Born in an Ohio steel town in the depths of the Great Depression, Morrison carved out a literary home for the voices of African Americans, first as an acclaimed editor and then with novels such as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved. Over the course of a career that garnered honours including the Pulitzer prize, the Nobel prize, the Légion d’Honneur and a Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to her in 2012 by her friend Barack Obama, her work became part of the fabric of American life as it was woven into high school syllabuses up and down the country.
Morrison’s reputation gradually built as she forged the language of her family and neighbours into three more novels, resigning from Random House in 1983 to devote herself to writing full-time. The publication in 1987 of Beloved, a powerful story set in the middle of the 19th century of a slave who kills her own baby, cemented her status as a national figure. When the novel failed to improve on its shortlisting for the National Book Award, 48 writers signed a letter of protest accusing the publishing industry of “oversight and harmful whimsy”.

“Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve,” they wrote. “She has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer prize.”

Five months later Beloved won the Pulitzer, unleashing a tide of awards. Morrison would become the first black woman to win the Nobel prize in literature in 1993. She also won the National Book Foundation medal in 1996 and a National Humanities medal four years later.