77 Powerful Toni Morrison Quotes About Love, Life, Writing, And Racism

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Toni Morrison Quote
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No one can prepare you for the death of a hero, and that's what Toni Morrison was — a hero of the greatest order.

On August 5, 2019, the world lost legendary American novelist, essayist, editor, teacher and professor emeritus at Princeton University, Toni Morrison, who passed away at the age of 88, leaving behind her a legacy of powerful words and inspirational quotes.

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Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, to parents Ella Ramah (Willis) and George Wofford. She became a Catholic at the age of 12, taking "the baptismal name Anthony (after Saint Anthony), which led to her nickname, Toni."

After earning a B.A. in English at Howard University in 1953 and a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955, she became a professor, marrying Jamaican architect Howard Morrison in 1958. The couple had two sons, Harold and Slade, and divorced in 1964.

Morrison went on to create a legacy, publishing some of the most highly acclaimed novels of all time, including Beloved, Sula, The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and Jazz.

Her numerous awards include the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Beloved, later adapted into a film of the same name with Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. In 1993, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. And in 2012 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Photo by Rena Schild / Shutterstock

Exquisitely poignant writing aside, Morrison was a powerful figure in both the Black and feminist communities.

As Margalit Fox wrote in the New York Times: "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."

To honor her memory, here are 77 of the best, most inspirational quotes from author and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison on life, writing, family, death, racism and more.

Toni Morrison Quotes On Love

1. "Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be." — Beloved

2. “You can't own a human being. You can't lose what you don't own. Suppose you did own him. Could you really love somebody who was absolutely nobody without you? You really want somebody like that? Somebody who falls apart when you walk out the door? You don't, do you? And neither does he ... He can't value you more than you value yourself.” ― Song of Solomon

3. “Don't ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn't fall in love, I rose in it.” ― Jazz

4. “Let me tell you about love, that silly word you believe is about whether you like somebody or whether somebody likes you or whether you can put up with somebody in order to get something or someplace you want or you believe it has to do with how your body responds to another body like robins or bison or maybe you believe love is how forces or nature or luck is benign to you in particular not maiming or killing you but if so doing it for your own good. Love is none of that. There is nothing in nature like it. Not in robins or bison or in the banging tails of your hunting dogs and not in blossoms or suckling foal. Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God." — Paradise

5. “Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all.” ― Beloved

5. "Young people, Lord. Do they still call it infatuation? That magic ax that chops away the world in one blow, leaving only the couple standing there trembling? Whatever they call it, it leaps over anything, takes the biggest chair, the largest slice, rules the ground wherever it walks, from a mansion to a swamp, and its selfishness is its beauty." — Love

6. “Love is never any better than the lover.” ― The Bluest Eye

7. "It takes a certain intelligence to love like that — softly, without props." — Love

8. "You do not deserve love regardless of the suffering you have endured. You do not deserve love because somebody did you wrong. You do not deserve love just because you want it. You can only earn - by practice and careful contemplations - the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it." — Paradise

9. “Something that is loved is never lost.” — Beloved

10. "We will be judged by how well we love.” — Desdemona

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Toni Morrison Quotes On Life And Death

11. “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” — Song of Solomon

12. “Lonely, ain't it? Yes, but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain't that something? A secondhand lonely.” ― Sula

13. “At some point in life the world's beauty becomes enough. You don't need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.” — Tar Baby

14. “There is really nothing more to say — except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how." — The Bluest Eye

15. “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” ― Song of Solomon

16. “Let me tell you something. A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.” ― Beloved

17. “You are your best thing.” ― Beloved

18. “It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” ― Toni Morrison, Sula

19. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” ― Beloved

20. “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” — The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

21. “Death is a sure thing but life is just as certain. Problem is you can’t know in advance.” — Home

22. “No gasp at a miracle that is truly miraculous because the magic lies in the fact that you knew it was there for you all along.” — Beloved

23. “I want to feel what I feel. Even if it’s not happiness.” — from a 2012 interview with The Guardian

24. “What a man leaves behind is what a man is.” — A Mercy

25. “When good people take you in and treat you good, you ought to try to be good back.” — Beloved

26. “For a long time now he knew that anything could appear to be something else, and probably was.” — Song Of Solomon

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Toni Morrison Quotes On Writing And Reading

27. "From my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art." — "Be Your Own Story", Wellesley College commencement speech, 2004

28. “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” — from The Handy English Grammar Answer Book

29. “What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it?” — Jazz

30. “Make up a story... For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul.” ― The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

31. “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” — Toni Morrison

32. “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.” — The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

33. “Writing is really a way of thinking — not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet.” — Toni Morrison

34. “I’m not entangled in shaping my work according to other people’s views of how I should have done it.” ― Toni Morrison

35. "Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created." — The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

36. “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” — Toni Morrison

37. “The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” — Toni Morrison

38. “I always know the ending; that’s where I start.” — from Conversations With Toni Morrison

39. “Wait, wait, wait, wait. Don’t try to write through it, to force it. Many do but that won’t work. Just wait, it will come.” — Toni Morrison

40. “When I was teaching at Princeton, I had one course in creative writing. And I would tell the students… I do not want you to write anything about your little life. I know you have been taught to write about what you know. I’m telling you, do not do that. You don’t know anything. So I want you to invent.” — from the documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

41. "I feel totally curious and alive and in control. And almost… magnificent, when I write." — 2012 interview with The Guardian

