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Toni Morrison, Towering Novelist of the Black Experience, Dies at 88

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Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate in literature whose best-selling work explored black identity in America and in particular the often crushing experience of black women through luminous, incantatory prose resembling that of no other writer in English, died on Monday in the Bronx. She was 88.

Her death, at Montefiore Medical Center, was announced by her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. A spokeswoman said the cause was complications of pneumonia. Ms. Morrison lived in Grand View-on-Hudson, N.Y.

The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1993, Ms. Morrison was the author of 11 novels as well as children’s books and essay collections. Among them were celebrated works like “Song of Solomon,” which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and “Beloved,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Ms. Morrison was one of the rare American authors whose books were both critical and commercial successes. Her novels appeared regularly on the New York Times best-seller list, were featured multiple times on Oprah Winfrey’s television book club and were the subject of myriad critical studies. A longtime faculty member at Princeton, Ms. Morrison lectured widely and was seen often on television.

In awarding her the Nobel, the Swedish Academy cited her “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import,” through which she “gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

Ms. Morrison animated that reality in prose that rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.

Her narratives mingle the voices of men, women, children and even ghosts in layered polyphony. Myth, magic and superstition are inextricably intertwined with everyday verities, a technique that caused Ms. Morrison’s novels to be likened often to those of Latin American magic realist writers like Gabriel García Márquez.

In “Sula,” a woman blithely lets a train run over her leg for the insurance money it will give her family. In “Song of Solomon,” a baby girl is named Pilate by her father, who “had thumbed through the Bible, and since he could not read a word, chose a group of letters that seemed to him strong and handsome.” In “Beloved,” the specter of a murdered child takes up residence in the house of her murderer.

Throughout Ms. Morrison’s work, elements like these coalesce around her abiding concern with slavery and its legacy. In her fiction, the past is often manifest in a harrowing present — a world of alcoholism, rape, incest and murder, recounted in unflinching detail.

It is a world, Ms. Morrison writes in “Beloved” (the novel is set in the 19th century but stands as a metaphor for the 20th), in which “anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind.”

“Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you,” she goes on. “Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.”

But as Ms. Morrison’s writing also makes clear, the past is just as strongly manifest in the bonds of family, community and race — bonds that let culture, identity and a sense of belonging be transmitted from parents to children to grandchildren. These generational links, her work unfailingly suggests, form the only salutary chains in human experience.

“She is a friend of my mind,” a character in “Beloved,” a former slave, thinks about the woman he loves. “She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

A First Doomed Heroine

Ms. Morrison’s singular approach to narrative is evident in her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” written in stolen moments between her day job as a book editor and her life as the single mother of two young sons. Published in 1970, it is narrated by Claudia McTeer, a black girl in Ohio, who with her sister, Frieda, is the product of a strict but loving home.

The novel’s doomed heroine is their friend Pecola Breedlove, who at 11, growing up in an America inundated with images of Shirley Temple and Dick and Jane, believes she is ugly and prays for the one thing she is sure will save her: blue eyes.

In a drunken, savagely misguided attempt to show Pecola she is desirable, her father rapes her, leaving her pregnant. Now an outcast both in the community and within her own fractured family, Pecola descends into madness, believing herself possessed of blue eyes at last.

Reviewing the novel in The New York Times, John Leonard commended Ms. Morrison for telling the story “with a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry.”

The novel prefigures much of Ms. Morrison’s later work in its preoccupation with history — often painful — as seen through the lens of an individual life; with characters’ quests, tragic or successful, for their place in the world; with the redemptive power of community; and with the role women play in the survival of such communities.

Ms. Morrison explored these themes even more overtly in her second novel, “Sula” (1973), about the return of a young woman, now a scandalous temptress, to her Midwestern hometown and the ostracism she confronts there, and in her third, “Song of Solomon” (1977), the book that cemented her reputation.

That book, Ms. Morrison’s first to feature a male protagonist, centers on the journey, literal and spiritual, of a young Michigan man, Macon Dead III.

