THROUGH THE YEARS: An honorary-degree recipient, Morrison speaks during the 245th Rutgers University commencement at Rutgers Stadium on May 15, 2011, in New Brunswick, N.J.
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In many ways, it makes sense that ­Morrison would come to write for children; her own birth as an author coincided with her young motherhood. Morrison had for years labored as an editor at Random House and as a college professor when she was compelled to pen her first novel, The Bluest Eye, a story she had wanted to read that no one else had written.
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Raising Slade and his older brother, ­Harold, as a single mother, Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye on yellow legal pads in No. 2 pencil between day jobs, early in the morning and in the evening, often with toddlers tumbling about on the furniture. It is a time she remembers fondly, a mixture of maternal bliss and creative exigency. “I remember writing, and Harold was less than a year old and I really got this sentence and he was pulling up on the couch next to me, but I had to get this sentence down, and he spit up his orange juice all over my paper,” she says. “And I remember just writing around it because I didn’t want to lose that thing I had. I could always wipe up the juice.”

Morrison erupts in that gusty, earthy laugh, caught for a moment in reverie, remembering how motherhood and writing came at the same time.

It took three books, up until 1977’s transcendent Song of Solomon — which bristles and flows with an Old Testament fury and dollops of magic-realism — before Morrison dared to list herself as a writer on her tax return, and years more until being an author fulfilled the financial obligations of a single mother. Still, she remembers the time fondly, vividly, as being a woman with a potent mission. “I felt if I didn’t write these books, or if the world didn’t read them, we would all die or something,” she laughs self-deprecatingly. “It was urgent. Urgent. Now, there is less urgency. More delight. More curiosity.”

Morrison’s novels were provocative and mesmerizing, mining with complexity and shattering depth the shameful hours of American history and the African-American experience therein. It is no hyperbole to state that her fiction gave potent voice to an entire American culture previously ignored at worst or misunderstood at best.

“Her novels are stunning and exhilarating,” says Angelyn Mitchell, a professor of English and African-American Studies at Georgetown University (where she founded and directed the African-American Studies Program) and founding member and past officer of the Toni Morrison Society. “She explores the essence of humanity. What does it mean to be human? Is it in how we love? What prevents humans from living humanely? What animates our joys and our sorrows? What do we share as humans? What does it mean to be a black person in this country? What does it mean to be a black woman?”