization does elicit wonderfully weird associations, as one might detect between the white baby’s hand (clasped over the black woman’s) and the indexical manicule. 

This narratively incoherent but visually abundant mélange is not just a function of single-page compositions. It can be seen in facing-page layouts, as when a handwritten letter by Frederick Douglass defending his right to marry “a lady a few shades lighter in complexion than [himself]” appears directly opposite ledgers that list the human property of black enslaver John C. Stanley. It can be seen in successive pages, as is the case with the 16-page color insert, where minstrel-inspired advertising for commodities such as soap and baking powder gives way to photographs of the folk art and handiwork of enslaved people. And, perhaps most spectacularly, it can be seen on the front cover of the book itself (Figure 1): a riot of color and black-and-white images—36 in all—that practically asks (or begs) the question, What is this “black” in  The Black Book ? [7]

toni morrison short essay

In earlier versions of this essay, I was tempted to read such confounding pictorial juxtapositions against the grain of Morrison’s intentions for the project. I assumed she had gathered these different things to make them useful to the present, only to find that their recombination failed to do so. I now think this reading is a mistake, an imposition of the way critics historicize Morrison circa 1987 onto her earlier, far more experimental, engagement with the black past. I now believe that the contingency and discontinuity of  The Black Book —in short, its refusal to make a teleological narrative available to readers—is its  raison d’être . Morrison was well aware that many of the things she had gathered from collections would perplex readers. But rather than force these artifacts into a historical arc, she made their achronicity, or their out-of-timeness, a feature of the book itself. How else can one explain its strange juxtapositions? They were by design, not some unintended consequence of a historicist project.

Morrison said as much in her contemporaneous essays on the project. In them she identified at least two ways in which her work departed from academic historiography. First, it questioned the ideological limitations of historians’ primary research site: the archive. The problem with conventional histories, Morrison implied, was that they were bound to the legitimizing procedures of institutional archives. As such, histories that relied on archives would inevitably reflect the interests and concerns of the powerful, or those deemed worthy of having their effects saved for posterity. By contrast, Morrison wanted  The Black Book  to give voice to the masses, or “people who had always been viewed only as percentages.” To do that, she turned her attention from scholars to collectors—that is, “people who had the original raw material documenting our life: posters, letters, newspapers, advertising cards, sheet music, photographs, movie frames, books, artifacts and mementos.” Collectors Middleton “Spike” Harris, Morris Levitt, Roger Furman, and Ernest Smith were respected keepers of such “raw material,” and so they became her preferred entry point into the black past. Morrison paid her collaborators the highest compliment she could think of when she said all four possessed “an intense love for black expression and a zest wholly free of academic careerism.” [8]

The second way Morrison departs from historiography followed from the first. By operating at the margins of institutional legitimation, collectors risked being cut off from institutional recognition. It was debatable whether collectors had a legitimate claim to history at all. Doesn’t  The Black Book  ultimately only reflect what four collectors of varying interests and dispositions had made available to Morrison? The volume’s most outspoken critic, cultural nationalist Kalamu Ya Salaam, made a similar point when he complained, “[T]o throw all of these images and documents together without a text to explain the meaning, context and original intent does not serve to help us truely [sic] understand what our history,  our real history of struggle  is about.” [9]  Yet Morrison would have welcomed the idea that Salaam did not glean “history,” much less a “history of struggle,” from her book. Historians, Morrison wrote, “habitually leave out life lived by everyday people”; in their writing, they seemed more concerned with “defend[ing] a new idea or destroy[ing] and old one.” [10]  She wanted  The Black Book  to convey something messier, murkier, less institutionally recognized about the black experience in the New World. Rather than a history, she aimed to put together a work of memory.

This goal helps explain  The Black Book ’s artifactual resemblance to a scrapbook. Although the print-heavy layout does suggest a catalog, the variety of pictorial forms—iconic, indexical, textual, and otherwise—makes the volume reminiscent of a collection of ephemera. This perception is lent further credence by the book’s introduction, in which none other than Bill Cosby muses: 

Suppose a three-hundred-year-old black man had decided, oh, say when he was about ten, to keep a scrapbook—a record of what it was like for himself and his people in these United States. He would keep newspaper articles that interested him, old family photos, trading cards, advertisements, letters, handbills, dreambooks, and posters—all sorts of stuff.

“No such man kept such a book,” Cosby observes, before adding, wryly, “But it’s okay—because it’s here, anyway.” [11] As if passed down through time by a mythic ancestor,  The Black Book  arrives in the contemporary reader’s hands like an anonymous scrapbook. It contains remnants that are random, ephemeral, incomplete—and, precisely because of that, it comes as close as possible to documenting “Black Life as lived.” The illusion being broached here is that of ordinary remembering, or everyday recollection. A scrapbook is indifferent to the sweeps and arcs (much less teloses) of capital “H” history. All it does is keep what an amateur historian decides to set down as worthy of recalling in the moment of composition. This is why when we “read” a scrapbook, we approach it not as a bird’s-eye chronicle but as what Pierre Nora has called a “site of memory” ( lieu de mémoire ) .[12]

Morrison’s commitment to ordinary remembering is so thoroughgoing that her name appears nowhere on or in  The Black Book . The collectors are credited with putting the book together, but even their names are absented from the cover. This is by design, of course, as it supports the illusion that the volume is authorless, the product of a collective mythos rather than a single guiding hand. The one decidedly personal indulgence Morrison allows herself is to insert an oval-shaped, black-and-white portrait of her mother, Ramah Wofford, on the front cover and in an illustrated tableau of anonymous subjects’ portraits .[13]  Nothing calls attention to her mother’s figure in either of these locations, or indeed to the fact that it is the ghost editor’s mother. Though she stares out at the reader, so do a number of the other figures among whom she is clustered. Thus, Wofford blends into the composition as just another picture in the collection. She is one memory among many.

Since 1987, critics have interpreted Morrisonian memory, or rememory, as  Beloved  terms it, as a charge to read the past in the present. The ethos of such criticism presumes a standpoint that can identify how contemporary circumstances are but an extension, or repetitive realization, of the past. Yet, having traced Morrison’s theorization of memory back to  The Black Book , I think this is only a partially correct reading of her work. Morrison did believe in something like collective memory, a sense of the past that bound people to one another in the present. But she consistently refused an absolute knowledge of the past, one that confirms what we believe we already know (Sharpe’s ditto ditto, for example). Instead, Morrison supposed that people could access collective memory only through fragments, traces, the detritus and hauntings of history. This stuff, for Morrison, possessed its own historical weight and was not assimilable to confident determinations of the past. In making  The Black Book , her intention was not to integrate readers into a discourse of “their history” but to confront them with buried memories—things in which they might not even recognize themselves. [14]

It may be fitting that, as I revised this essay for publication,  The Black Book  went out of and came back into print. The original 1974 edition had long been out of print, but the 2009 35 th  anniversary edition followed course in the late 2010s. That second disappearance turned  The Black Book  into something like one of the things it reproduces—a relic of the past, a memory among other memories. For a period, copies of the 2009 edition cost upwards of $150, and as much as $2,500, from online and antiquarian booksellers. Yet  The Black Book ’s obsolescence was short-lived. With the passing of Morrison in 2018 there came renewed demand for her work, including this long-overlooked book. 

The most recent edition (2019) is an artifact of our times. An image of the original cover, showing noticeable shelfwear, is set within a gray frame. The look approximates a well-worn family photo, as if the book itself is being memorialized. Morrison’s name appears front and top-center, her behind-the-scenes work on the project now highlighted in yellow. Yet there is one element that  is  ghosted from the previous editions: Bill Cosby’s introduction. The reasons for this are obvious, even though the exclusion is unannounced in the text. That the change was made at all—silently, posthumously—confirms Morrison’s intuition that history is not ditto ditto but contingent and discontinuous. Reading  The Black Book today is not the same as reading it in 1974, and that is the abiding point. 

[1]  Christina Sharpe,  In the Wake: On Blackness and Being  (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 82. Sharpe’s application of “ditto ditto” to the concept of the archive is adapted from her reading of M. NourbeSe Philip’s  Zong! (2008).

[2]  Sharpe, 104-5.

[3]  Toni Morrison, “Behind the Making of  The Black Book ,”  Black World , February 1974, 89.

[4]  Cheryl A. Wall, “Reading  The Black Book : Between the Lines of History,”  Arizona Quarterly  68, no. 4 (2012): 105-30.

[5]  Middleton Harris, et al.,  The Black Book  (New York: Random House, 1974), 68-69.

[6]  Ibid., 65.

[7]  Ibid., 24-25, 89-104, front cover. The last part of this paragraph riffs on Stuart Hall’s field-shaping essay, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?,” in  Black Popular Culture , ed. Gina Dent (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 21-33.

[8]  Toni Morrison, “Rediscovering Black History,”  New York Times Book Review , August 11, 1974, 16.

