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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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CHADWICK BOSEMAN DEAD AT 43 FROM COLON CANCER

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Chadwick Boseman, the iconic “Black Panther” star, has died at age 43 after a 4-year battle with colon cancer.

His family released a statement, saying “It is with immeasurable grief that we confirm the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman. Chadwick was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, and battled with it these last 4 years as it progressed to stage IV.”

They continue that “it was the honor of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in Black Panther.”

“He died in his home, with his wife and family by his side”

Chadwick, who most famously brought the first black Marvel superhero to life in “Black Panther” along with a string of ‘Avengers’ movies was no stranger to giving life to iconic roles. He portrayed Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall.”

Recently, Chadwick had sparked concern amongst his fans, as he appeared very thin in videos on social media. This worry nearly overshadowed the impactful words he wanted to share with the world about Jackie Robinson and the pandemic.

Born in South Carolina, he always had an affinity for theater, and wrote his first play in high school. He attended the famous predominantly black college, Howard University, and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine arts.

He started his career in writing and directing, but clearly, he was meant to be on the other side of the camera. He took the world by storm in 2013 in the role of Jackie Robinson in “42.” On playing that role, Chadwick said, “The story is relevant because we still stand on his shoulders. He started something – I would even say maybe he didn’t even start it, it started before him. But he carried the torch. And he carried it alone for a period of time before other people could help him.” Clearly, he forwarded the narrative of that, as he moved on to play one of the most influential roles of a generation in the portrayal of T’Challa, aka Black Panther.

The impact he had on Hollywood, while too short, was phenomenal. He hosted ‘SNL’ in a very memorable episode, and was slated to start in ‘Black Panther 2’ which was meant to be released in 2022

Chadwick was 43. RIP

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Jacob Blake Hospital Handcuffs Finally Removed

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Jacob is no longer handcuffed to his hospital bed, his felony warrants have been vacated and police stopped guarding him at the hospital … the family’s lawyer stated.

Jacob Blake’s father says his son is handcuffed to his hospital bed despite being paralyzed from the waist down after suffering 7 gunshot wounds from a cop.

Blake’s dad, also named Jacob, says when he visited his son in the hospital Wednesday he found him cuffed to his bed … and immediately questioned why it was necessary.

The elder Blake says he hated seeing his son like that and pointed out … “He can’t go anywhere. Why do you have him cuffed to the bed?”

Blake claims he also hasn’t gotten an answer as to what Jacob was arrested for that would warrant him being handcuffed in the first place.

Jacob’s parents got emotional Tuesday as they spoke outside the Kenosha County Courthouse about their son being shot and his condition, and the family’s lawyer revealed it would be a miracle if he ever walks again.

As we’ve reported … the 29-year-old father was shot 7 times at point-blank range by Kenosha, WI police officer Rusten Sheskey.

Cops say they were initially called to the scene for a domestic disturbance, and the shooting’s being investigated by the Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation.

So far, no word from law enforcement about Jacob’s arrest or charges.

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Son of Sweetie Pie’s owner charged in murder-for-hire plot that killed owner’s grandson

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James Timothy Norman of Sweetie Pie‘s fame is facing federal charges alleging he conspired with an exotic dancer in the murder of his eighteen-year-old nephew Andre Montgomery.

The 41-year-old son of the legendary restaurant owner Robbie Montgomery was arrested this morning at his home in Jackson, Mississippi, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney.

Norman, who starred with his family in the show Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, had feuded with his mother over money in recent years after she sued him for opening restaurants under the Sweetie Pie’s brand without her permission, according to court records.

It was a messy, public spat, but federal authorities say Norman executed a far more sinister conspiracy to have his teenage nephew killed in 2016. According to the criminal complaint unsealed today, Norman had taken out $450,000 in life insurance policies on Andre Montgomery in 2014, and he was the sole beneficiary.

James Timothy Norman was charged in a murder-for-hire plot. - MADISON COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI DETENTION CENTER
James Timothy Norman was charged in a murder-for-hire plot. – MADISON COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI DETENTION CENTER

In 2016, Norman was living in Los Angeles. Phone records obtained by investigators showed that leading up to Andre Montgomery’s murder, Norman and a Memphis-based dancer named Teria Ellis headed to St. Louis and communicated over burner phones. Ellis also started contacting Montgomery, sending him her Instagram account handle, Alexusdagreat, and texting that she would be visiting St. Louis.

“I’m on my way in town,” she wrote him in an email on March 10, 2016, according to court records.

Three days later, Norman flew into St. Louis and booked a room at the Chase Park Plaza hotel. The next day, March 14, Ellis contacted Montgomery to figure out where he was, according to the complaint. Cell phone records showed that he texted her the address of a house: 3964 Natural Bridge Ave. in the city. Ellis then called Norman.

That night, at 8:02 p.m., Montgomery was shot to death at the house on Natural Bridge. And investigators believe Ellis was there. Location data from her burner phone put her at the scene, and in one of Montgomery’s final phone calls, he spoke to his girlfriend, who later told investigators she could hear a woman’s voice in the background.

One minute after the eighteen-year-old was shot, Ellis made another call — to Norman.

“Despite being at the scene of Montgomery’s murder at 8:02pm, ELLIS’s first phone call was not to the police, but rather to [NORMAN] at 8:03 p.m., at which time her phone location data showed she was driving in a direction consistent with her returning home in Memphis, Tennessee,” the criminal complaint says.

Phone records would then show the phone moving south along Interstate 55. Norman’s phone showed him flying back to Los Angeles, arriving early the morning after the killing. That same day, March 15, 2016, both the burner phones went dark, authorities say.

Back in Memphis, Ellis began depositing money — $3,020 in a checking account that previously had a negative balance and another $4,340 in a savings account opened the same day. On March 17, 2016, she deposited another $1,900.

On March 22, 2016, she and her mother and daughter flew to Los Angeles. There’s not much information in the court records about what they did there, but authorities say location data for her mom’s phone showed that on at least one occasion they were with Norman.

At the end of April 2016, Norman wired Ellis $700.

Norman waited a week to try to collect on his murdered nephew’s life insurance police, authorities say. On March 21, 2016, he called the bank, but he never provided all the documentation required and still hasn’t gotten the money, according to court records.

He’s now being held without bond at a jail in Madison County, Mississippi. He and Ellis have been charged with conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in commission of murder-for-hire, resulting in death.

The case is being investigated by St. Louis police and the FBI.

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