97 Toni Morrison Quotes On Love, Life, Writing, And Racism

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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.

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.

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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.

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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 97 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." — Toni Morrison, 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.” ― Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

3. "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." — Toni Morrison, Paradise

4. “if they put an iron circle around your neck I will bite it away” — Toni Morrison, Beloved

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

6. “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." — Toni Morrison, Paradise

7. “Something that is loved is never lost.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved

8. "Love is not a gift. It is a diploma. A diploma conferring certain privileges: the privilege of expressing love and the privilege of receiving it. How do you know you have graduated? You don't." — Toni Morrison, Paradise

9. “Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all.” ― Toni Morrison, Beloved

10. "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." — Toni Morrison, Love

11. "We will be judged by how well we love.” — Toni Morrison, Desdemona

12. “He wants to put his story next to hers.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved

13. “Love is never any better than the lover.” ― Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

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

15. “Gimme hate, Lord,” he whimpered. “I’ll take hate any day. But don’t give me love. I can’t take no more love, Lord. I can’t carry it...It’s too heavy. Jesus, you know, you know all about it. Ain’t it heavy? Jesus? Ain’t love heavy?” — Toni Morrison, Song Of Solomon

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Toni Morrison Quotes On Life And Death

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

17. “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.” ― Toni Morrison, Sula

18. “She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it's there, because it can't hurt, and because what difference does it make?” — Toni Morrison, Song Of Solomon

19. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved

20. “What a man leaves behind is what a man is.” — Toni Morrison, A Mercy

21. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” ― Toni Morrison, Beloved

22. “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.” — Toni Morrison, Tar Baby

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

24. “There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind--wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved

25. "And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word." — Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

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

27. “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.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved

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

29. “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.” ― Toni Morrison, Beloved

30. “What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?” — Toni Morrison, Song Of Solomon

31. “Pain. I seem to have an affection, a kind of sweettooth for it. Bolts of lightning, little rivulets of thunder. And I the eye of the storm.” — Toni Morrison, Jazz

32. “Lonely was much better than alone.” — Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

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

34. “You are your best thing.” ― Toni Morrison, Beloved

35. “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

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

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

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

39. “Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place--the picture of it--stays, and not just in my remory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think if, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved

40. “In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” — Toni Morrison, Sula

41. “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” — Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory”

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Toni Morrison Quotes On Writing And Reading

42. "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." — Toni Morrison, "Be Your Own Story," Wellesley College commencement speech, 2004

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

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

45. “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.” ― Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

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

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

48. “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

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

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

51. “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

52. “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

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

54. “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

55. “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

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

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Toni Morrison Quotes On Race And Racism

57. “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

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

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

60. “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.” — Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

61. "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." — Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

62. “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.” — Toni Morrison, Conversations with Toni Morrison (ed. 1994)

63. “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.” — Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

64. "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." — Toni Morrison, from an interview about Paradise

65. When asked by an interviewer if she "would ever change and write books that incorporate white lives into them substantially": "You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?” she asked. “You could never ask a white author, ‘When are you going to write about Black people?’ Whether he did or not, or she did or not. Even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center.’” — Toni Morrison

66. “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.” — Toni Morrison, from a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose

67. “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

68. "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." — Toni Morrison, from a 1998 interview with Salon

69. "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." — Toni Morrison, 2012 interview with The Guardian

70. "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." — Toni Morrison, 2012 interview with The Guardian

71. “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.” — Toni Morrison, from a speech given at Portland State on May 30, 1975

72. “There is no such thing as race. None. There is just a human race — scientifically, anthropologically. Racism is a construct, a social construct and it has benefits. Money can be made off of it, people who don’t like themselves can feel better because of it, it can describe certain kinds of behavior that can are wrong or misleading, so it has a social function, racism.” — Toni Morrison, from an appearance on "The Colbert Report"

73. "So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.” — Toni Morrison, from a 2016 essay in the New Yorker titled "Making America White Again"

74. “I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That's what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say 'people,' that's what I mean.” — Toni Morrison

75. “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” ― Toni Morrison, Beloved

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Feminist Quotes From Toni Morrison

76. “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

77. "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

78. "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

79. "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

80. "Own yourself, woman." — Toni Morrison, Beloved

81. “He licked his lips. ‘Well, if you want my opinion-‘ ‘I don’t, ‘ She said. ‘I have my own.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved

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Toni Morrison Quotes About Children, Family And Friends

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

83. “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” — Toni Morrison, God Help The Child

84. "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.” — Toni Morrison, Beloved

85. “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.” — Toni Morrison, God Help The Child

86. "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." — Toni Morrison, 2012 interview with the Guardian

87. "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

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

89. “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.” — Toni Morrison, from an interview in Oprah Magazine

90. “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." —Toni Morrison, from an interview with CBS radio host Don Swaim, September 15, 1987

91. “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.” — Toni Morrison, from a 1994 interview with journalist Claudia Dreifus

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

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

94. “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.” — Toni Morrison, God Help The Child

95. “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

96. “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

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