[9]  Kalamu ya Salaam, review of  The Black Book , by Middleton Harris, et al.,  Black Books Bulletin , 3, no. 1 (1975): 73.

[10]  Morrison, “Behind,” 88.

[11]  Bill Cosby, “Introduction,” in  The Black Book , v.

[12]  Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History:  Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 7-24. The subtitle of my essay, and the distinction between history and memory I draw on here, is indebted to this piece.

[13]  Harris, front cover, 196-97.

[14]  This point about (non-)recognition echoes Christopher Freeburg’s analysis of  The Black Book  as fostering a “personalized and contingent” black interiority rather than subjecting readers to a predetermined historical script. Christopher Freeburg,  Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life  (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017), 130.

Kinohi Nishikawa's picture

Kinohi Nishikawa is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in PMLA , Book History , and African American Review , and in the edited collection Post-Soul Satire .

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Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is one of the most celebrated authors in the world. In addition to writing plays, and children’s books, her novels have earned her countless prestigious awards including the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. As the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison’s work has inspired a generation of writers to follow in her footsteps.

Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. The second of four children, Morrison’s birth name was Chloe Anthony Wofford. Although she grew up in a semi-integrated area, racial discrimination was a constant threat. When Morrison was two years old, the owner of her family’s apartment building set their home on fire while they were inside because they were unable to afford the rent. Morrison turned her attention to her studies and became an avid reader. She was able to use her intellect on the debate team, her school’s yearbook staff, and eventually as a secretary for the head librarian at the Lorain Public Library. When she was twelve years old, she converted to Catholicism and was baptized under the name Anthony after Saint Anthony of Padua. She later went by the nickname “Toni” after this saint.

In 1949, Morrison decided to attend a historically black institution for her college education. She moved to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University. While in college, Morrison experienced racial segregation in a new way. She joined the university’s theatrical group called the Howard University Players, and frequently toured the segregated south with the play. In addition, she witnessed how racial hierarchy divided people of color based on their skin tone. However, the community at Howard University also allowed her to make connections with other writers, artists, and activists that influenced her work. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English, Morrison attended Cornell University to earn the Master of Arts in English. When she graduated in 1955, she began teaching English at Texas Southern University but returned to Howard University as a professor. While back at the university, Morrison taught the young civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, and met her husband Harold Morrison. The couple had two children, Harold and Slade.

After teaching at Howard University for seven years, Morrison moved to Syracuse, New York to become an editor for the textbook division of Random House publishing. Within two years, she transferred to the New York City branch of the company and began to edit fiction and books by African-American authors. Although she worked for a publishing company, Morrison did not publish her first novel called The Bluest Eye until was she was 39 years old. Three years later, Morrison published her second novel called Sula , that was nominated for the National Book Award. By her third novel in 1977, Toni Morrison became a household name. Song of Solomon earned critical acclaim as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. The success of her books encouraged Morrison to become a writer full time. She left publishing and continued to write novels, essays, and plays. In 1987, Morrison released her novel called Beloved , based on the true story of an African-American enslaved woman. This book was a Bestseller for 25 weeks and won countless awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1993, Morrison became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Three years later, she was also chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the Jefferson Lecture, and was honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Morrison’s work continued to influence writers and artists through her focus on African American life and her commentary on race relations. In 1998, Oprah Winfrey co-produced and starred in the film adaptation of Morrison’s book, Beloved . The film also starred major Hollywood actors including Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, and Kimberly Elise. Following this, Morrison’s books were featured four times as selections for Oprah’s Book Club. While writing and producing, Morrison was also a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University. Her work earned her an honorary Doctorate degree from the University of Oxford, and the opportunity to be a guest curator at the Louvre museum in Paris. In 2000, she was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. Morrison also wrote children’s books with her son until his death at 45 years old. Two years later, Morrison published the last book they were working on together and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in that same month. In June of 2019, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders released a documentary of her life called Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Morrison passed away two months later from complications of pneumonia.

  • Bates, Karen Grigsby. "Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted in Black Lives, Dies At 88." NPR. August 06, 2019.
  • Chow, Andrew R. "Toni Morrison Dies at 88." Time. August 06, 2019.
  • Grimes, William. "Toni Morrison Is '93 Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature." The New York Times. October 8, 1993.
  • "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993." August 16, 2019.
  • The Library of Congress. "Toni Morrison." Accessed August 17, 2019.

PHOTO: Public Domain.

MLA – Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Toni Morrison.” National Women’s History Museum, 2019. Date accessed.

Chicago – Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Toni Morrison.” National Women’s History Museum. 2019.

  • Morrison, Toni.  Beloved . London: Vintage Books, 2010.
  • Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am . Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. June 21, 2019.

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In History: Toni Morrison on why 'writing for black people is tough'

toni morrison short essay

One of the great 20th-Century novelists, Morrison consciously aimed her work at black American readers. In a 2003 interview, she told the BBC about why that made her writing sing.

At the start of her career, Toni Morrison determined that she would write for her "neighbourhood". And so began the remarkable literary career of an author whose work tackles the complexities of identity, race and history with beguiling language and deep humanity.

By identifying herself as a black writer, and consciously writing for a black American audience, author Toni Morrison felt freed to find her voice, she said.

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"When I began to write, I was thinking, suppose I just wrote for my neighbourhood and just that, and it just opened up everything. It was clearer, it was pointed," she told the BBC's Kirsty Wark in November 2003.

But with that framing came an added responsibility: a need for the stories, rhythms and phrasing to sound true and authentic to readers from those communities.

"You know it was like listening to jazz musicians, black people in music were very, very critical. They hated the mediocre. So I wanted it to be like that. I wanted it to be so good, where the judgement of people who knew the community was so powerful, that I could not play.

"I knew how to play up to a white reader, I knew how to manipulate that, that was easy but writing for black people is tough. Really tough, if they take you seriously."

And while her writing needed to resonate with those readers about the complexities of the black experience, she was careful to not succumb to any expectations about how people wished it to be portrayed.

"Now some of them thought 'well we would like a little more best foot forward here. You are always writing about violence, you are always writing about depraved people, why are you so gothic?'" she told the BBC.

"And I would always say 'whose eye is looking at this? Is it you or are you telling me to shape up because there is a white reader out there who might get the wrong impression of you?' Now once you get rid of that you are home free, you can just write."

Her origin story

Although she was known and celebrated globally as Toni Morrison, she was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, on 18 February 1931. She grew up in the small Midwestern town of Lorain in Ohio, one of four children in a working-class family.

Her early life was shaped by the sharp end of the racial violence and discrimination that her family experienced while she was growing up. She would later recall how a landlord set fire to their family's home while they were in it, in order to evict them.

But that childhood was also imbued with the rich cultural tapestry and lyrical storytelling of her parents and their community. Both of these early influences would feed into her writing and literary style.

"My family in those days, people didn't have televisions and things, they told stories, and we told stories and we were called upon to tell stories. We had to shape them, reinterpret them, perform them," she said.

"So the habit of that, it means I hear it. And it has a rhythm, it has silence, it has rest. It has some combination of reality and magic."

Getty Images Morrison is most famous for her 1987 novel Beloved, a haunting, supernatural tale about slavery and the ghosts of the past (Credit: Getty Images)

"So, when I think of writing as I was very determined to do, is write in the language of African Americans. The language I heard. That language had always been comic, or dismissed or you know discredited in some way."

A voracious reader at an early age, her passion for literature and gift for writing were encouraged by her parents. Upon graduating high school, she first went to study at the prestigious Howard University in Washington DC, before completing her master's degree at Cornell University in 1955, with a thesis on suicide in the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.

She returned to Howard to begin a teaching career, where she met and married Jamaican-born architect Harold Morrison in 1958. They had two sons, and his surname would form part of the name she would become globally known by. Her first name came from Anthony, the name she took when she converted to Catholicism at the age of 12 and which university friends would later shorten to Toni.

The making of a literary legend

In 1963, in the wake of the break-up of her marriage, needing to support herself and her children, she took a job as an editor at Random House publishing company. While working here she would edit and champion the works of black authors, bringing attention to books by Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.

It was also here that she would write her first novel, The Bluest Eye in 1970. The book contains many of the themes that would come to define much of her writing. Set in her own hometown of Lorain during the 1940s, it is a devastating examination of the effect of racism, poverty, abuse and damaging ideas of beauty upon a black American girl, called Pecola.

The narrative puts this young black girl at the centre of the story, with an unflinching look at the trauma and challenges faced by her. Toni Morrison wanted to couple this with a lyrical literary style that captured the speech, rhythms and expressions of the conversations she remembered overhearing while growing up.

"It was everything, it was memorable and the metaphors were stunning, so I really wanted to use those characteristics in my work.

"So, when I changed the first sentence of the book The Bluest Eye from whatever it was to 'Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall 1941', 'Quiet as it's kept', it’s not hard to understand what that means, it just means 'shhh' but I hear those women in the backyard, at the fence, getting ready to gossip on somebody, you know, [saying] 'Quiet as it's kept' then they tell some terrible tale.