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Toni Morrison Quotes On Race And Racism

42. “If you're going to hold someone down you're going to have to hold on by the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression.” — Toni Morrison

43. “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” — Toni Morrison

44. “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in." — from a conversation with Elizabeth Farnsworth for PBS NewsHour on March 9, 1998

45. “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another--physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.” — The Bluest Eye

46. "The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge... Sexist language, racist language, theistic language - all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas." — The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

47. “Black people are victims of an enormous amount of violence. None of those things can take place without the complicity of the people who run the schools and the city.” — Conversations with Toni Morrison (ed. 1994)

48. “It may even be that some of us know what it is like to be actually hated—hated for things we have no control over and cannot change.” — The Bluest Eye

49. "I wanted the readers to wonder about the race of those girls until those readers understood that their race didn't matter. I want to dissuade people from reading literature in that way... Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. It's real information, but it tells you next to nothing." — from an interview about Paradise

50. “If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have serious problem. And White people have a very, very serious problem.” — from a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose

51. “Navigating a white male world was not threatening. It wasn’t even interesting. I was more interesting than they were. I knew more than they did. And I wasn’t afraid to show it.” — from the documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

52. "No one ever talks about the moment you found that you were white. Or the moment you found out you were black. That's a profound revelation. The minute you find that out, something happens. You have to renegotiate everything." — from a 1998 interview with Salon

53. "All the books that were being published by African-American guys were saying 'screw whitey', or some variation of that. Not the scholars but the pop books. And the other thing they said was, 'You have to confront the oppressor.' I understand that. But you don't have to look at the world through his eyes. I'm not a stereotype; I'm not somebody else's version of who I am. And so when people said at that time black is beautiful – yeah? Of course. Who said it wasn't? So I was trying to say, in The Bluest Eye, wait a minute. Guys. There was a time when black wasn't beautiful. And you hurt." — 2012 interview with The Guardian

54. "They keep saying, we have to have a conversation about race in this country. Well, this is the conversation. We'll see if it plays out, if it makes a difference in terms of not just the hate crime thing, but the law. It's not like it is on television. The police are ill-trained and they're corrupt, and they're protected, and that's what they do. All over. I don't mean all police, but the system itself is protective. So yeah, they're going to lie. [George Zimmerman's] father calls up, the ex-magistrate? He calls up. Then the state prosecutor comes to the police station to talk and the lead detective wants to arrest the guy and he says no. And now we're getting the demonisation of the kid. He was this, he was that, he wore his pants down." — 2012 interview with The Guardian

55. “The function, the very serious function of racism [is] distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” — from a speech given at Portland State on May 30, 1975

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Feminist Quotes From Toni Morrison

56. “I always said I’m a teacher who writes or an editor who writes. But I never said the real thing until after I’d written a third book. It’s the sort of thing that women frequently do. They sort of need permission to tell themselves that this is the work they do.” — from the documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

57. "Women's rights is not only an abstraction, a cause; it is also a personal affair. It is not only about us; it is also about me and you. Just the two of us." — Toni Morrison

58. "I don't think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It's perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man." — Toni Morrison

59. "I don't think anybody cares about unwed mothers unless they're black or poor. The question is not morality, the question is money. That's what we're upset about." — Toni Morrison

60. "Own yourself, woman." — Beloved

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Toni Morrison Quotes About Children, Family And Friends

61. “A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves - a special kind of double.” — Dance of Freedom and Desire

62. “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” — God Help The Child

63. "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me and all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you’ve got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” — Beloved

64. “You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works and how it changes when you are a parent. Good luck and God help the child.” — God Help The Child

65. "I started writing when I was 39. That's the height of life. The real liberation was the kids, because their needs were simple. One, they needed me to be competent. Two, they wanted me to have a sense of humour. And three, they wanted me to be an adult. No one else asked that of me." — 2012 interview with the Guardian

66. "You need a whole community to raise a child. I have raised two children, alone." — Toni Morrison

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Toni Morrison Quotes On Leadership

67. “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” — Barnard College commencement speech, 1979

68. “I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” — from an interview in Oprah Magazine

69. “Anger ... it's a paralyzing emotion ... you can't get anything done. People sort of think it's an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling — I don't think it's any of that — it's helpless ... it's absence of control — and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers ... and anger doesn't provide any of that — I have no use for it whatsoever." — from an interview with CBS radio host Don Swaim, September 15, 1987

70. “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.” — from a 1994 interview with journalist Claudia Dreifus

71. “As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.” — Toni Morrison

72. “I get angry about things, then go on and work.” — Toni Morrison

73. “When I woke up I reminded myself that freedom is never free. You have to fight for it. Work for it and make sure you are able to handle it. Now.” — God Help The Child

74. “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” ― Beloved

75. “I get up before the sun rises. Always get up early. I want to beat the sun. So I have to be there just before it comes up. It’s the best time.” — from the documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

76. “I have a little framed document in my bathroom, a letter from, I think Texas Bureau of Corrections, saying that “Paradise” was banned from the prison because it might incite a riot. And I thought, how powerful is that? I could tear up the whole place!” — from the documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

77. “Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.” — Home

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Deputy Editor Arianna Jeret, MA/MSW, has been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, Yahoo Style, MSN, Fox News, Bustle, Parents and more. Find her on Twitter and Instagram for more.

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