Macon is known familiarly as Milkman, a bitter nickname stemming from the widespread knowledge that his unhappy, neurasthenic mother, “the daughter of the richest Negro doctor in town,” breast-fed him long past babyhood. (In “Song of Solomon” as in “Sula,” Ms. Morrison depicts black bourgeois life as one of arid atomization.)

The novel chronicles Milkman’s journey through rural Pennsylvania, a trip nominally undertaken to recover a cache of gold said to have belonged to his family, but ultimately a voyage in pursuit of self.

“Song of Solomon” was chosen as a main selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club, the first novel by a black author to be so honored since Richard Wright’s “Native Son” in 1940.

‘Beloved’: Her Masterwork

Ms. Morrison published “Beloved,” widely considered her masterwork, in 1987. The first of her novels to have an overtly historical setting, the book — rooted in a real 19th-century tragedy — unfolds about a decade after the end of the Civil War.

Before the war, Sethe, a slave, had escaped from the Kentucky plantation on which she worked and crossed the Ohio River to Cincinnati. She also spirited out her baby daughter, not yet 2.

“Sethe had twenty-eight days — the travel of one whole moon — of unslaved life,” Ms. Morrison wrote. “From the pure clear stream of spit that the little girl dribbled into her face to her oily blood was twenty-eight days. Days of healing, ease and real- talk. Days of company: knowing the names of forty, fifty other Negroes, their views, habits; where they had been and what done; of feeling their fun and sorrow along with her own, which made it better. One taught her the alphabet; another a stitch. All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day.”

Then a slave catcher tracks Sethe down. Cornered, she cuts her daughter’s throat rather than see her returned to a life of degradation.

Eighteen years pass. Sethe has been saved from the gallows by white Abolitionists and is later freed from jail with their help. She has resumed her life in Cincinnati with her surviving daughter, Denver, with whom she was pregnant when she fled Kentucky.

One day, a strange, nearly silent young woman a little older than Denver materializes at their door. Known only as Beloved, she moves into the house and insinuates herself into every facet of their existence.

“Beloved, she my daughter,” Sethe realizes in a stream-of-consciousness monologue toward the end of the book. “She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing. I didn’t have time to explain before because it had to be done quick. Quick. She had to be safe and I put her where she would be.”

Widely acclaimed by book critics, “Beloved” was made into a 1998 feature film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Ms. Winfrey.

For mid-20th-century readers, one of the most striking things about Ms. Morrison’s workwas that it delineates a world in which white people are largely absent, a relatively rare thing in fiction of the period.

What was more, the milieu of her books, typically small-town and Midwestern, “offers an escape from stereotyped black settings,” as she said in an interview in “Conversations With Toni Morrison” (1994; edited by Danielle Taylor-Guthrie), adding, “It is neither plantation nor ghetto.”

Origins of a Nickname

It was in just such a setting that Ms. Morrison herself was reared. The daughter of George Wofford and Ella Ramah (Willis) Wofford, she was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, an integrated working-class community about 30 miles west of Cleveland.

George Wofford was a shipyard welder who took such pride in his work that, according to many accounts of Ms. Morrison’s life, when he finished a perfect seam he would write his initials on it, where they endured, unseen, in the skeleton of the ship.

Young Chloe grew up in a house suffused with narrative and superstition. She adored listening to ghost stories; her grandmother ritually consulted a book on dream interpretation, from which she divined the day’s selections when she played the numbers.

At 12, Chloe joined the Roman Catholic Church. She took the baptismal name Anthony, becoming known as Chloe Anthony Wofford.

That name would be the seed from which her nickname would spring a few years later, when she was an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington. She began calling herself Toni then, she said, because her classmates found the name Chloe bewildering.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Howard with a major in English and a minor in classics in 1953, she earned a master’s in English from Cornell in 1955. She taught English for two years at Texas Southern University, a historically black institution in Houston, before returning to Howard as a faculty member.

There, she joined a fiction workshop and began writing in earnest. Required to bring a sample to a workshop meeting, she began work on a story about a black girl who craves blue eyes — the kernel of her first novel.

In 1958, she married Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica; they were divorced in 1964. In interviews, Ms. Morrison rarely spoke of the marriage, though she intimated that her husband had wanted a traditional 1950s wife — and that, she could never be.

