Toni Morrison Image Credit: AP

Toni Morrison, the celebrated novelist who became the first black woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, died Monday night. Her publisher, Knopf, confirmed her passing away. She was 88 years old. The cause of death is yet unknown.

Here's what you need to know about her:

The cause of death is yet unknown.

1. Why is Toni Morrison important?

When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, it was because she, “in novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality,” wrote Carolyn Denard, who wrote for Black Women In America: A Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 M-Z.

"In each of her works, Morrison manages to find a new way to think about and look upon blackness as it stands in American life."

"[Morrison’s] works, she strips away the idols of whiteness and of Blackness that have prevented Blacks in the United States from knowing themselves and gives them their own true, mythical, remembered words to live by. She takes on the whole culture and seeks to restore the mythos and the ethos that will clarify the meaning of the journey of African-Americans in the United States. She is healer...she is nurturer and guide; and because she achieves these tasks with such grace, such love, and such confidence, courage, and skill, Morrison holds an indelible position of prominence in African-American history and in the history of great writers throughout the world," Denard said.

2. What is Toni Morrison’s given name?

She was born Chloe Ardella Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

- Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate

3. Who is her husband?

Her husband is Harold Morrison. They met at Howard University, where she majored in English and taught English classes. They married in 1958. 

4. How many children does she have?

She bore her husband Harold two sons — Slade (1961) and Harold Ford. The marriage only lasted a couple of years.

Toni Morrison had two sons
Toni Morrison had two sons — Slade and Harold Ford — with ex-husband Harold Morrison. Image Credit: Getty Images

Slade died at 45 years old of pancreatic cancer in 2010. Slade was a painter and a musician. He’s most well known for the collection of children’s books he co-wrote with his mother. Harold Ford is an architect, following in the footsteps of his father.

5. What’s her family background?

She was the second of four children. Her parents helped her to develop her a passion and love for music and reading.

Growing up, she lived in a racially-mixed neighbourhood where she wasn’t aware of racial antagonism until she became a teenager.

She later touched on the subject in the New York Times, stating: “When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child who could read.”

However, she remained focused on her education and graduated from high school with honors in 1949.

6. What is Toni Morrison best known for?

Morrison was best known for her critically acclaimed and best-selling novel Beloved, which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Among her other memorable and influential novels were Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997); the three books make up a loose trilogy.

Just after the last of them was published, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first black woman of any nationality to do so.

Novelist Toni Morrison Obama
File photo: Novelist Toni Morrison is presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Barack Obama during an East Room event May 29, 2012 at the White House in Washington, DC. Image Credit: AP

By then, she had already written six novels; she would go on to write five more. Her latest, God Help the Child, was published in 2015. She wrote through the toughest of times, including the death of her son in 2010.

“I stopped writing until I began to think, he would be really put out if he thought that he had caused me to stop,” Morrison told Interview magazine around the release of her ninth novel, Home, in 2012.

7. What’s her educational background?

Morrison majored in English at Howard University; she graduated in 1953. She continued her studies at Cornell University, earning a master’s degree, and then pursued a career in education.

Morrison began teaching English classes at Howard, where she met her future husband, Harold Morrison. They had a son in 1961. After the summer of 1963, her husband moved back to Jamaica, his country of origin, and Morrison, pregnant with their second child at the time, moved to Syracuse, New York, where she worked as a senior editor for a textbook publisher.

8. What was her first work?

Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which depicts the story of a young African American girl who dreamed of having blue eyes — she thought she would have an easier life if her eyes were blue, was published in 1970.

Morrison wrote several other books, including Beloved, which was published in 1987 and is based on the life of a former slave who is haunted by her decision to kill her children instead of watch them become slaves too.

9. When did she start getting noticed?

In 1980, Morrison was appointed to the National Council on the Arts. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 1993 Noble Prize in Literature, becoming the first African American woman in history to receive it. A movie version of her novel starred Oprah Winfrey in 1998.

Along with her various other endeavors, Morrison designed performance workshops at Princeton and began publishing children’s literature. When she retired from Princeton in 2006, The New York Times Book Review named her book ‘Beloved’ the best novel published in 25 years.

She published ‘Home’ in 2012.

10. Who are the writers that Toni Morrison inspired?

There are many writers influenced by Morrison’s work. Several generations of them. Two recent young talents, Britt Bennett and Colson Whitehead, have both cited Morrison as a strong influence in their work.

Whitehead, who wrote The Underground Railroad, said: “I can’t — it’s probably for someone outside to say this boo k— to be mentioned in the same breath as those books is deeply honouring. Before you start a book, sometimes you don’t want to get infected by certain things, but I was like 'oh,‘I’ll see how Toni did it in Beloved and Edward did it in The Known World,’ and I got 40 pages into Beloved, which I’d read 25 years ago just like, ‘Eh, you can’t really top this'.”

The inability to top Morrison, in the eyes of well-known contemporary writers, is summarises her brilliance.

11. Where did she spend most of her professional life? 

Before she was a world-renowned author, Morrison broke barriers as an editor for Random House, where she worked for 19 years. She gave space to a new generation of black writers including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Angela Davis.

She was also the Chair of Humanities at Princeton, where she taught from 1989 to 2006.

“We die,” Morrison closed her Nobel Prize address. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”