Toni Morrison, 88, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who conjured a black girl longing for blue eyes, a slave mother who kills her child to save her from bondage and other indelible characters who helped transfigure a literary canon long closed to African Americans, died Monday at a hospital in the Bronx. The cause was complications from pneumonia.
Morrison placed African Americans, particularly women, at the heart of her writing at a time when they were largely relegated to the margins both in literature and in life. With language celebrated for its lyricism, she was credited with conveying as powerfully or more powerfully than perhaps any novelist before her, the nature of black life in America, from slavery to the inequality that went on more than a century after it ended.
Among her best-known works was “Beloved” (1987), the Pulitzer-winning novel later made into a film. It introduced millions of readers to Sethe, a slave mother haunted by the memory of the child she had murdered, having judged life in slavery worse than no life at all. Like many of Morrison’s characters, she was tortured, yet noble — “unavailable to pity,” as the author described them.
“The Bluest Eye” (1970), Morrison’s debut novel, was published as she approached her 40th birthday, and it became an enduring classic. It centered on Pecola Breedlove, a poor black girl of 11 who is disconsolate at what she perceives as her ugliness. Morrison said that she wrote the book because she had encountered no other one like it — a story that delved into the life of a child so infected by racism that she had come to loathe herself.
Morrison’s Nobel Prize, bestowed in 1993, made her the first native-born American since John Steinbeck in 1962 to receive that honor. The citation recognized her for “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import” and that breathed life into “an essential aspect of American reality.”
Nuon Chea, 93, the secretive chief ideologue and deputy of the radical communist regime led by Pol Pot who presided over some of the worst atrocities of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia in the late 1970s and ultimately was convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, died August 4 in Phnom Penh.
Henri Belolo, 82, who co-founded the Village People and co-wrote their classic hits “YMCA,” “Macho Man” and “In the Navy,” died August 3. No details about the death were provided. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Belolo founded the six-member Village People with Jacques Morali and lead singer Victor Willis.
Morton Bahr, 93, who began his career as a telegraph operator, and was president of the Communications Workers of America from 1985 to 2005, running a union that today represents about 700,000 public- and private- sector employees in technology, media, airlines and law enforcement that survived threats posed by digital technology and corporate revamping, died July 30 in Washington. From 1999 to 2001, Bahr was also the president of the Jewish Labor Committee, a national advocacy group, which said the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.
Anthony Hideki Ishisaka, 75, a former associate professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work and co-founder of the Asian Counseling and Referral Services, died July 9 in his sleep at his North Seattle home, after quietly making one last effort to highlight social injustice, by posting a story about the anti-immigrant “deportations” of Filipino workers from the fields of the Yakima Valley in 1927 — such was his calling. The cause of death was congestive heart failure.
Ishisaka was born May 5, 1944, at the Granada War Relocation Center, a Japanese American internment camp in Amache, Colorado, and later dedicated his life and his teaching to social causes. He received the UW’s S. Sterling Munro Public Service Faculty Award in 2003 and the School of Social Work’s Living Human Treasure Award in 2008. He retired in 2009.