After her divorce, Ms. Morrison moved with her sons to Syracuse, where she took a job as an editor with a textbook division of Random House. A stranger in the city, she found herself achingly lonely. In the interstices between work and motherhood, she began turning her short story into “The Bluest Eye.”

In the late 1960s, Ms. Morrison moved to New York City and took an editorial position with Random House’s trade-book division. Over the nearly two decades she held the post, her authors included Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara and Muhammad Ali.

“I look very hard for black fiction because I want to participate in developing a canon of black work,” Ms. Morrison said in an interview quoted in The Dictionary of Literary Biography. “We’ve had the first rush of black entertainment, where blacks were writing for whites, and whites were encouraging this kind of self-flagellation. Now we can get down to the craft of writing, where black people are talking to black people.”

One of the nonfiction projects on which she worked at Random House was “The Black Book,” published in 1974. Compiled by Ms. Morrison, the volume is a lavishly illustrated scrapbook spanning three centuries of African-American history, reproducing newspaper clippings, photographs, advertisements, handbills and the like.

Researching the book, Ms. Morrison came across a 19th-century article about a fugitive slave named Margaret Garner who, on the point of recapture near Cincinnati, killed her infant daughter. More than a decade after “The Black Book” appeared, the story would become the armature of “Beloved.”

A Letter and a Prize

Critical response to “Beloved” was overwhelmingly positive, though not uniformly so. In a corrosive review in The New Republic, the African-American critic Stanley Crouch called it “a blackface holocaust novel,” adding: “The world exists in a purple haze of overstatement, of false voices, of strained homilies; nothing very subtle is ever really tried. ‘Beloved’ reads largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of the miniseries.”

But the preponderance of opinion was on the other side. In January 1988, in the wake of the novel’s publication, The Times Book Review published an open letter signed by two dozen black writers, among them Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Arnold Rampersad and Alice Walker, lauding Ms. Morrison and protesting the fact that she had “yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.”

“Beloved” won the Pulitzer Prize that April. In 2006, after polling hundreds of writers, editors and critics, The Book Review named the novel the best American work of fiction of the previous quarter-century.

Ms. Morrison’s fourth novel, “Tar Baby” (1981), deals explicitly with issues of racial and class prejudice among black people. Set on a Caribbean island, it chronicles the love affair of a cosmopolitan, European-educated black woman with a rough-and-tumble local man.

Her other novels include “Jazz” (1992), set in 1920s New York; “A Mercy” (2008), which divorces the institution of slavery from ideas of race by setting the narrative in the 17th century, where servitude, black or white, was apt to be determined by class; and “Home” (2012), about a black Korean War veteran’s struggles on returning to the Jim Crow South.

Ms. Morrison’s volumes of nonfiction include “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” (1992) and “What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction” (2008, edited by Carolyn C. Denard).

She wrote the libretto for “Margaret Garner,” an opera by Richard Danielpour that received its world premiere at the Detroit Opera House in 2005 with the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the title role.

In 1989, Ms. Morrison joined the faculty of Princeton, where she taught courses in the humanities and African American studies, and was a member of the creative writing program. She went on emeritus status in 2006.

Ms. Morrison is survived by her son Harold Ford Morrison and three grandchildren. Another son, Slade, with whom she collaborated on the texts of many books for children, died in 2010.

Her other laurels include the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented in 2012 by President Barack Obama. The Toni Morrison Society, devoted to the study of her life and work, was founded in 1993.

If there is a unifying thread running through Ms. Morrison’s writing, it is perhaps nowhere more vivid than in “Song of Solomon.” At novel’s end, after his odyssey through his ancestral past, Milkman has attained the knowledge that lets him situate himself within his family, the larger community and black America.

And with that, on the book’s final page, he leaps into the air, taking symbolic flight over a world in which he has found his place at last.

 

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Capitol Rioter Screams at Cops Asking Them to Call for Backup to Combat Mob

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Not every Trumper at the U.S. Capitol was down with the siege … or at least so it appears based on this one MAGA cap-wearing man’s convo with Capitol Police in the middle of the riot.