"So, it's that quality of the spoken language that is extremely important in the work," she told the BBC.

In History is a series which uses the BBC's unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.

She garnered more critical acclaim, three years later with her second novel, Sula, which was nominated for the National Book Award and 1977's Song of Solomon, which won her the National Book Critics Circle award.

But it is perhaps her seminal 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning-novel, Beloved , that remains her best-known work. A story that mixes horror, history and poetry, it was inspired by the true story of runaway slave Margaret Garner who, when facing recapture, kills her infant daughter rather than see her suffer a life of slavery.

Beautifully written, filled with complex, conflicted characters and intense, haunting imagery, the novel is an exploration of trauma and guilt, folklore and motherhood. It challenges its readers to confront the harrowing cruelty of slavery, its sexual violence, its brutal dehumanisation of people and its destructive lasting legacy.

The granddaughter of a slave from Alabama herself, she dedicated the book "to the 60 million who died as a result of slavery".

In 1993, her achievements were recognised with a Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first black American woman to be awarded one, cementing her status as a literary icon, and giving her a platform which she would use to speak out on issues of race, feminism and societal injustices.

The Swedish Nobel Academy said she was an author "who in novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality".

A prolific writer, she penned plays, essays, children's books, even song lyrics. Through her empathic, elegant storytelling she was able to bring overlooked voices and untold stories to the fore, allowing them to resonate across cultures and different generations.

In 2012 she was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the ceremony, President Barack Obama said: "Toni Morrison's prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt."

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Toni Morrison in The New Yorker

toni morrison short essay

By The New Yorker

Toni Morrison.

Toni Morrison died on Monday evening, at the age of eighty-eight. A professor emeritus at Princeton University, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1988, for her novel “ Beloved ,” and the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1993. She published seven novels, including “ Song of Solomon ” and “ The Bluest Eye ,” before she began contributing to The New Yorker , in 1998. Her nonfiction, as much as her novels, had an ability to illuminate hidden truths, both personal and political. Her first piece for the magazine was a Comment about Bill Clinton and the conclusions of the Starr report, in which she famously called Clinton “our first black President.” Morrison contributed four more pieces to the magazine, including a short story, “ Sweetness ,” about the relationship between a mother and daughter during the civil-rights era. In 2016, she published an essay in the magazine about the election of Donald Trump . “So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength,” she wrote. “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.” Morrison’s prose has the effect of ripping the blinds off the wall and letting the sunlight in. In an email exchange with a New Yorker editor, the day after Trump’s election, she wrote, “Re the future: I am intellectually weapon-ized.” Here are the pieces that she has contributed to the magazine in the course of nearly two decades.

Comment Thanks to the papers, we know what the columnists think. Thanks to the polls, we know what “the American people” think. But what about the experts on human folly? Read more .

Sweetness “With that skin, there was no point in being tough or sassy, even when you were right.” Read more .

Making America White Again The choices made by white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status. Read more .

The Work You Do, the Person You Are The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed. Read more .

The Color Fetish Of constant fascination for me are the ways in which literature employs skin color to reveal character or drive narrative. Read more .

Books & Fiction

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Toni Morrison and the Ghosts in the House

By Hilton Als

The Color Fetish

By Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison Talks with Hilton Als About Her Father

by Toni Morrison

  • Sweetness Summary

Narrated in the first-person by Sweetness , the story’s title character and protagonist, “Sweetness” opens with Sweetness saying, “It’s not my fault. So you can't blame me.” Sweetness explains that her daughter Lula Ann was born with skin so dark that Sweetness was frightened. Sweetness comments that she and her husband are light-skinned, "high yellow" African Americans, so the midnight black of Lula Ann's skin makes no sense to her.

Sweetness explains that mixed-race Americans like her grandmother used to pass as white if they had straight hair, but Sweetness's mother chose not to pass, which meant she was subjected to the daily humiliation of Jim Crow–era segregation laws, being made to swear on a Bible reserved for blacks at the courthouse when she got married.

Sweetness acknowledges that it may look bad for black people to group themselves according to skin color, but Sweetness says it was the only way for members of her family to hold on to their dignity. Otherwise they might be spat on or elbowed off sidewalks by whites.

Sweetness admits that her fear of her daughter in the maternity ward prompted her to hold a blanket over Lula Ann's face and press, but she could not go through with smothering Lula Ann. She considered abandoning Lula Ann on the steps of a church but couldn't go through with that either.

Sweetness says her husband Louis accused her of having an affair when he saw the baby's black skin. Their marriage fell apart and he left her to raise the baby alone, meaning Sweetness moved into a cheaper apartment. She hid Lula Ann from the landlord, fearing he wouldn't rent to her despite the laws in place in the 1990s that said landlords couldn't discriminate against tenants based on race.

After relying on welfare payments, Sweetness says she got a night job at a hospital and Louis began sending fifty dollars a month. Sweetness raised Lula Ann to act deferentially toward others: to keep quiet and not be sassy. Sweetness justifies her instilling a sense of inferiority in her daughter as being necessary for Lula Ann to avoid provoking people's racist abuse. In a defensive tone, Sweetness says she really loves her daughter, despite being unable to see through her blackness at the beginning.

Sweetness reveals that Lula Ann grew up to make her proud, and that the last time she visited Sweetness in the nursing home where she now lives, Lula Ann was bold and confident, and looked striking in beautiful white clothes that emphasized the color of her skin. She says Lula Ann has a good job in California and rarely comes to visit anymore.

Sweetness comments that she doesn't mind the low-cost nursing home she lives in, because the nurses treat her well. Sweetness is only in her sixties but has a bone disease that requires twenty-four-hour care. Sweetness comments on the letter she recently received from her daughter. In the letter, Lula Ann enthusiastically shares news of her pregnancy but doesn't include a return address for Sweetness to mail anything back to. Sweetness wonders if the father is as black as Lula Ann. Regardless, Sweetness knows Lula Ann won't have to worry for the child in the way she did, because the world has changed, and dark-skinned black people are featured prominently in media now.

While considering how Lula Ann is punishing her for the way she raised Lula Ann, Sweetness admits she has some regret for the tough lessons she tried to teach Lula Ann, but she insists she did her best given the burden that Lula Ann was. She says she wanted to make sure Lula Ann didn't "go bad," and expresses amazement at how she ended up becoming a rich career girl.

The story closes with Sweetness addressing her daughter in a condescending tone, telling Lula Ann that she is about to find out how the world changes when one becomes a parent. She wishes Lula Ann luck and says, "God help the child."

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Sweetness Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Sweetness is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

. What was Sweetness's initial emotional reaction when her daughter was born?

Sweetness was very dissapointed. “Sweetness” opens with Sweetness saying, “It’s not my fault. So you can't blame me.” Sweetness explains that her daughter Lula Ann was born with skin so dark that Sweetness was frightened. Sweetness comments that...

How did the short story Sweetness illustrate ideas from the newsela article Colorism?

I'm sorry, I unaware of the article in question. Author?

The story 'Sweetness 'portrays the effect racial discrimination has on relationships. Elaborate

Colorism is discrimination occurring among people of the same ethnic or racial group against people with a dark skin tone. It is the central theme in "Sweetness." As a "high yellow" black woman who is accustomed to the privileges her light skin...

Study Guide for Sweetness

Sweetness study guide contains a biography of Toni Morrison, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About Sweetness
  • Character List

Lesson Plan for Sweetness

  • About the Author
  • Study Objectives
  • Common Core Standards
  • Introduction to Sweetness
  • Relationship to Other Books
  • Bringing in Technology
  • Notes to the Teacher
  • Related Links
  • Sweetness Bibliography

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toni morrison short essay

A Brutal—and True—Piece of Writing Advice from Toni Morrison

A. j. verdelle recalls a memorable q&a with an iconic writer.

The very first time I saw Toni Morrison in person was at an event in Boston, at a church, along with hundreds of people. The Beloved tour. I attended as a reader, as a Morrison fan. I’d had plenty of reader-only experience with books, but I knew next to nothing formal about writing then. Reading as a writer is a higher calling, and a whole different world. I had no writing tools at the time, though I did have some facility; I loved words—but the tools you need to write stack up and can be complicated. I could identify and define imagination, but I did not know the concepts of setting or drama or scene. I knew that language was critical, but how few words I knew then! I was hungry, eager, reaching—but I was ignorant of exactly what writers needed to know and do.

I was working as a statistician in the social sciences at the time. I consulted with clients who needed numbers turned into measurable questions. We’d create the questions, collect the data, and then turn those numbers back into words. I liked my work sufficiently, but I was a writer in corporate dress.

