Toni Morrison was no stranger to death. Many authors write about dying — some, like John Updike, fixate on the afterlife; others, like Susan Sontag, fight illness until the end — but Morrison had a different relationship with mortality. Nearly all her novels are punctuated by deaths, and many are more peaceful than the lives that preceded them. The writer herself seemed resigned to it.

“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” Morrison said in the close of her 1993 Nobel Prize address. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Morrison, who died on Monday at the age of 88, led a life so rich in language as to prove nearly immeasurable. Over a five-decade career, she chronicled the African-American experience in stories that spanned from 17th-century plantations to the Jim Crow-era South. In each, she stared unflinchingly at the violence wrought by slavery and racial hatred, an exercise that she called “writing without the white gaze.”

Morrison believed in a language more political than poetic. She bristled when called a “poetic writer.” Lyrical prose was less important to her than the human truths she confronted in her writing — the weight of black motherhood, the way faith endures in the face of trauma.

“I don’t like to have someone call my books ‘poetic’ because it has the connotation of luxuriating richness,” Morrison told The New Republic in 1981. “I wanted to restore the language that black people spoke to its original power.” In her Nobel address she said that oppressive language doesn’t just “represent violence — it is violence.”

The power of language is a resonant theme at a time when Americans are seeing how words can be weaponised to fuel violence and sow division. Morrison knew that words can be used to marginalise, but she also believed that they can be used to liberate, by telling stories that have long been cast aside.

But these challenging narratives were not always what Americans wanted to hear. Three of Morrison’s works appear in a tally of the 100 most banned American books, including “Beloved,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and “Song of Solomon.” That her books have stirred controversy is no surprise. Her literary characters bear testimony to the cruelties of racial and class animus in unsparing detail.

In “Beloved” a mother murders her infant rather than subject it to a life of enslavement. In “Sula” a grandmother sticks her leg in front of a train to collect injury compensation. In “The Bluest Eye” young Pecola Breedlove believes herself undesirable in her blackness, until she is raped by her father and cast out of her community. Morrison’s works are populated with individual lives that are remade by systems of racial oppression. Race and class reshape the moulds of parenthood, womanhood and relationships.

Morrison’s novels were only part of her contribution to what she called a “canon of black work.” She began her career at Random House, where she edited works by Angela Davis, Gayle Jones, Toni Cade Bambara and Muhammad Ali. While at Random House she worked on “The Black Book,” an illustrated scrapbook of African-American history. Her research for the anthology led her to the newspaper clipping about the fugitive slave Margaret Garner’s infanticide that one decade later became the plot of “Beloved.”

Morrison’s public life was just as political as her writing. During OJ Simpson’s trial, she went on television to lament the association of blackness with criminality. When Bill Clinton was impeached she defended him as “our first black president.” When Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, she condemned police brutality. “They don’t stop and frisk on Wall Street, which is where they should really go,” she said. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Morrison took to The New Yorker to explain the resurgence of American xenophobia. “All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasise their whiteness.”

“She is a friend of my mind,” says Paul D of the protagonist Sethe in “Beloved.” “She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” A measure of Morrison’s life was her ability to gather the pieces of a country broken under the weight of its own history and meld them into a new story.

c.2019 New York Times News Service

Emma Goldbergis a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in issues of gender and identity and has written for the Washington Post, the New York Times, the LA Review of Books, VICE, Elle, the Daily Beast, Salon, USA Today, ESPN, Forbes, and Haaretz, among others. Previously she obtained her MPhil in Gender Studies from Cambridge and her BA in Political Science from Yale.

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