By Stephanie Dawkins
There are some individuals who exude such breadth of wisdom and timelessness that we slip under the impression that they’ll live forever. Toni Morrison embodied this.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Toni Morrison—who died on August 5, 2019 at 88 years old—was one of the greatest living literary voices of our time.
Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison wrote 11 novels, nine non-fiction works, five children’s books, two short stories, and two plays throughout her 88 years of life. And the latest in her repertoire was The Source of Self-Regard, a collection of poignant personal essays, speeches, and meditations.
In every single work published, Morrison made a point to reveal the complexities of Black lives and of womanhood, whether captured through poetic period pieces, passionate love stories, or shocking dramas.
As a writer and fan of her work, when news of her death seeped through the annals of the internet, I found myself scrambling for words but everything seemed to stick stubbornly in my throat. Many other women; especially women of color, I saw expressing grief on social media seemed to echo this same sentiment: What words are there to pay homage to someone who changed how we use language?
To celebrate the legendary beacon of African American culture, we’ve gathered all of her novels to date—in addition to her last work published before her death—each as essential to your bookshelf as the next.
The Bluest Eye
The Bluest Eye (1970)
This debut novel follows a young Black girl named Pecola growing up in Lorain, Ohio—Morrison’s hometown—in the years following the Great Depression. Pecola is consistently teased about her dark skin, hair, and eyes, causing her to long for the white features she perceives to be more beautiful. (Blonde hair, light eyes, fair skin). But as the young girl prays for the miracle of blue eyes, her personal life takes a heartbreaking turn.
Sula takes you through the lives and diverging paths of two best friends: Nel and Sula. One decides to stay in their hometown and raise a family, while the other leaves home for college, enjoying the city life. They soon reunite, coming to terms with their differences and the consequences of their own life choices.
Song of Solomon
Song of Solomon (1977)
One of Morrison’s most celebrated works—a blend of realism, fable, and fantasy—Song of Solomonearned the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978, and is an Oprah’s Book Club pick from 1996. It follows the life of Macon Dead, Jr. (a.k.a. Milkman) and the many mysteries plus unforgettable characters that surround him. “Few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this wise and spacious novel,” the New York Times‘s Reynolds Price said of Morrison in a 1977 review.
Tar Baby (1981)
This romance depicts the unlikely love affair of a young Black couple from two different worlds: Jadine is a beautiful fashion model accustomed to the life of the rich due to her family’s wealthy, white employers; Son is a poor fugitive. Together, they fight to live in a world where superficial differences don’t pit people against each other.
Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this novel is arguably Morrison’s most well-known. It tells the story of Sethe, a former slave who escaped to Ohio in the 1870s. But despite her freedom, he finds herself haunted by the trauma of her past. In 1998, Oprah starred in the film adaptation. “Beloved is written in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point,” wrote The Handmaid’s Tale’sMargaret Atwood in a 1987 review for the New York Times.
Set in 1920s Harlem, this historical story depicts the dramatic love triangle of door-to-door salesman Joe, his wife Violet, and his teenage girlfriend Dorcas. In a sudden twist of events, after Dorcas begins to resent and reject Joe, he kills the young girl. In the aftermath, a timeline is pieced together that lets you in on the emotions and lives of the tragic main characters.
Chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 1998, Paradisechronicles the events that lead to a shocking act of violence in Ruby—a patriarchal all-Black Oklahoma town. This was the first novel Morrison released after winning the Nobel Prize in literaturein 1993.
Centered around a deceased hotel owner named Bill Cosey—who died under suspicious circumstances—Love uses a split narrative that follows the lives of the many women who shared relationships with him. From his granddaughter to his widow, these women filled Cosey’s life with love and misery.
A Mercy (2008)
Offering insight into the slave trade of the 1680s, A Mercy follows an Anglo-Dutch adventurer who takes in a young girl named Florens after being traded in a debt payment. With the ability to read and write, she works on his farm, looking for love and protection from her fellow workers.
Frank Money, a young Black veteran of the Korean War, returns home only to be thrust back into America’s race wars while also dealing with the trauma of combat. He eventually finds himself in his once-hated Georgia hometown to save his abused younger sister—a journey that seems to be his saving grace.
God Help the Child
God Help the Child (2015)
The first of Morrison’s novels to be set in the 21st century, God Help the Child deals with the subject of colorism. Its main character, Bride, is a gorgeous and confident dark-skinned woman, but her features cause her fairer-skinned mother to withhold love and instead subject her to cruel abuse.
The Source of Self Regard
The Source of Self-Regard (2019)
As the last book published before her death, this nonfiction collection is a stunning culmination of some of Morrison’s most powerful speeches and essays. From a James Baldwin eulogy to her thoughts on Martin Luther King Jr., the works offer her reflections on wealth, female empowerment, Black literature, and her passion for writing.