The Boston church was large, a fairly cavernous sanctuary, and packed. My awed memory estimates eight hundred in attendance. People sat close together, many of them women, with their pictureless copies of Beloved clutched in their hands, sometimes held to their hearts. Microphones waited vacantly for Morrison to complete her presentation, invitations at the top of aisles for the coming Q&A. While Morrison read, but for the sanctuary carpet, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Beloved is a difficult read, especially the first time. The novel had not been out long by that evening. This was before it had been widely read, or deeply discussed, or passed from hand to hand, or canonized. Not having yet read it, we were mostly mystified by what the novel laid bare, but mesmerized by the woman who stood before us, who—the reviews of Beloved told us—had created yet another powerful, riveting narrative meditation on the depths and pressures of our American experience.

From her earlier novels, we knew that Toni Morrison put Black women in novels in gowns and crowns, with lithe flexibility, with the most nuanced and frenetic lives. Morrison wrote about Black women as if we were real, and important, and conflicted, and brainy, and righteous, and determined, and unafraid of running off. Beloved flowed from the ascendant to the enraged to the elegiac to the frightening to the rueful to the anticipated to the outraged to the treacherous; from past to future, through the netherworld.

The past was Morrison’s landscape. Though we lived in the present tense, we were the future of the past. She gave us our history without sugar or disdain, and through her work, we watched ourselves struggle and survive. She did use pretty language, but pretty is not sugar; her words lean—tough, pointed, and sometimes mean. You were caught when you read Morrison. It was impossible to read and look away.

Back there, back then, in Boston, the book I held in my hand in that sanctuary positively shook with mystery. Long before the event, I had loaned my copy to an old friend who also attended that day; she had wanted to read the book right away. Because I knew I needed the time and space to work with the novel, I had agreed, but I insisted that she not wreck my copy, especially not the dust jacket. A clean, intact dust jacket gives a hardcover value over time. My silly friend took the dust jacket off to protect the dust jacket—per my instructions, she said—and then sullied the actual cloth cover of the book with lipstick and cereal, both unhealthy substances for books. My friend was alarmed by my alarm. “You said the dust jacket needed to be clean!” she said. “I kept the dust jacket clean!”

In time, in life, you learn that you have to be specific, explicit, sometimes almost stupidly blunt. Or, you have to not lend people books. I lend books. I want people to read. My library is a thousand books deep. Too much power there to be selfish and grabby. However, to be clear, the dust jacket is important to a hardcover book’s value over time. A hardcover without a dust jacket may as well be an airport paperback. That said, the book under the dust jacket should be kept clean, too. Liquids and lipstick are bad for books. I hold esteem for books.

Morrison read from the novel with her husky voice and Black woman’s authority. She was an author among us, a higher-up, a guiding light. Many of us in attendance had read her other books; that was how I knew I was going to need time with this one. The passage she read from Beloved that day did not disabuse me of that notion. Even if we’ve never read a book in our lives, every one of us has a read on slavery. Morrison’s manner of spearing history with her sharpened pencil in previous books made me know I’d likely be slayed by Beloved and that the time for that would need to be carefully arranged. I was in no rush.

During the Q&A, one young woman made her way to the microphone to ask one of the earliest questions. She might have been the first in line, with the first question. In my memory, she rushed her speech; she may have been breathlessly waiting. She described her interest in writing, her aspirations, and her failure to accomplish the fiction she aimed for. She described her struggle with making her stories “just right.” Likely trying to be succinct and yet communicate directly with the greatest of writers, she sounded hurried, even as she sought direction. She then joined the rest of us in silence, to hear what Morrison advised.

“Well, it sounds like you don’t know what you’re doing,” Morrison began.

Quiet in the sanctuary. I drew in my breath. The huge audience almost gasped in unison. I remember the hiccup of my own heartbeat; the whole scene went instantly wavy before my eyes.

My anxiety pounded in my ears, which made hearing hard. My embarrassment for her echoed and bounced around the chambers of my mind.

I empathized: I understood not knowing what to do. But I would not have asked the great Ms. Morrison such a question—so nakedly personal, and too particular to be answerable, really. Especially over the heads of hundreds. And in front of God and everybody. And in such a public space. And when the great writer was expecting to be asked about her own masterful novel—just published, just read from, the whole reason for the tour.

Narcissism can cause mistakes. What could Toni Morrison possibly know about that woman’s struggles with her own blank page? Not knowing the definition of complete self-absorption can make you foolish in the context of community. The young woman might have obtained a different or better response if she had asked a writing question about the author’s work. She could have asked about her own writing under cover:

Ms. Morrison, how do you make the impossible believable?

Ms. Morrison, how do you get your characters so tied to the invented place?

Ms. Morrison, what are the best strategies for research?

Or, even, What writing suggestions do you have for an aspiring writer, for a dreamer like me?

I slid down, trying to hide, mortified and wanting to be invisible for the young woman who had asked the ill-considered question. The spirit in me, the spunkette, the woman who wanted to know what Toni Morrison did and thought, harbored a hungry curiosity over how this would turn out, but I couldn’t help but dream of a hole opening up to swallow the awkwardness.

You don’t know what you’re doing . Morrison did say this aloud.

I don’t , I thought to myself, as if this were my conversation. You’re right. I have no idea what I’m doing. What am I even thinking?

Who did that reaching aspiring writer think she was? To be so personal, publicly? Showing all she didn’t know? And now likely having to slink back to her seat in that crowded church, having been told off or, more benevolently, told to practice and learn— and by Toni Morrison . This was a public event, so, relatively quickly, the line for the microphone shifted. The aspiring writer left the mic; I could not see the exit well. Maybe the questioner walked straight out the sanctuary doors. That is what I might have done.

I, too, worried about whether I understood the terms of writing. I had not yet begun to write seriously or in form. I had pages of words, observations of my little travels, my tiny thoughts. Occasional poems. But books and long stories need shape and scaffolding. It takes knowledge, experience, study, apprenticeship. It takes architecture.

This young woman needed the basics. Morrison continued, pointing her, and us, toward some fundamentals:

You need to study what writing requires . And:

Writing has rules, conventions, requirements. There is form . And:

Writing is more than your thoughts about characters. Drama has structure. You can learn.

That nameless young woman who had scurried to be first at the mic prepared me for what I did not know my future would bring: stinging quips and side-eye admonishment from the greatest living writer. All these years, Morrison’s first spoken sentence (from the first time I remember seeing her), her whip of a reply, has stayed with me. In that huge sanctuary, I felt personally stung, even if only empathetically.

You don’t know what you’re doing . Yes, this is true.

Yowzah and ouch!


miss chloe

Excerpted from Miss Chloe: A Memoir of a Literary Friendship with Toni Morrison by A. J. Verdelle. Published by Amistad. Copyright © 2022 HarperCollins.

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A. J. Verdelle

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Toni Morrison, the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize, has died. Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis via...

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Rare Toni Morrison short story to be published as a book

NEW YORK — To much of the world the late Toni Morrison was a novelist, celebrated for such classics as “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and “The Bluest Eye.”

But the Nobel laureate did not confine herself to one kind of writing.

Morrison also completed plays, poems, essays, and short stories, one of which is coming out as a book on Feb. 1. “Recitatif,” written by Morrison in the early 1980s and rarely seen over the following decades, follows the lives of two women from childhood to their contrasting fortunes as adults. Zadie Smith contributes an introduction and the story’s audio edition is read by the actor Bahni Turpin.

According to Autumn M. Womack, a professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University (where Morrison taught for years), the author had written short fiction at least since her college years at Howard University and Cornell University, though she never published a story collection. “Recitatif” was included in the 1983 release “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women,” co-edited by the poet-playwright Amiri Baraka and now out of print.

READ MORE: Lessons we can learn from Toni Morrison

“One of the main takeaways from it (‘Recitatif’) is that you’ll begin to think of her as someone who experimented with form. You’ll get away from the idea that she was solely a novelist and think of her as someone who was trying all kinds of writing,” Womack said.

“Recitatif” refers to a musical expression defined by Merriam-Webster as “a rhythmically free vocal style that imitates the natural inflections of speech,” a style Morrison’s often suggested. The story tells of a series of encounters between Roberta and Twyla, one of whom is Black, the other white, although we are left to guess which is which.

They meet as girls at the St. Bonaventure children’s shelter (“it was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race,” remembers Twyla, the story’s narrator). And they run into each other on occasion years later, whether at a Howard Johnson’s in upstate New York, where Twyla was working and Roberta comes in with a man scheduled to meet with Jimi Hendrix, or later at a nearby Food Emporium.

“Once, twelve years ago, we passed like strangers,” Twyla says. “A black girl and a white girl meeting in a Howard Johnson’s on the road and having nothing to say. One in a blue and white triangle waitress hat — the other with a male companion on her way to see Hendrix. Now we were behaving like sisters separated for much too long.”

As Womack notes, “Recitatif” includes themes found elsewhere in Morrison’s work, whether the complicated relationship between two women that was also at the heart of her novel “Sula” or the racial blurring Morrison used in “Paradise,” a 1998 novel in which Morrison refers to a white character within a Black community without making clear who it is. Morrison often spoke of race as an invention of society , once writing that “the realm of racial difference has been allowed an intellectual weight to which it has no claim.”

