To celebrate Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison’s undeniable role as a champion for women everywhere, we’ve decided to take a look back at her most inspiring quotes.
Toni Morrison, author of Beloved, Song of Solomon, Jazz, and many more award-winning books, has died. The American essayist, and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, was one of the world’s finest and most revered novelists. In fact, in her lifetime she won 21 awards for her writing.
Today, we celebrate the life and works of Morrison with a look back to some of her most famous and inspiring quotes.
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
“You are your best thing.”
On forging positive change
“Make a difference about something other than yourselves.”
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
On letting go
“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
“Did you ever see the way the clouds love a mountain? They circle all around it; sometimes you can’t even see the mountain for the clouds. But you know what? You go up top and what do you see? His head. The clouds never cover the head. His head pokes through, because the clouds let him; they don’t wrap him up. They let him keep his head up high, free, with nothing to hide him or bind him.”
“Could you really love somebody who was absolutely nobody without you? You really want somebody like that? Somebody who falls apart when you walk out the door? You don’t, do you?”
“You can’t own a human being. You can’t lose what you don’t own.”
In 2015, Stylist published an interview with Toni Morrison titled Voice of America. Scroll down to read the feature, written by Anna Hart.
Toni Morrison has a sweet, golden voice, like honey, and an easy laugh. It’s a voice you imagine accompanied by a warm smile and a wryly arched eyebrow. It’s a voice you don’t expect to come down the phone from Firestone Library at Princeton University, emanating from one of America’s greatest living novelists, a Nobel laureate possessed of a powerful intellect who has used her voice over the past five decades to challenge patriarchy and proudly reclaim African Americans’ historical experiences. Yet when our line is abruptly cut, she greets me brightly moments later with a gleeful chuckle and a wisecrack about the National Security Agency bugging the line.
Like many living legends who really have nothing left to prove, Morrison is unafraid to flit between humour and gravitas, the personal and the political. One moment she’s delighting in her role as a doting grandmother (“The ultimate love; even when they do something snotty, I think it’s cute”), the next carefully reiterating that her parents were forced to leave their homes in the American South to escape racism. She’s refreshingly candid about her craft, admitting she found the contemporary setting of her most recent novel, God Help The Child, challenging: “The past decade was a very fluid period to my mind; it has a difficult shape. I can deal with the 17th century and the 50s, but this was too close.”
Such elasticity and openness are qualities readers have come to expect from her prose. Most readers come to Morrison through her 1987 novel Beloved, a brutal story of a runaway slave in post-Civil War America, and find themselves hooked on the epic themes, crackling dialogue and sociopolitical thrust that are considered Morrison hallmarks. When her Pulitzer and American Book Award-winning novel was adapted into a 1998 Academy Award-nominated film starring Oprah Winfrey, the novel once again entered the bestseller lists, and in 2006, The New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best American novel published in the previous 25 years.
Born Chloe Wofford in Ohio to working-class parents (when she was confirmed Catholic at 12, Anthony was her baptismal name, leading to her nickname Toni), Morrison credits them with instilling in her a lifelong love of literature. “They were very big on books and reading and education, and this was an activism of sorts at the time, because in their day, black people were forbidden from reading,” she says. “After they moved to Ohio, my mother joined book clubs constantly, we read all the African-American newspapers, and there was the constant encouragement to read. As a child, I worked out that if I didn’t want to do some chore, I could always get a book, and then they wouldn’t bother me.”
Morrison was reading by the age of three, she says, having been taught by her sisters. She devoured traditional stories from the Brothers Grimm to Andrew Lang’s The Green Fairy Book. “Most of the stories told in my house ended with somebody’s head cut off,” she deadpans.
Morrison quickly progressed to Austen and Tolstoy, and in 1953 she graduated from Howard University with a degree in English, followed by a Master’s from Cornell. She taught English at university campuses before becoming an editor for Random House, where she edited books by Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Gayl Jones – already playing a key role in bringing black literature into the mainstream before even writing her first novel. “I never stopped reading,” she recalls.
“I read and read and read until I was 39, and then there was a book I wanted to read and I couldn’t find it, so I wrote it. In order to read it.”
