While working at Random House in 1970s, Toni Morrison was known as "the black editor" for her commitment to publishing books about the African-American experience. One of her best sellers was "The Black Book."
Documenting nearly 200 years of history, its content was as stark as its title. An anthology of artifacts, it featured slave auction notices, lynching photos, black-face advertisements and a fateful clipping from an 1856 newspaper.
"A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed her Child" told the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway who, as she was about to be captured, attacked her three children, killing one of them. In explaining her crime, she said death was preferable to captivity.
Morrison wondered what compassion, what love could possibly lead a mother to commit so terrible a crime, and in 1987 answered that question with her landmark novel about slavery, "Beloved."
With "Beloved" and other writings, Morrison gave voice to the silences in the past and created some of the most memorable characters in American literature. Singing, keening, praising, mourning, laughing, crying and loving, they fill her pages in a resounding chorus that captures the tragic and joyful complexion of life and race in this country.
Now Morrison's voice is silent. Morrison died last week at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, Publisher Alfred A. Knopf said. She was 88.
Winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, a Pulitzer Prize and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Morrison was one of the country's most celebrated writers.
The Swedish Academy praised her novels for their "visionary force and poetic import." Morrison, the academy said, had an "unerring ear for dialogue and richly expressive depictions of black America."
In 2012, President Obama called her a personal hero. Her novel "Song of Solomon," he said, taught him "how to be," and the late poet and essayist Maya Angelou described her friend as having "the insight of a shaman and the lyricism of a great poet."
Loved by legions of fans who discovered her work either through the Jonathan Demme film of "Beloved" or through Oprah's book club which selected four of her novels, Morrison never dreamed of becoming a writer. As she often said, she just couldn't find the books she wanted to read.
Beginning with her first novel, published when she was 39, she filled the void with an outpouring of fiction, children's books, a play about Emmett Till, an opera based on "Beloved," as well as scores of essays and book reviews. Her most recent novel, her 11th, "God Help the Child," was published in April 2015.
Famous for a magisterial presence with graying dreadlocks, an affection for scarves and a small heart pendant of butterstone — in remembrance to her son, Slade, who died at 45 — Morrison described writing as a "high-wire act," in which she sought to blur the line between serious and popular fiction.
Long-time friend, Claudia Brodsky remembered Morrison for her uncompromising belief in the power of literature. More than anything, Morrison believed that books have an ethical responsibility to shape society and culture.
"She wanted her readers to be challenged," said Brodsky. "The goal of literature was not just to challenge you in formulistic or aesthetic ways, but to enhance your imagination. She wanted to enrich their imaginations, to help them look past barriers of the past and see her characters standing in front of them."
Morrison, Brodsky said, resisted, even resented any tendency to marginalize her work as that of a woman's writer or an African-American writer.
"She was writing for all people at all time," said Brodsky.
As adept as she was exploring the complexities of identity and race in her prose, Morrison was foremost an explorer of own identity.
Born Chloe Wofford, she changed her name in college: Toni from St. Anthony, her baptismal name when she converted to Catholicism as a child, and Morrison from an early marriage that ended in divorce.
She didn't intend for Toni Morrison to be her published name, but when she finished her first book, "The Bluest Eye," the galley read "A novel by Toni Morrison," and by then the name had been recorded in the Library of Congress.
Morrison had considered a life as a dancer, but Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Richard Wright changed her mind. Finding time between her boys and her work as an editor, she rose each morning at 4 a.m.
"I used to write with my children pulling on my hair, babies pulling on my earrings," she said. "My baby once spit up orange juice on my tablet, and I just wrote around it."
"The Bluest Eye," initially rejected by two publishers, is the story of Pecola Breedlove, who sees herself as ugly for not being white. Written at a time when "Black is Beautiful" was the rallying cry, Morrison wanted to remember when that wasn't true, when being black was painful.
In 1968, she moved to New York, where she worked with Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali and Chinua Achebe and honed her own voice as a writer.
Her third novel, "Song of Solomon," won the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award, beating out Joan Didion's "A Book of Common Prayer" and John Cheever's "Falconer."
As her critical reputation grew, Robert Gottlieb, the editor-in-chief of Knopf, encouraged her to leave publishing.
"You can write 'writer' on your tax returns," he said.