In her introduction, Smith likens “Recitatif” to a puzzle or a game, while warning that “Toni Morrison does not play.” The mystery begins with the opening lines, “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick: “Well, now, what kind of mother tends to dance all night?” Smith asks “A black one or a white one?” Throughout the story, Morrison will refer to everything from hair length to social status as if to challenge the reader’s own racial assumptions.

“Like most readers of ‘Recitatif,’ I found it impossible not to hunger to know who the other was, Twyla or Roberta,” Smith acknowledges. “Oh, I urgently wanted to have it straightened out. Wanted to sympathize warmly in one sure place, turn cold in the other. To feel for the somebody and dismiss the nobody.

“But this is precisely what Morrison deliberately and methodically will not allow me to do. It’s worth asking ourselves why.”

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toni morrison short essay

Remembering Toni Morrison’s ‘beautiful human urgency’

Arts Aug 06

(92) 336 3216666

[email protected]

Toni Morrison

Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison was born on 18 th February 1931. She was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford. She is simply known as Toni Morrison. She was an American author, writer, book manager, and school educator. Her first novel, ‘’The Bluest Eye’’, came out in 1970. The widely praised ‘’Song of Solomon’’ (1977) brought her national consideration and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for ‘’Beloved’’ (1987) in 1988. She got overall acknowledgment when she was granted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

Brought up in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison moved on from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. In 1955, she earned a Master in American Literature from Cornell University. In 1957 she came back to Howard University. She then got married and had two youngsters before separating in 1964. In the late 1960s, she turned into the first dark female editorial manager in fiction at Random House in New York City. During the 1970s and 1980s, she built up her own fame for being a creator, and her most praised work, Beloved, was made into a 1998 film.

In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities chose her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. government’s most elevated respect for accomplishment in the humanities. Additionally that year, she was regarded with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama gave Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she got the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

A Short Biography of Toni Morrison

Tony Morrison was born to Ramah and George Wofford. Her birthplace was Lorain, Ohio. Her family was a black working-class family. She had three siblings. Her mother basically belonged to Greenville, Alabama. Her father belonged to Cartersville, Georgia. His father moved to Lorain, Ohio because of racial discrimination. He wanted to have a safe career. In Lorain, Ohio, he worked some odd jobs. He also worked as a welder for U.S. Steel.

Soon Wofford got married to Ramah who was a homemaker. When Toni Morrison was two years old, their house was set on fire. It was done by their homeowner because they could not pay the rent. The family would tell Morrison about the heritage by narrating the traditional African-American folktales in their own language. She was made catholic when she was 12 years old. She was given the baptismal name Anthony this turned into her nickname, Toni.

She attended Lorain High School. She was included in the debate team of the school because of her reading interest which gave her a good ability to expound her thoughts. She also remained an active member of the drama club of the school.

She got enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1949. During her time in University, she experienced racial segregation in almost every walk of life. She experienced this discrimination at restaurants, buses, and even classrooms as well. She completed her graduation in English in 1953. In 1955, she completed her Master of Arts from Cornell University. 

After completing her Master’s, she started teaching English at Texas Southern University in Houston. She taught there for the session 1955-1957. For the next seven years, she taught English at Howard University. During her service at Howard, she met a Jamaican architect Harold Morrison. The couple got married in 1958 but they divorced in 1964 when Toni was pregnant with their second son.

In 1965, she started working as an editor for L. W. Singer in Syracuse, New York. It was a textbook division of publisher Random House. After two years, she got transferred to Random House in New York. She worked there as a senior editor in the fiction department. She became the very first black woman who worked in such a position.

This position gave her the opportunity to highlight Black Literature and bring it into the mainstream.  In this time period, she worked enthusiastically and brought the works of a number of black writers to the surface and this started a new era for Black writers.

While at Howard, Toni had started writing fiction. There was an informal group of writers and poets who would meet and discuss their writings. In one such meeting, she brought her short story. The story was about a black girl who wished to have blue eyes. Later on, she developed the story into a full-length novel and that became her first novel The Bluest Eye. This was a very difficult task for her because she had to write and at the same time she had to take care of her two children alone.

When Morrison was 39 years old, she published her first novel The Bluest Eye in 1970. The novel was not a best seller but the City University of New York put it in the list of reading for Black studies which boasted its sale.

Morrison published her second novel, ‘’Sula’’, in 1973. It was about the friendship of two black ladies. Her third novel, Song of Solomon, was published in 1977. This book gave a huge fan club and national acclaim to Toni Morrison. This book won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1979, Morrison was awarded The Bernard Medal of Distinction by Barnard College. It was the highest honor award. Her next novel, Tar Baby got published in 1981.

Morrison quit her publishing and editing job in 1983. She decided to give more time to writing. At that period, she started teaching at Rutgers University`s New Brunswick and the State University of New York. She was appointed to Albert Schweitzer’s chair at the University at Albany in 1984.

Morrison`s first play Dreaming Emmett was performed in 1986. It was performed at the State University of New York, Albany. It was the time when she was teaching at the same university.  From 1986 to 1988, Morrison served as a visiting professor at Bard College.

Beloved was published in 1987. It became Morrison`s most celebrated novel. This book remained a bestseller for 25 weeks. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. This book became the first book of the Beloved Trilogy. The second book of this trilogy was Jazz. It was published in 1992.  The same year she published her first literary criticism book “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.”

In 1993, Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature. She became the first black woman to receive this award. The third book of her trilogy, Paradise, was published in 1997. Toni Morrison served as an Andrew D. White Professor at Cornell University from 1997 to 2003. In 2008, Morrison published her novel A Mercy.

Morrison remained the Robert F, Goheen Chair from 1989 to 2006 in the department of Humanities at Princeton University. She was highly criticized because she could not offer any sort of writing workshops to the students after 1990. She rather produced a program that worked to bring writers, performing, and students together. In 2008, Morrison led a seminar at Princeton under the title “The Foreigners’ Home.” In her honor, Princeton University dedicated Morrison Hall in 2017.

Morrison’s son Slade Morrison died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 45 in 2010. This saddened Morrison to the extent that she stopped writing for some time. At that time she was working on her novel Home. Along with her son, Morrison wrote many books for children. Slade Morrison was a musician and painter. She completed the novel Home in 2012.  The novel recounts the story of a Korean War veteran who tries to save his sister in the United States of America.

The Rutgers University-New Brunswick awarded Morrison with the Honorary Doctor of Letters in 2011. Oberlin College became the host of the Toni Morrison Society. This society was formed in 1983. It was dedicated to the research works of Toni Morrison. Morrison published her next novel, Gold Help the Child in 2015.

Morrison died at the age of 88 in 2019. She died of complications of pneumonia at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx New York City.

Toni Morrison’s Writing Style

Toni Morrison’s composing style is effectively discernable because of her remarkable utilization of language. Her books are very easy to peruse, and she consolidates a wide range of styles into her composition, for example, exchanging the voice of portrayal all through her accounts for a difference in context. A portion of her most regularly utilized strategies is the utilization of unmistakable analogies, significant recorded references, and changed sentence structure. 

By inspecting these models, it will give the readers a more clear comprehension of the sort of writing that Morrison produces. Morrison is commonly known for her utilization of surprising yet powerful correlations that give a further portrayal of the subtleties she presents. She uses comparisons in her composition to enable the readers to associate the substance with substitute pictures and encounters.

This can be found in Song of Solomon at Hagar’s memorial service as Pilate murmurs “my young lady” and Morrison portrays the environment of the congregation as words hurled like stones into a quiet ravine. Another occurrence wherein Morrison utilizes a kind examination happens in The Bluest Eye when Pecola Breedlove lies wakeful around evening time, tuning in to her mother and father fight. The un-squabble evening embraces like the primary note of a lament in morosely eager air. 

Plainly, these analogies make the books more intriguing, yet they likewise add to the general style of Toni Morrison’s composition. One of the key signs of Morrison’s work is her regular utilization of noteworthy references to history.


Storytelling custom has a significant impact on Toni Morrison’s books. At the core of the novels, for example in Beloved, is the story that uncovers reality of Sethe’s child murder. It is a story where the characters and readers continue inquiring. “What truly occurred?” Created structure pieces so recollections and in numerous viewpoints, the story is a procedure of act of spontaneity. 

This relies upon the proportional exercises between the speaker and the audience. The odds and ends of the story are connected each time incomplete, without unveiling the stunning end. The readers are given sufficient opportunity to utilize their creative mind to take an interest in the making of the story and assess the occasion and the characters.

A Technique of Forming a Connection

By incorporating the technique of storytelling in her work, Morrison welcomes the readers into an informative connection between the creator and the crowd. Her books embody the association between story and moral experience and the dialogic writer-crowd connection. Moreover, the narrating procedures can’t be isolated from its ideological ramifications in conveying recollections and encounters of the past. What’s more, Morrison challenges readers’ convictions of ethical quality by presenting the African American beneficial encounters. 

