Five essential readings from Toni Morrison for Black History Month


“The vitality of language lies in its ability to trace the real, imagined, and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers…It moves toward where meaning may reside.” Giving his Nobel Lecture at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 1993, Toni Morrison (1931-2019) taught readers the true power of language and imagination, the strength of their identities and the honor of the black experience.

Morrison’s art of writing, speaking and understanding has guided many. His work remains a vector of hope, anti-racism and universal human dignity. Below are five fascinating works by Morrison – must-reads for understanding the legacy of this legendary storyteller.

“The Bluest Eye”

Published in 1970, Morrison’s first novel follows Pecola Breedlove’s harrowing childhood. Eleven-year-old Pecola is an African-American girl growing up in Lorain, Ohio (which is also Morrison’s hometown).

From the first sentence, Morrison reveals to the reader the shocking plot of the novel: “As calm as you keep it, there were no worries in the fall of 1941. was because Pecola had her father’s disease. baby that worries didn’t grow. It’s as if Morrison dared readers to continue – not to find out what happened, but rather to see how such an atrocity would affect young Pecola and the community around her.

Morrison wrote this novel to comment on the misplaced correlation between beauty and “whiteness”. Despite her difficult circumstances – an incestuous pregnancy, family strife, and poverty – Pecola is most concerned about the color of her eyes. She is unable to perceive herself as beautiful. Instead, Pecola is obsessed with blonde-haired, blue-eyed Shirley Temple, who represents an unattainable mainstream standard of beauty.

As the story tackles heavy issues that are sometimes hard to deal with, “The Bluest Eye” is a relevant and timeless warning of prejudice and social idealism.

“Song of Solomon”

Published in 1977, this novel accompanies its protagonist Macon “Milkman” Dead III on his journey to reconcile generational trauma. With little knowledge of his family history — especially his enslaved grandparents — Milkman struggles to define who he is. This uncertainty translates into a sense of alienation from one’s community and perpetual dissatisfaction with the state of one’s life. Although he repels those closest to him, including his mother and sisters, it’s clear that Milkman desires a form of kinship he could never embrace without knowing his family history.

With a myriad of multidimensional characters such as Milkman’s Aunt Pilate and her friend Guitar, the novel explores many facets of the African American experience. It also incorporates multicultural elements of Native American heritage and African American folklore alongside Christian and Muslim motifs.

With every turn of the page, the reader is just as eager as Milkman to learn more about the Dead family line, affirming the importance and strength of understanding their identity. Ultimately, that’s what makes Milkman’s eventual discovery of himself and his past all the more poignant.

“Beloved”

Published in 1987, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a macabre depiction of the life of Sethe, a former slave, and her family after the Civil War. Unlike “The Bluest Eye”, where the reader is immediately confronted with the plot, “Beloved” presents a much more complex story.

Sethe and her daughter Denver welcome a stranger named Beloved into their home. As the narrative weaves through time and perspective shifts from character to character, the reader must piece together the fragments of the story. By the end of the novel, Beloved’s true identity remains ambiguous. Still, the elegant language and magical realism make for an engaging read. But what really sets “Beloved” apart is the experience – a collaboration between the reader’s imagination and that of the writer.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”

For those who don’t have time to delve into Morrison’s longer works, the Hulu documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is ideal for understanding and celebrating his career. Acclaimed writers, activists and celebrities – including Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez and Oprah Winfrey – comment on Morrison’s influence. Audiences also hear from Morrison herself as she discusses the inspiration for her novels, such as her family and her childhood. The documentary, like Morrison’s literal and figurative voice, feels both intimate and visionary. Though thoughtful, the documentary offers a powerful exploration of American history through the eyes of one of the world’s most influential black writers.

“The Measure of Our Lives: A Gathering of Wisdom”

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Morrison’s quotes and words of wisdom have guided many readers through difficult times. They empowered. They consoled. They have transformed. This paperback book allows readers to take Morrison’s most famous maxims home with them. Whether you’re looking for a moment of quiet introspection or a revolution against conventional ideas, there’s a saying from Toni Morrison in “The Measure of Our Lives” that’s sure to inspire you.

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