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The strength of compassion: Toni Morrison at 85

Toni Morrison is the first African-American writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. She recently published a new widely acclaimed novel and recorded the audiobook version herself.

It was the book she wanted to read - and that didn't exist: This is how Toni Morrison recalls the impetus to writing her first novel, "The Bluest Eyes," in 1970 while working as an editor at a famous publishing house and caring for two small sons as a divorced mother.

She was concerned about the feelings of "the most vulnerable characters, who never held the center stage." So she chose to explore the story of a marginalized black girl who is abused by her own father. Pecola Breedlove prays each night for blue eyes, believing that everything would be right if she was a white, blonde and blue-eyed beauty like the child actress Shirley Temple.

In an interview with "The Guardian," Toni Morrison recalled that a black girl from her school in Ohio had expressed the strong wish for this typical "white" beauty, which struck the future writer as an expression of self-loathing.

Toni Morrison was born as Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. She was the second of four children in a black working-class family and grew up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood with African-Americans, Poles, Italians, and Jews. As a child, she enjoyed reading classic novels by Tolstoy and Jane Austen and listening to the African-American folk tales her father George Wofford told her. Later, he took a second job to support her through college.

Morrison's contribution to the civil rights movement

She studied humanities at Howard University in Washington D.C. and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Her academic career included teaching at Texas Southern University, Howard University, Yale, and Princeton. As an editor at Random House, she published the works of talented black writers such as Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara.

Barack Obama honored Toni Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 - the highest civilian honor in the US (Photo: AFP)

Barack Obama honored the writer with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 - the highest civilian honor in the US

She told the New York Times that the books she edited and wrote were her contribution to the civil rights movement in the US.

When she became the first African-American author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sture Allen, emphasized that she "has given the African-American people their history back, piece by piece" in her depictions of the world of black people. The most enduring impression her novels leave "is of empathy, compassion with one's fellow human beings," he said in his award ceremony speech.

Toni Morrison explained that she refused to present an ideal, rejecting any "uplifting black rhetoric." Instead, she wanted to "reveal and ask questions."

Skepticism over Nobel Prize?

Winning the coveted literature prize put her in the spotlights and some critics at the time were skeptical that she was truly deserving of the award. Was it simply a political choice in a '90s America concerned with affirmative action policies and still battling racism? German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki called her a "mediocre" writer, saying her gender rather than her skin color was behind her win.

"...the Nobel Academy knew precisely what it was doing when it cited her 'visionary force, (which) gives life to an essential aspect of American reality,'" wrote "Salon" in 2011. "You struggle through 'Beloved,' but you reach an understanding you didn't have before. Can you honestly say that about (Joyce Carol Oates) 'We Were the Mulvaneys'?"

In 2012, "New York Magazine" conceded that, "two decades after she won her Nobel, Toni Morrison's place in the pantheon is hardly assured," maintaining that she writes more for posterity than for anyone else.

"Having once spearheaded the elevation of black women in culture - Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Oprah - she now find herself struggling to cut them loose, to admit at long last that what she's always believed: that she's not only the first but the best. That she belongs as much with Faulkner and Joyce and Roth as she does with that illustrious sisterhood."

No simple notions of good and evil

Her most famous novel, "Beloved" (1987), was inspired by a harrowing true story which Morrison first thought was "inaccessible to art." In the 19th century, a runaway slave named Margaret Garner killed her baby daughter to spare her a life of captivity and abuse when they were found by the slave masters.

"The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom," the author wrote in the foreword to a later edition of "Beloved."

The protagonist Sethe and her teenage daughter are haunted by the ghost of the child: "Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?" To Sethe, killing the baby girl was an act of love, because she wanted to protect her from what was "worse than death" - that the white slave masters "could not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. (…) Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn't think it up. (...) She could never let that happen to her own."

Toni Morrison writes about the horrors of slavery and racism with compassion and fury, questioning any simple notions of good and evil.

Psychology of racism

She also explored different aspects of the psychology of racism in her most recent novels. In "God Help the Child" (2015), a successful young career woman in contemporary America still suffers because of her mother's lack of affection. The reason behind this coldness is the color of the protagonist's skin: "She was so black she scared me. I wish she hadn't been born with this terrible color," the more light-skinned African-American mother thinks after giving birth to her. To make her estranged mother proud, the little girl tells a lie in court, which leads to the imprisonment of an innocent woman.

Toni Morrison books are both critically acclaimed and read by millions. Her novels are studied and discussed in schools and universities all over the US and many other countries.

She was asked several times if she would not write a book about white people some day - a question that always annoyed her. "What is behind that question is, there's the center, which is white, and then there are these regional blacks or Asians, or any sort of marginal people," she told the literary magazine "The Paris Review."

In her opinion, the question implied, "You write well enough, you could come into the center if you wanted to. (…) And I'm saying, Yeah, well, I'm gonna stay out here on the margin, and let the center look for me."


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