Her moral treatment of the perplexing circumstance in Beloved and Sula extends readers’ comprehension of the prejudice which has not been so strikingly depicted in any history book. Keeping away from judgment on the character’s troublesome goals, Morrison really censures subjection and prejudice. This prompts the mother’s killing of their kids. Her literary treatment of the mother’s troublesome choice moves the readers to rethink the ethical issues in public activity.


Talking about Richard Wright, Toni Morrison saw that Wright’s aesthetic undertaking was to make fine art that is both obviously delightful and furthermore political simultaneously. This equivalent difficulty rises in Morrison’s work as a strain between a story situated in history and an account situated in a legendary poetic structure. Her books wind around a mystery, uncovering with every gyration substituting pieces of Black history and Black legend. 

Despite the fact that Morrison does sporadically draw upon traditional folklore, she states that it is a rule to show that something has turned out badly. Rather, she makes a self-referential framework that criticism has deciphered as enchantment authenticity, folkloric story, or Africanism. It distinguishes how the presence of a mythic imagination in Morrison’s books rubs against the practical components of the work. Considerably more, these dueling surfaces are Morrison’s production of characters who ride the fleeting temporal divide historical vs. (a-or extra-) historical.

Selection of Character

In the novels of Morrison, she doesn’t utilize whites for the main characters. She is often criticized for this practice. She clarifies her selection of characters by stating that she looks exceptionally hard for dark fiction since she needs to take an interest in building up a group of dark work. They had the main surge of dark diversion, where blacks were composing for whites, and whites were empowering this sort of self-whipping. 

She states that presently we can get down to the art of composing, where dark individuals are conversing with dark individuals. Furthermore, she expressed that the Black story has consistently been comprehended to be an encounter with some White individuals. She was certain there was a considerable lot of them. They’re not appallingly fascinating to her. What is fascinating to her is what is happening inside the network. Furthermore, inside the network, there are no significant White players. When she thought, ‘What is life like in the event that they weren’t there?’ Which is the way I-we lived it, the manner in which I lived it.”

Morrison’s childhood has also added to her character decision, topics in her novel, and how she sees white individuals. Her father was the principal patron towards her point of view toward whites. Morrison has depicted her father’s bigot mentality towards whites. At the point when she was two years of age, her family’s house was put to fire while they were in it. Her father turned out to be considerably progressively annoyed with whites after the episode. 

He basically felt that he was better and better than every single white individual. At the point when she was inquired as to whether she felt a similar way that her father felt she reacted that she didn’t feel a remarkable same route as he did. With not many special cases, she felt that White individuals would deceive her: that in the last examination, they’ll surrender her.

Use of Biblical Reference

Toni Morrison’s composing style is interesting, and it adds a great deal of profundity to her books. Her use of biblical references and characters attracts her crowd and keeps them intrigued. In each of the three of her works The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, Morrison implies biblical references, which gives her books a profound side. 

In Song of Solomon, Morrison alludes to scriptural thoughts in the title of the novel and the character’s names. The title Song of Solomon originates from a book in the bible. Milkman catches kids singing a tune about Solomon and in the wake of tuning in to the verses he finds the tune was expounded on by his granddad.

The names in the Song of Solomon are likewise related to the book of scriptures. There is a custom in the Dead family that they pick arbitrary names from the book of scriptures. Pilate’s name was picked in light of the fact that her father loved the manner in which the letters looked. Pilate’s name truly signifies Christ-executioner. Milkman’s sisters additionally have names from the book of scriptures: first Corinthians and Magdalene. 

The Bluest Eye references the book of scriptures with the style where Morrison expresses that they took the offensiveness in their grasp, tossed it as a mantle over them, and approached the world with it. This selection seems like it would be something straight out of the book of scriptures. Beloved references the book of scriptures from various perspectives. From the start, Morrison references the good book in a roundabout way with the topics of transgression, excusing each other, and recovery found in the novel. 

Likewise, the story told where Denver and Beloved beverage the milk and blood from Sethe’s bosom have solid scriptural hints to it. It tends to be taken as Denver and beloved getting the body and blood of Christ, or fellowship, from Sethe. The utilization of scriptural references in the books gives another point of view to the moral issues that Morrison presents. 

Handling Characters

Toni Morrison has a particular style with her utilization of characters in each of the three of the books. In the books, in spite of the fact that there is one fundamental character, many character’s accounts and purpose of point-of-views appeared. In Song of Solomon, despite the fact that Milkman is the fundamental character, different characters, for example, Pilate, Hagar, and Guitar’s accounts are told. 

This adds to the profundity and unpredictability of the novel by having the option to see a perspective inverse of Milkman. For example, when perusing Guitar’s story, the reader begins to accept his sane for being in the Seven Days Club and killing white individuals. It took another storyteller to escape the psyche of Guitar.

Morrison is truly adept at giving her readers access to the brains of her characters and revealing to them everything the character is feeling, seeing, or hearing. After just a couple of sections into the book, the reader feels like he or she is part of the story. In The Bluest Eye, in spite of the fact that the primary character is Pecola, the greater part of the story is told through the fundamental storyteller, Claudia. 

Like Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye additionally tells the perspective of the troublemaker in the novel. In The Bluest Eye, the miscreant is Cholly who assaults her. Previous to finding out about the assault from Cholly’s perspective, Cholly’s biography is told. In light of the hard life he has had, the readers are not amazed that Cholly utilizes sexual brutality to discharge a portion of his repressed annoyance. Albeit Cholly’s perspective doesn’t eradicate the transgressions he has submitted. It makes his activities somewhat more middle of the road.

In Beloved, there are numerous progressions between storytellers. It changes storytellers so frequently that there were times when one couldn’t tell who was describing: Beloved, Sethe, or Denver. This not just adds to the multifaceted nature of the novel, it keeps the readers connected consistently. 

One of the minor storytellers in the novel, Stamp Paid, isn’t a piece of Sethe’s family, yet he is a white man from the town that watches the family at 124. This character shows what the outside view is of the family. The utilization of describing characters, although befuddling now and again, adds to the intricacy and profundity of the books by giving the readers of points of view of the circumstance. 

Division of Books

Morrison utilizes exceptional approaches to split her books. Although each of the three of the books is separated in an unexpected way, Morrison utilizes a similar rationale in separating the tales. The Song of Solomon is separated into two areas. The primary area closes with Lena revealing to Milkman he is no longer part of the family. In the second part, Milkman sets out on an excursion to discover gold. 

He never finds the gold, however, he learns a great deal about himself and changes from an individual loaded with disdain and eagerness to an individual fit for adoration and consideration.

The Bluest Eye is isolated into four segments, in view of the seasons over a one-year time frame. The tale starts with harvest time and finishes in summer. Beloved is partitioned into three areas. Each area starts with 124 was and afterward a modifier. The main area starts 124 were angry, the subsequent segment starts 124 were boisterous and the third areas begin with 124 hushed up. 

Every straightforward explanation about where the characters live says a great deal in three words; it quickly sums up the segment that follows the sentence. In the first place, the primary character, Sethe, is as yet furious about her Sweet Home understanding. The center area is the point, at which the most activity happens, which would clarify why 124 is depicted as uproarious. The last segment is the point at which the fundamental issue of the novel has been settled and things have quieted down, which is the reason 124 is depicted as tranquil.

Works Of Toni Morrison

  • The Bluest Eye

Short Stories

Toni Morrison's powerful writing won her the Nobel Prize. These are 20 of her best books, according to Goodreads members.

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  • Toni Morrison (1913-2019) was an influential author, professor, and Nobel Prize winner.
  • We used Goodreads to rank her most popular novels, essays, and children's books.
  • Toni Morrison's most popular books are " Beloved " and " The Bluest Eye ."

Insider Today

Toni Morrison was a distinguished novelist and essayist who highlighted the generational consequences of racism in the United States through her fictional works and literary criticisms. 

Celebrated for her profound work towards equality in literature, Toni Morrison wrote 11 novels, 10 children's books, and dozens of essays that earned her numerous awards and accolades (including the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature) as she explored the experiences of Black women in America.

To rank Toni Morrison's essay collections, novels, and other works by popularity, we turned to Goodreads members. On Goodreads, over 125 million users rate and review their favorite books and share how Toni Morrison's legacy continues to impact them. 

Whether you're looking to experience Toni Morrison's poetic fiction or explore a searing literary criticism, here are the most popular Toni Morrison books, as ranked by Goodreads members. 

The 20 best Toni Morrison books, ranked by Goodreads members:

20. "the nobel lecture in literature, 1993".

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon, $2.95

This short read is the speech Toni Morrison gave in 1993 as she received the Nobel Prize in Literature for her ability to "give life to an essential aspect of American reality" "in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import." For an even more powerful experience, you can listen to Toni Morrison deliver her speech here . 

19. "Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $10.35

" Burn This Book " is an anthology edited by Toni Morrison that also includes a short but brilliant essay about the power of writing and the threat of censorship. Each writer in this collection is a " PEN " writer or a poet, essayist, or novelist who defends the freedom of expression through literature as a human right.

