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Ten Essential Books That Illustrate Toni Morrison's Literary Legacy

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Nobel laureate died on Monday. Here is a primer of her work that most vividly brought to life the Black experience.

by Alex Zaragoza
Aug 7 2019, 9:00pm

Leonardo Cendamo / Hulton Archive / Getty

Literary legend, educator, and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison died on August 5, leaving an indelible mark on the world with her poetic writing that spoke truthfully and powerfully of the Black experience. In addition to bringing to life characters through whom she skillfully discussed the themes of racism, slavery, violence, and class, her work challenged white people to confront their history of violence against Black communities, and amplified Black people's fight for their existence and dignity.

Of the many ideas Morrison championed during her career, one of the most significant was creating work for Black readers. In a 2015 Guardian interview to discuss her book God Help the Child, Morrison brought up a critical issue for Black writers: protecting your words from policing by white critics. "I'm writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio," she said. "I don't have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don't [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it."

Morrison crafted characters in which Black readers could see themselves. She spoke and wrote of a brutal America that history books have attempted to dilute, and did so in elegant, thought-provoking prose that gave Black readers something historically stolen from them—their truth.

Here are 10 essential readings that encapsulate the legacy she so thoughtfully built. (Some light spoilers ahead).

The Bluest Eye

Released in 1970, Morrison's debut novel centered on Pecola Breedlove, an African-American girl growing up in post-Great Depression Ohio who was sexually abused by her father. The story traces her life as well as the early lives of her parents and their struggles to survive in a mostly white community. For decades, there have been attempts to ban the book from schools for its portrayal of incest, rape, and pedophilia, but its message of internalized racism resonates to this day.

Sula

Morrison's 1973 novel became an important piece of Black feminist literature, as it focuses on the bonds between women and the rigid roles that they are forced into by society. The book traces the lives of two best friends, Sula and Nel, growing up in a small town with completely opposite family lives—one stable and structured, the other unconventional—and explores the weighty social, sexual, and familial expectations that are placed on young women. The story's depiction of women conforming to or challenging these norms has made Morrison's second novel one oft-discussed within feminist circles.

Song of Solomon

This 1977 novel chronicles the life of Macon "Milkman" Dead III from his birth at a historically segregated hospital in Michigan and along his expansive and adventurous quest to understand his heritage. It's a moving, often fantastical story of Black history in America and its impact on identity that focuses on the complexities of the Black experience.


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Tar Baby

Morrison's 1981 novel is a love story between Jadine, a beautiful, wealthy Black woman, and Son, a poor but confident drifter. Their relationship forces them to confront their own assumptions—as well as those of their family and society—about racial and class identity. It's a novel that delves into internal structures and prejudices of the Black community and traces the main characters' struggle for acceptance within it.

Beloved

Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, released in 1987, was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in 1998. The story follows the life of Sethe, a former slave, as she and her family are haunted by the ghost of the child that she was forced to kill when trying to escape slavery. It's a deep and often unnerving representation of trauma, mother-daughter relationships, and the violent and lasting legacy of the slave trade.

Jazz

A historical novel that traces the birth of jazz, its cultural significance within the Black community, and its resonance in American culture. The story centers around Violet and Joe, an unhappily married couple living in Harlem during its Renaissance in the 1920s, and 17-year-old Dorcas, who Joe begins an affair with. When Dorcas eventually rejects him, the affair ends tragically. It's a gruesome story of love, lust, possession, and autonomy, using the expressive cadence of jazz in its narrative styling: characters tell their stories in improv-like compositions, mimicking free jazz's stream-of-consciousness feel.

Paradise

Morrison's 1997 novel centers around the small, all-Black town of Ruby, Oklahoma that was established by the relatives of freed slaves. The book begins with a scene of unspeakable violence and traces how it came to pass in nine sections, each one telling the story of a different character in the town. The book is the final in a trilogy that includes Beloved and Jazz, focusing on discussions of love and the various forms it takes. Paradise reflects on the love of God, while delving into the impact that faith had on the town's history and its inhabitants.

A Mercy

Morrison often returned to the topic of slavery throughout her career, discussing its cultural significance and the lasting, traumatic impact it's had on Black people in America. She does so again in A Mercy, her 2008 novel that centers around Florens, an African slave working on a farm in New York in the 1680s. The story, like others in Morrison's canon, traces Florens's relationship with her mother, who abandoned her and her fellow servant Lina, a Native American woman whose tribe has mostly been wiped out due to smallpox. Through these women's stories, Morrison explores the nature of survival in the early days of the slave trade.

God Help the Child

Her 11th novel God Help the Child, released in 2015, follows the story of Lula Ann Bridewell, or "Bride" as she calls herself, who is born much more dark-skinned than either of her parents. They mistreat her and shun her as a result, and Bride is forced to create her own sense of self-worth as she matures. The novel digs deep into colorism and racism within the Black community, and the behaviors that emerge as a result.

The Origin of Others

Released in 2017 with a foreword by Ta-Nehisi Coates, this book is a meditation on the concept of 'Otherness' in America. In it, Morrison traces the construction of the idea of the racialized Other through history, politics and literature. Drawing on the works of famous authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor as well as her own novels, Morrison looks for answers to how we create images of Otherness, why we fear the Other, and how race became a central part of this discourse in the first place. This book grapples with some of the the most critical themes that run through Morrison's fiction in an attempt to explain their genesis.

Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.