Check out this clip that just surfaced from Jan. 6, when the guy approached a group of Capitol Police officers who were standing off to the side … while the mob stormed into the building.

The man’s words here are telling … he asks why the cops are letting this happen, and why they haven’t called for backup — noting this is the U.S. FREAKIN’ CAPITOL THAT’S BEING INVADED, and that these people storming it are “out for blood.”

Anyway, the officers didn’t seem to respond at all, and the man continued his diatribe … telling them that if no extra help was on the way, it means they don’t care about what’s happening to the Capitol.

A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump smashes a window using a baseball bat during a “Stop the Steal” protest outside of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. U.S. January 6, 2021. Picture taken January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

The whole thing is pretty ironic — a clear Trump supporter right in the thick of the action denouncing the act of breaching the premises. Now, we have no idea what his motives were here, or if he was genuinely separating himself from the illegal activity.

We’ll say this … he does seem to rejoin the mob as the video ends, but we have no way of knowing if he actually went inside the Capitol.

As we first reported, the FBI is investigating a possible Capitol inside job that allowed the siege to take place. And, of course, the Capitol Police Chief resigned too … not to mention multiple suspensions and firings that have taken place since.

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Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell says Trump provoked deadly Capitol riot

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  • President Donald Trump and others provoked the swarms of his supporters that stormed the U.S. Capitol, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
  • “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
  • McConnell’s remarks came as he and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer work to hash out details on Trump’s impending impeachment trial.
  • The remarks also came the day before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in as president.
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather at the west entrance of the Capitol during a “Stop the Steal” protest outside of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. U.S. January 6, 2021. Picture taken January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

President Donald Trump and others provoked the swarms of his supporters that stormed the U.S. Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

“The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, which two weeks earlier had been evacuated after the crowd of rioters invaded the building.

The remarks from McConnell, R-Ky., came as he and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., worked to hash out details on Trump’s impending impeachment trial. Trump was impeached in the Democrat-led House last week in a 232-197 vote, with 10 Republicans voting in favor of impeachment.

Trump is the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.

The GOP leader made the direct link between the Republican president’s rhetoric and the Jan. 6 riot, which left five dead, the day before President-elect Joe Biden was set to be sworn in as the 46th president.

McConnell has rebuffed pressure from Democrats to hold that trial before Trump leaves office, but he has told colleagues that he is undecided on whether Trump should be convicted in the Senate for inciting the riot.

McConnell’s remarks also suggested that other leaders bore responsibility for the attack. A growing chorus of critics have called on some lawmakers, especially GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, to resign after they objected to key states’ electoral results.

McConnell had congratulated Biden on his victory in mid-December, more than a month after the Nov. 3 election.

The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on McConnell’s latest remarks.

Trump, who exhorted the crowd at a rally outside the White House to “fight like hell” and head to the Capitol to overturn the 2020 election, has insisted that his remarks just before the riot were “totally appropriate.”

In that speech, Trump repeated the incendiary and false claim that he had been robbed of reelection by widespread electoral fraud. He once again vowed that he would never concede to Biden, and he urged his supporters to go to the Capitol to “cheer on” Republican lawmakers who had vowed to object to the results.

“We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” Trump also said.

Many of his supporters attending that rally walked directly across the National Mall to the Capitol, where a joint session of Congress had convened to confirm Biden’s Electoral College victory. Rioters broke through barricades and lines of law enforcement officers and entered the Capitol, forcing Congress into hiding. Among them was Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the event.

After McConnell’s remarks, Schumer said on the Senate floor that “Donald Trump should not be eligible to run for office ever again.”

“Healing and unity will only come if there is truth and accountability,” Schumer said.

“There will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate, there will be a vote on convicting the president for high crimes and misdemeanors, and if the president is convicted, there will be a vote on barring him from running again,” Schumer said.

Trump, who has acknowledged the coming end to his one term in office without conceding to Biden, has not called his successor, nor has he invited him to the White House before the inauguration.

Pence last week called Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to congratulate her and offer his assistance before she is sworn in.