18. "Desdemona"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon, $39.75

This play by Toni Morrison recreates the story of Desdemona, the heroine from Shakespeare's " Othello ." Morrison brings the female characters from "Othello" to life in a stunning literary and dramatic form, including the previously silenced voice of Desdemona's African nurse, Barbary.

17. "The Big Box"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon, $45

" The Big Box " was Toni Morrison's first picture book written with her son, Slade Morrison. It is about three children who don't fit adults' expectations and are sent to live in big boxes with locks on the door when the adults decide they can't handle their own freedom.

16. "Remember: The Journey to School Integration"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop , $19.99

Combined with historical photographs that captured school desegregation in America, Toni Morrison tells a fictional story about the emotions and dialogue of the children in the pictures. Published on the 50th anniversary of the "Brown vs. Board of Education" trial, this historical read paired with Morrison's emotional touch is a powerful revival of history.

15. "Recitatif"

toni morrison short essay

Preorder available at Amazon and Bookshop from $14.72

" Recitatif " was Toni Morrison's first published short story which premiered in the now out-of-circulation " Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women " in 1983. This emotional story is about Twyla and Roberta, two young girls who meet at an orphanage and bond over their unique situation. 

14. "The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $15.29

This collection comprises some of Toni Morrison's essays, speeches, and prayers over 40 eventful and transformative years. From the emotional eulogy she delivered at James Baldwin's funeral to a meditative commentary about her early publications, " The Source of Self-Regard " is a necessary read for any Toni Morrison reader looking to understand the author in a deeper and more profound way. 

13. "The Origin of Others"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $17.30

" The Origin of Others " is a collection of Toni Morrison's reflections upon the themes of race, belonging, and identity through her work. Seeking answers to complex questions about racial "othering" in society, Morrison turns to great works of literature as well as her own in these extremely personal and meditative essays. 

12. "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $11.99

These essays serve as a focused literary criticism of "Africanist" presence within American literature. By analyzing some of the most revered writers in American literature, Toni Morrison demonstrates how whiteness and major themes of freedom depend upon the Black population while simultaneously silencing the Black narrative.

11. "Love"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $13.49

" Love " is the non-linear story of several Black women over three generations and their relationships to the late Bill Cosey. As the women — from Bill's daughter to his mistress — tell their stories, a larger image emerges to explain the hatred between them. 

10. "Tar Baby"

toni morrison short essay

" Tar Baby " is about the tempestuous love affair between Jadine and Son, two Black Americans from very different worlds who meet in the Caribbean and return to the US, struggling to find a safe home together. Full of complicated relationships, beautifully descriptive settings, and an abundance of striking lyricism, Toni Morrison continues to captivate readers with her memorable writing in this novel.

9. "Home"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $9.17

Frank Money is a Black man returning home from the Korean War, searching for a new sense of identity after a series of traumatic experiences in the Army. Thrust back into a racist and segregated community, Frank must relive early memories and overcome mental challenges n order to find himself and his home. 

8. "Paradise"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $12.76

The final book of the " Beloved " trilogy opens with a scene of horrific violence in a small, all-Black town in Oklahoma called Ruby. Grand and tragic, this novel chronicles the creation of Ruby and the strife with another town that lies 17 miles away.

7. "God Help the Child"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $9.97

" God Help the Child " was Toni Morrison's final published novel before her passing in 2019 and her only novel to be set in the present. The story follows a Black woman who calls herself Bride and examines the brutal ways in which childhood trauma can shape the life of an adult.

6. "Jazz"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $12.99

" Jazz " is a historical fiction novel that takes place mostly in 1920s Harlem where Joe Trace is a middle-aged beauty product salesman. When Joe shoots his teenage lover to death and his wife attacks the girl's corpse, a story of love and obsession develops in this lyrical novel enriched with the perspectives of multiple narrators.  

5. "A Mercy"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $14.54

Set during the slave trade in the 1680s, this historical fiction novel is about a young girl named Florens who is given to a man in Maryland to pay off a debt. Rejected by her own mother, Florens seeks motherly and romantic love in this story that reveals the roots of racism through a glimpse at early slavery.

4. "Sula"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $12.59

In this 1975 National Book Award finalist, Nel and Sula are two women whose complex relationship both brings them together and pushes them apart over the course of 20 years. Nel chose to stay in her hometown to raise a family, while Sula escaped to the city for college. " Sula " is an intense read as the women experience racism, explore their sexuality, and grow up in very different ways. 

3. "Song of Solomon"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $13.99

" Song of Solomon " is a historical fiction novel that follows Macon "Milkman" Dead III through his life, beginning with a traumatic event that spurred his birth. In this profound and complex work, readers are introduced to Macon's life through a full cast of unique characters and Macon's tumultuous coming-of-age experiences.

2. "The Bluest Eye"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $9.43

" The Bluest Eye " was Toni Morrison's first novel, a historical fiction story first published in 1970. It is about a young African-American girl named Pecola growing up during the Great Depression who prays for her eyes to turn blue so she will be loved like the blond, blue-eyed children in America.

1. "Beloved"

toni morrison short essay

Available at Amazon and Bookshop from $9.29

With over 355,000 ratings, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the most popular Toni Morrison book, according to Goodreads reviewers. The story follows Sethe, who escaped slavery 18 years ago yet cannot escape the horrible memories of her early life as she's haunted by the past and the ghost of her baby. 

toni morrison short essay

  • Main content

Toni Morrison’s Recipe for Love, Life, and the Perfect Boiled Egg

Today would have been the late novelist’s 93rd birthday. We’re celebrating a woman who knew how to have her cake and eat it, too.

toni morrison food writing birthday quotes

Morrison was game. The article she dished up was less an essay about food and more a love letter to it—to a long summer day broken down into its “splendid parts: a ham, fried-potatoes, scrambled-egg, breakfast in the morning air; fried fish and pan-cooked biscuits on the hind side of noon” and an evening of oozing peach cobbler.

Today, Toni Morrison is identified as a national treasure, a literary genius, author of 11 earth-shattering novels, and the recipient of practically every international honor short of sainthood. But in 1973, The Times identified her…a little differently: “Toni Morrison, the author of The Bluest Eye, cooks on a proper stove in Spring Valley, NY.”

Was Toni Morrison a secret foodie?

Morrison was fairly tight-lipped about her personal life. She vehemently urged her students against writing from their own personal experiences and tended to follow her own advice. But her fiction betrays a chef’s intimate knowledge of food: the process of making it, the pleasure of eating it. In Sula, Morrison likens a mother’s love for her child to “a pan of syrup kept too long on the stove, had cooked out, leaving only its odor and a hard, sweet sludge, impossible to scrape off”—an image only accessible to someone who has had to do their fair share of dishes. In Beloved, a character serves “bread pudding, murmuring her hopes for it, apologizing in advance the way”—Morrison knowingly observes—“veteran cooks always do.”

I started reading Toni Morrison novels around the same time I started cooking. I was in high school—maybe 16—growing fast and famished constantly. After school, I would eat peanut butter straight from the jar and rummage through Yahoo Answers for advice on how to manage my impending adulthood, the overwhelm of first love, and the general brutality and tedium of teenaged girlhood. Needless to say, I needed a better form of nourishment.

.css-meat1u:before{margin-bottom:1.2rem;height:2.25rem;content:'“';display:block;font-size:4.375rem;line-height:1.1;font-family:Juana,Juana-weight300-roboto,Juana-weight300-local,Georgia,Times,Serif;font-weight:300;} .css-mn32pc{font-family:Juana,Juana-weight300-upcase-roboto,Juana-weight300-upcase-local,Georgia,Times,Serif;font-size:1.625rem;font-weight:300;letter-spacing:0.0075rem;line-height:1.2;margin:0rem;text-transform:uppercase;}@media(max-width: 64rem){.css-mn32pc{font-size:2.25rem;line-height:1;}}@media(min-width: 48rem){.css-mn32pc{font-size:2.375rem;line-height:1;}}@media(min-width: 64rem){.css-mn32pc{font-size:2.75rem;line-height:1;}}.css-mn32pc b,.css-mn32pc strong{font-family:inherit;font-weight:bold;}.css-mn32pc em,.css-mn32pc i{font-style:italic;font-family:inherit;} In her writing, Morrison doesn’t just reflect her knowledge and love of food. She shares it.

Since 1970, readers have been devouring Morrison’s books, hungry not just for great stories but also for wisdom —on how to love responsibly (“Love is not a gift. It is a diploma”), live fully (“Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage”), and quit while you’re ahead (“Good is knowing when to stop.”). I was floored by these insights but not entirely surprised; this was Toni Morrison , after all. But I also found something else in those pages, something I wasn’t expecting: practical dispatches from a clear culinary master.

