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Toni Morrison in her own words: ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else’

Toni Morrison in 1993.AFP/Getty Images

One of the most remarkable features of Toni Morrison’s writing is her ability to move between modes: She could extend a single thought through sweeping passages that swell and recede like a thunderstorm, and then suddenly condense all of that energy into a single searing line, like a crack of lightning.

Morrison’s masterful ease with language and music, her sharp critical acumen, her resolute intolerance for equivocation, and her often painfully clear vision of how injustice functions and perpetuates all combine to make her not just one of the most essential and readable authors of our time, but one of the most quotable — both in print and in person.


There’s a lot to be learned from just one of Morrison’s lines, but perhaps their most valuable lesson is that we should all be reading more Morrison.

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

“What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” — from “God Help the Child” (excerpt)

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” — from “Beloved

“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. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens — that letting go — you let go because you can.” — from “Tar Baby

“Perhaps that’s what all human relationships boil down to: Would you save my life? or would you take it?” — from “Song of Solomon

“If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” — Morrison on Twitter, Oct. 20, 2013


“I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one... if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.” — Morrison in conversation with Charlie Rose, 1993

“Black people have a story, and that story has to be heard. There was an articulate literature before there was print. There were griots. They memorized it. People heard it. It is important that there is sound in my books — that you can hear it, that I can hear it.” — interview with Contemporary Literature, 1983.

“I think about what black writers do as having a quality of hunger and disturbance that never ends. Classical music satisfies and closes. Black music does not do that. Jazz always keeps you on the edge. There is no final chord... I want my books to be like that.” — ibid.

“Anger is a very intense but tiny emotion, you know. It doesn’t last. It doesn’t produce anything. It’s not creative . . . at least not for me.” — interview with “The Paris Review,” 1993

“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.” — from “Paradise