Former President Barack Obama commemorated the life and legacy of author Toni Morrison, who died Monday night at the age of 88, honoring “her masterful will” and her “fusion of the African American story within the American story.”
“Toni Morrison was a national treasure. Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful — a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy,” he said in a statement.
Time is no match for Toni Morrison. In her writing, she sometimes toyed with it, warping and creasing it, bending it to her masterful will. In her life’s story, too, she treated time nontraditionally. A child of the Great Migration who’d lifted up new, more diverse voices in American literature as an editor, Toni didn’t publish her first novel until she was 39 years old. From there followed an ascendant career—a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and so much more—and with it, a fusion of the African American story within the American story. Toni Morrison was a national treasure. Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful—a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy. She was as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. And so even as Michelle and I mourn her loss and send our warmest sympathies to her family and friends, we know that her stories—that our stories—will always be with us, and with those who come after, and on and on, for all time.
As president, Obama awarded the trailblazing author the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, honoring her career in centering the lives and histories of African Americans.
“As a single mother working at a publishing company by day, she would carve out a little time in the evening to write, often with her two sons pulling on her hair and tugging at her earrings. Once, a baby spit up on her tablet so she wrote around it. Circumstances may not have been ideal, but the words that came out were magical,” Obama said at the ceremony.
“Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt. From ‘Song of Solomon’ to ‘Beloved,’ Toni reaches us deeply, using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct, and inclusive,” he continued. “She believes that language ‘arcs toward the place where meaning might lie.’ The rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride.”
“I remember reading ‘Song of Solomon’ when I was a kid and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think,” he added later, referring to her 1977 novel.
Obama also cited Morrison while reflecting on his favorite books during an interview with then-New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, shortly before he left office in 2017.
“I think Toni Morrison’s writings — particularly ‘Song of Solomon’ is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship,” he said. “That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama has also mentioned the book as a source of inspiration. In 2018, she told The New York Times that she has read the novel three times.
“I rarely have time to reread books, but ‘Song of Solomon,’ every time I pick it up, I’m pulled into that story,” she told Today show host Jenna Bush Hager earlier this year.
Morrison, best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved,” died Monday night in New York City of unspecified causes, her publisher, Knopf, said Tuesday. In 1993, she became the first Black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In a rare step for her, Morrison endorsed Obama in 2008, writing in a letter that she chose the then-Illinois senator over his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, for his “creative imagination,” calling him “the man for this time.”
In thinking carefully about the strengths of the candidates, I stunned myself when I came to the following conclusion: that in addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don’t see in other candidates. That something is a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom. It is too bad if we associate it only with gray hair and old age. Or if we call searing vision naïveté. Or if we believe cunning is insight. Or if we settle for finessing cures tailored for each ravaged tree in the forest while ignoring the poisonous landscape that feeds and surrounds it. Wisdom is a gift; you can’t train for it, inherit it, learn it in a class, or earn it in the workplace–that access can foster the acquisition of knowledge, but not wisdom.
In 2012, she told The Guardian that attending Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 was “the first time she felt truly American.”
“I felt very powerfully patriotic when I went to the inauguration of Barack Obama. I felt like a kid. The marines and the flag, which I never look at — all of a sudden it looked … nice. Worthy,” Morrison said. “It only lasted a couple of hours. But I was amazed, that music that I really don’t like — God Bless America is a dumb song; I mean it’s not beautiful. But I really felt that, for that little moment.”