Asked what made 39 the magic year, she takes a moment to consider. “When I was teaching, I found myself in a writers’ group with other faculty members, playwrights and poets, because I wrote a short story,” she recalls. “I knew if I wanted to stay in the club – and they served such good food – I had to deliver. So I started writing The Bluest Eye. But, you know, I’m really not sure there’s any ‘right’ age to start writing.”
Morrison’s work ethic is the stuff of legend. She famously wrote her debut novel while being a single parent to two young boys. Reflecting on her years bringing them up alone, after divorcing the architect husband she’d met at Howard, she speaks with characteristic good humour. “I may have been a difficult mother because I was working all the time,” she says, slowly. “But we managed. And they enjoyed a certain amount of licence. If I’d stayed home, they might not have liked it so much…”
“When I started writing I had to do it before my children woke up, so I got up at 4am,” she explains. “And after they went to college I stayed in this rhythm, because I’m smartest at this time of day. Whatever juice there is creatively drains in the afternoon.” Her daily routine has remained unchanged for decades. “I usually get up before the sun. Although the weather’s been so hideous that these days I’m getting up with the sun, if it ever shows up,” and she’s laughing, again.
God Help The Child is a fierce, haunting tale of our inability as adults to free ourselves from the hurt of the past, and when I tell her I think it’s a book that will scare mothers, she laughs. “My dear, I brought up two boys, and you know, I really don’t think I could do that over again.” (Nearly five years ago Morrison experienced the single greatest sadness of her life: the death of her second-born son, Slade, to pancreatic cancer.) Asked if a daughter would have been different, she pauses. “Yes.”
Why? “Well, unless she was a real little bitch, I think we would have got along,” she says, with a low chuckle that doesn’t diminish her total conviction. “But raising boys, well, they’re a whole other gender, which is hard to understand.”
And so whose experience, whose pain, did she use when depicting the fraught mother-daughter relationship in God Help The Child? “Nobody else’s words,” she says. “But I’ve always been a writer of what we call ‘skin privilege’ within the black community. Skin ranking was a reasonable ranking system, because if you were lighter you weren’t harassed so much, people didn’t treat you so badly. The darker you were, the greater the inconvenience.”
Skin privilege has been a recurring theme for Morrison, but in her most recent novel, it’s used to beautifully unpick the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. “In God Help The Child we have a mother whose family can pass for white, who has this really, really black child, and she doesn’t like it.”
And what sort of daughter was she? “Well, I don’t know what kind of daughter I would have been, but I was very obedient, because at the time there was no other thing for me to be,” she says. “[My parents] were very strict. And so I was very obedient, right through university, because I was dependent on them, and they were proud of me. There was very little agitation or confrontation – until I had children, and that’s when the friction started. Your mother telling you how to raise your children, that will always do it.”
Much is made of Morrison’s 84 years but, as you might expect of someone with exceptional intellect, the memories of her first 50 years, she says, are crystal clear. “But I don’t have a good memory now. Although I can remember something long-forgotten, if someone tells me the picture, a scene, then I get it. So you see, there are little ways you can hook onto memories and bring them back.”
Asked if she can recall an age when she was happiest, she expounds a gloriously Morrison theory of ageing. “I’m convinced that everybody knows their true age, which has nothing to do with how long you’ve lived,” she says. “I sometimes ask people, ‘How old are you really?’ What’s interesting is that they always know. They might pause a second, but they always have an answer.”
Morrison’s true age is 23. “I have no idea what was going on then – I guess I got my first teaching job, became an adult in some way – but that’s how old I am. I can learn things past 23, and over time I’ve learned a lot and done a lot, but the person who has learned and done a lot is still 23. The rest of it is time, change, other pieces of information and feelings.”
It’s an alluring, ferocious rebuttal of the ageing process, and one we agree that young women should subscribe to, dogged as we are by fear of ageing and ‘things to do before 30’ lists. As we wind up, I ask her what every woman should try and do by the age of 80. “Ha ha! More!” she says. “Do more, and faster. Hurry up!”
Feature first published in Stylist, May 2015.