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UNITED AIRLINES PASSENGER DIES AFTER LYING ABOUT COVID SYMPTOMS

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A passenger on a United jet with nearly 200 others onboard was pronounced dead shortly after the pilot made an emergency landing, and it’s almost certain the man had COVID.

Furious United Airlines passengers have criticized the company after a man who they claimed was showing clear coronavirus-like symptoms was allowed to board the plane and died before he reached his destination.

The flight took off from Orlando bound for Los Angeles on Monday, and the victim was pronounced dead after an emergency landing in New Orleans.

Medics on board attempted to save him, including by reportedly performing CPR. His wife, one passenger said, told all within earshot that he had been showing symptoms for the past week and so she suspected COVID-19. 

United said on Friday they were trying to trace those on board United Flight 591.

The flight was a Boeing 737-900 with capacity for 179 people, according to Flight Aware. 

The victim was taken off and the plane and all other passengers then carried on to LA – with some later saying they were not offered the chance to rebook onto a different flight. 

United 591 is seen arriving at Los Angeles airport, after a passenger died on leaving Orlando

The plane, pictured at the gate in LA, made an emergency stop in New Orleans and the man was pronounced dead. The plane, and all its passengers, then continued to LA

A United flight from Orlando to Los Angeles Monday was diverted due to a medical emergency

‘Can I ask how you guys let a covid positive man on my flight last night?’ said one woman. 

‘He was shaking and sweating boarding the plane. He was clearly sick and then died mid flight. We had an emergency landing in New Orleans and we didn’t even switch planes afterwards. 

‘We all sat there for hours waiting while you guys cleaned up his blood and germs with wet wipes. Is this how you guys handle other people’s safety and health?’

She said that the airline’s claim that they believed he had a heart attack was ‘laughable’, adding: ‘There was never any mention of we are diverting this flight because of cardiac arrest reasons. 

‘Everyone was aware this was COVID related because the wife was relaying his medical information, and shared he was in fact COVID positive and symptomatic for over a week. That is them covering up the fact that they handled this situation poorly.’ 

Another woman, named Shay, also tweeted angrily at United, accusing them of failing to check on the passengers before boarding, and criticizing the man and his wife for flying. 

‘United, why did you never check our temperatures before boarding?’ she tweeted. 

‘The family of the man, why didn’t you go to the hospital or not let your husband get on the flight feeling like that? 

‘An entire plane had to watch him seize or have a heart attack none of us know which, and die.’

Shay said she noticed the man having breathing difficulties.

‘I made eye contact with his wife and looked at him and she just looked down,’ Shay said. 

She said the medical team on board tried to revive him for an hour.

‘The family was crying, people were freaking out,’ she said. 

‘He was shocked twice, given an epi-pen, 2 shots of adrenaline and mouth to mouth after chest compressions…’ 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked United for the passenger manifest so other passengers can be told that they might have been exposed to a disease, spokesman Charles Hobart said.

The passenger had filled out a form before the flight saying he had not tested positive for COVID-19 and had no symptoms of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the airline.

‘It is apparent the passenger wrongly acknowledged this requirement,’ United said.

United said the CDC did not specify the man’s cause of death, and United does not know whether it was COVID-19. 

But, the airline said, the man’s wife was overheard telling an emergency medical technician that he had shown symptoms of the disease, including loss of taste and smell.

The CDC is collecting information to decide whether further public health action is appropriate, an agency spokesman said in a text message. 

‘To protect the privacy of the individual, we aren’t providing this information to the public,’ the CDC spokesman told AP.

All four flight attendants were quarantined for two weeks once they arrived at Los Angeles, ‘per written guidelines,’ said Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for Association of Flight Attendants.

‘Our union continues to provide support to the crew,’ Garland said. 

‘We urge passengers to comply with airline COVID policies and stay home if you´re sick.’  

The man was taken to a hospital in New Orleans where he was pronounced dead, according to the airline.

Hobart said United originally was told that he died from heart trouble, so passengers were allowed to stay on the plane and complete the flight to Los Angeles or take a later flight. 

The airline said all passengers stayed on the plane.

The incident occurred last Monday, and the CDC is now scrambling to contact the 179 passengers who were onboard.

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