Beyond Bestsellers: Toni Morrison

by Lois H. (they/them or she/her)

“What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze. … In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people — good, bad, indifferent, whatever — but that was, for me, the universe.”

Toni Morrison (From Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Morrison in The New York Times Magazine)

This month we’re celebrating the legacy of award-winning novelist Toni Morrison.

I first encountered Morrison’s writing as a wide-eyed freshman in college. To fulfill a history credit requirement, I signed up for a course on a subject I knew nothing about: the Jazz Age. Throughout the quarter, we studied historical documents, listened to music, and read Jazz, Morrison’s sixth novel.

Although I considered myself an avid reader, I had never read anything like Jazz. Morrison’s writing style is intricate. You get the sense that every word was carefully selected and set in its place. Jazz, in particular, echoes the music it shares a name with both in craft and tone.

Her stories dissect issues of race, class, and gender with non-linear plot-lines, unreliable narrators, and flawed, complex characters.

Beyond Toni Morrison

I have always considered Morrison to be an inimitable author. There’s a reason why she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon (1977), a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987), and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

While researching Morrison for Beyond Bestsellers, I learned about her career as an editor. Before she became a bestseller, she was the first black female senior editor in fiction at Random House publishing company. As an editor, she published books written by writers like Gayl Jones, Angela Davis, and Muhammad Ali. She prioritized Black writers who wrote about the complexity and richness of Black American life.

As a writer, editor, and educator, Morrison paved the way for a future of Black female writers.

Looking beyond Toni Morrison, there are many authors whose works have been touched by her. Her work gave permission to Black writers to write about themselves and for themselves.

This month, I’m highlighting Black female authors whose works address the intersections of race, class, and gender through stories about families and communities. Many of the books on this list share Morrison’s lyrical writing style and haunting tone. I have also included some essays and poetry written by authors who were edited by Morrison.

Beyond Toni Morrison

Not sure where to start? Try out The Color Purple by Alice Walker, now available with no wait on OverDrive.

Also, don’t forget to share how you’re reading Beyond Toni Morrison this month. Can you think of other titles? Create a BiblioCommons list and share what you’re reading in the comments.

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