She attended Howard University, an all-black university in Washington, D.C. At Howard, she read African, British and American literature, including writers William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. In 2017, the University renamed West Hall, a residential college on the campus, Morrison Hall, in honor of the writer.
"She was a great woman and a great writer, and I don't know which I will miss more", Robert Gottlieb, Morrison's longtime editor at Knopf publishers, said in a statement sent to AFP.
Most recently, she was the subject of a new documentary, "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am".
In one 2006 incident, which upset many who were disappointed that a writer of Morrison's stature could ignore the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a letter signed by Morrison and 17 other writers criticized public outrage over Hamas's kidnapping of Gilad Schalit while there were "approximately 10,000 [Palestinians] in Israeli jails". "We are all so lucky to live in a world where she took her own advice and shared it with others".
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on Feb 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison was the daughter of sharecroppers who migrated from Alabama to Ohio.
Morrison's work focused on African American life and culture, and she dominated an industry in which depictions of black life were often limited and rooted in stereotype.
Her acclaimed novel "Beloved" was based on the tragic story of a mother who killed her baby to save her from a life of slavery.
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The book won the Pulitzer (following a much-reported controversy when Morrison didn't win the National Book Award) and cemented her reputation as a giant of 20th century American literature.
In 1993, she came the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Litterature, praised by the Swedish academy for her "visionary force" and for her delving into "language itself, a language she wants to liberate" from categories of black and white.
Morrison also taught at Princeton University.
Knopf, announced Tuesday that the award-winning author died Monday night at the Montefiore Medical Center in NY. "She would literally channel the spirit of Margaret Garner, the inspiration for Sethe, into her performance", he said. "Her breadth of knowledge is mind-boggling", said another.
On Tuesday, Gabrielle Union tweeted, "Her words were like mirrors to our collective souls".
"Maya Angelou helped me without her knowing it", Morrison told The Associated Press during a 1998 interview.
During her career as an editor, she advocated for the work of writers of color including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones and Angela Davis. Sometimes this took the form of eminently quotable aphorisms. "We tend to cut it down these days - smaller, and smaller, and smaller - to make it fit, I don't know what, a headline or a room".
"I read all the time but I was never in those books", she said. "I'm thinking up risky, hard things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place".