‘Word-work is sublime,’ Toni Morrison said in her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, ‘ ... because it is generative.’ Though she was speaking about literature in general, I heard her words as a compelling description of her own work, in all its guises.
Her novels, first to last, with their expansive vision and boundary-pushing forms and prose, which centre African-American lives – Black humanity – and helped to transform the landscape of American literature; her editorial commitments that brought the words and lives of Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Gayl Jones, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara and so many others to readers; her criticism, especially her essential 1992 volume Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which blazed a path in what has become an increasingly important and necessary area of study; her teaching, which provided several generations of students with one of the finest minds they would ever encounter, in the classroom and outside of it; her thought, with its brilliance, breadth, acuity, nuance, grace and force, which undergirded all she wrote and did; and her being in the world, as a Black woman, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a mentor, a guide, a hero.
With her passing we have lost one of the best and greatest of us, who gave us so much, who helped us to see and become ourselves, to put pen to paper and language to our lives. But we have so much of her with us still, in the literary works and legacy of writing and writers she has left us. As she wrote in a haiku she contributed to Sonia Sanchez’s peace mural in Philadelphia, ‘We will be judged by how well we have loved.’ Toni Morrison wrote with tremendous love onto all of our minds and hearts, and we will forever be in her debt.
John Keene is the author of the novel Annotations (New Directions) and the short fiction collection Counternarratives (New Directions), which received a 2016 American Book Award. In November 2016 he received a Lannan Literary Award in Fiction. He has also published a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat Books / A Bolha Editora), as well as translations of a wide variety of poetry and prose from Portuguese, French, and Spanish. A longtime member of the Dark Room Writers Collective and a graduate fellow of Cave Canem, he serves as chair of African American and African Studies and teaches English and creative writing at Rutgers University-Newark.