In her writing, Morrison doesn’t just reflect her knowledge and love of food. She shares it. My first Morrison novel—read during a time period when I could not so much as boil an egg—was Song of Solomon. Toward the beginning of the story of homecoming and self-discovery, Morrison practically interrupts the narrative to provide (through the character of Pilate) this detailed and foolproof guide:

Now, the water and the egg have to meet each other on a kind of equal standing. One can’t get the upper hand over the other. So the temperature has to be the same for both. I knock the chill off the water first. Just the chill. I don’t let it get warm because the egg is room temperature, you see. Now then, the real secret is right here in the boiling. When the tiny bubbles come to the surface, when they as big as peas and just before they get big as marbles. Well, right then you take the pot off the fire. You don’t just put the fire out; you take the pot off. Then you put a folded newspaper over the pot and do one small obligation. Like answering the door or emptying the bucket and bringing it in off the front porch. I generally go to the toilet. Nor for a long stay, mind you. Just a short one. If you do all that, you got yourself a perfect soft-boiled egg.

poultry and hog farms face possible dioxin contamination

You could argue that this is a metaphor—but it’s also a real recipe! Having boiled a decade’s worth of eggs by this method, I can confirm: Just as the narrator promises, the whites are cooked through every time, and the yokes are “soft, but not runny…like velvet.”

Toni Morrison taught me that a goose “should be cooked on its breast, not its back,” to always “beat air into batter with a spoon instead of a machine,” and that chocolate melts most evenly in a wet saucepan. But rereading her summer cookout essay on its 50th anniversary, I am reminded of Morrison’s most profound cooking lesson—one that has nothing to do with poultry, appliances, or heat. In the essay’s final lines, Morrison writes, “We were all there. All of us, bound by something we could not name. Cooking, honey, cooking under the stars.”

Food is not just a source of individual nutrition or pleasure but a source of communion; nothing brings people together like a well-cooked meal. This idea isn’t exactly revolutionary, but at this moment—with the rise of meal delivery and in the wake of Ozempic’s promise (threat?) of a “life after food”—it bears repeating. We lose more than pounds when we stop relishing in the ritual and skill of cooking; we lose connection.

Good food, like good writing, has the power to shake us back into our bodies and out of our individual experience. Morrison’s description of fall foliage “smearing everything with oil paint” will pull goosebumps out of my skin just as surely and automatically as my uncle’s chili lime shrimp will pull water out of my eyes; both connect me to something universally human and both owe their richness to specific human histories, exchanges, and experiences. I am reminded, while eating and while reading, that I am not a brain in a jar but a human being in history and in community.

I first came to Toni Morrison’s fiction craving self-improvement: a recipe on how to live my life. But through her books (and the secret cooking lessons they contained), I learned that language is not simply a vehicle for transmitting information any more than food is simply a vehicle for transmitting calories. A meal, like a novel, is an experience—something to be savored and shared.

Charley Burlock is the Associate Books Editor at Oprah Daily where she writes, edits, and assigns stories on all things literary. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from NYU, where she also taught undergraduate creative writing. Her work has been featured in the Atlanti c , the Los Angeles Review , Agni , the Apple News Today podcast, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a book about collective grief (but she promises she's really fun at parties). 

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Guest Essay

The Most Important Writing Exercise I’ve Ever Assigned

An illustration of several houses. One person walks away from a house with a second person isolated in a window.

By Rachel Kadish

Ms. Kadish is the author of the novel “The Weight of Ink.”

“Write down a phrase you find abhorrent — something you yourself would never say.”

My students looked startled, but they cooperated. They knew I wouldn’t collect this exercise; what they wrote would be private unless they chose to share it. All that was required of them was participation.

In silence they jotted down a few words. So far, so good. We hadn’t yet reached the hard request: Spend 10 minutes writing a monologue in the first person that’s spoken by a fictitious character who makes the upsetting statement. This portion typically elicits nervous glances. When that happens, I remind students that their statement doesn’t represent them and that speaking as if they’re someone else is a basic skill of fiction writers. The troubling statement, I explain, must appear in the monologue, and it shouldn’t be minimized, nor should students feel the need to forgive or account for it. What’s required is simply that somewhere in the monologue there be an instant — even a fleeting phrase — in which we can feel empathy for the speaker. Perhaps she’s sick with worry over an ill grandchild. Perhaps he’s haunted by a love he let slip away. Perhaps she’s sleepless over how to keep her business afloat and her employees paid. Done right, the exercise delivers a one-two punch: repugnance for a behavior or worldview coupled with recognition of shared humanity.

For more than two decades, I’ve taught versions of this fiction-writing exercise. I’ve used it in universities, middle schools and private workshops, with 7-year-olds and 70-year-olds. But in recent years openness to this exercise and to the imaginative leap it’s designed to teach has shrunk to a pinprick. As our country’s public conversation has gotten angrier, I’ve noticed that students’ approach to the exercise has become more brittle, regardless of whether students lean right or left.

Each semester, I wonder whether the aperture through which we allow empathy has so drastically narrowed as to foreclose a full view of our fellow human beings. Maybe there are times so contentious or so painful that people simply withdraw to their own silos. I’ve certainly felt that inward pull myself. There are times when a leap into someone else’s perspective feels impossible.

But leaping is the job of the writer, and there’s no point it doing it halfway. Good fiction pulls off a magic trick of absurd power: It makes us care. Responding to the travails of invented characters — Ahab or Amaranta, Sethe or Stevens, Zooey or Zorba — we might tear up or laugh, or our hearts might pound. As readers, we become invested in these people, which is very different from agreeing with or even liking them. In the best literature, characters are so vivid, complicated, contradictory and even maddening that we’ll follow them far from our preconceptions; sometimes we don’t return.

Unflinching empathy, which is the muscle the lesson is designed to exercise, is a prerequisite for literature strong enough to wrestle with the real world. On the page it allows us to spot signs of humanity; off the page it can teach us to start a conversation with the strangest of strangers, to thrive alongside difference. It can even affect those life-or-death choices we make instinctively in a crisis. This kind of empathy has nothing to do with being nice, and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Even within the safety of the page, it’s tempting to dodge empathy’s challenge, instead demonizing villains and idealizing heroes, but that’s when the needle on art’s moral compass goes inert. Then we’re navigating blind: confident that we know what the bad people look like and that they’re not us — and therefore we’re at no risk of error.

Our best writers, in contrast, portray humans in their full complexity. This is what Gish Jen is doing in the short story “Who’s Irish?” and Rohinton Mistry in the novel “A Fine Balance.” Line by line, these writers illuminate the inner worlds of characters who cause harm — which is not the same as forgiving them. No one would ever say that Toni Morrison forgives the character Cholly Breedlove, who rapes his daughter in “The Bluest Eye.” What Ms. Morrison accomplishes instead is the boldest act of moral and emotional understanding I’ve ever seen on the page.

In the classroom exercise, the upsetting phrases my students scribble might be personal (“You’ll never be a writer,” “You’re ugly”) or religious or political. Once a student wrote a phrase condemning abortion as another student across the table wrote a phrase defending it. Sometimes there are stereotypes, slurs — whatever the students choose to grapple with. Of course, it’s disturbing to step into the shoes of someone whose words or deeds repel us. Writing these monologues, my graduate students, who know what “first person” means, will dodge and write in third, with the distanced “he said” instead of “I said.”

But if they can withstand the challenges of first person, sometimes something happens. They emerge shaken and eager to expand on what they’ve written. I look up from tidying my notes to discover students lingering after dismissal with that alert expression that says the exercise made them feel something they needed to feel.

Over the years, as my students’ statements became more political and as jargon (“deplorables,” “snowflakes”) supplanted the language of personal experience, I adapted the exercise. Worrying that I’d been too sanguine about possible pitfalls, I made it entirely silent, so no student would have to hear another’s troubling statement or fear being judged for their own. Any students who wanted to share their monologues with me could stay after class rather than read to the group. Later, I added another caveat: If your troubling statement is so offensive, you can’t imagine the person who says it as a full human being, choose something less troubling. Next, I narrowed the parameters: No politics. The pandemic’s virtual classes made risk taking harder; I moved the exercise deeper into the semester so students would feel more at ease.

After one session, a student stayed behind in the virtual meeting room. She’d failed to include empathy in her monologue about a character whose politics she abhorred. Her omission bothered her. I was impressed by her honesty. She’d constructed a caricature and recognized it. Most of us don’t.

For years, I’ve quietly completed the exercise alongside my students. Some days nothing sparks. When it goes well, though, the experience is disquieting. The hard part, it turns out, isn’t the empathy itself but what follows: the annihilating notion that people whose fears or joys or humor I appreciate may themselves be indifferent to all my cherished conceptions of the world.

Then the 10-minute timer sounds, and I haul myself back to the business of the classroom — shaken by the vastness of the world but more curious about the people in it. I put my trust in that curiosity. What better choice does any of us have? And in the sanctuary of my classroom I keep trying, handing along what literature handed me: the small, sturdy magic trick any of us can work, as long as we’re willing to risk it.

Rachel Kadish is the author of the novel “The Weight of Ink.”

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