Toni Morrison, one of the best and most influential literary writers of the 20th and 21st centuries, died on Monday. She was the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature and the author of eleven novels, dozens of essays, as well as literary criticism. When Morrison’s publisher announced the news of her death on Tuesday morning, thousands of people began mourning her incredible life on Twitter. Within a little over a day, more than 500,000 Twitter users in fact cited Toni Morrison specifically by first and last name in a million tweets and retweets.

To preserve this powerful commemoration of a historic American author, I started collecting tweets that mentioned “Toni Morrison” with twarc, a digital tool created by Ed Summers and DocNow. At the end of this blog post, I explain how you can access the tweets from this archive—only if the tweets are still public and have not been deleted by their creator—and I outline some ethical considerations and best practices if you plan to use this data.

But first I wanted to share a quick overview of the roughly one million tweets and retweets that paid tribute to Toni Morrison’s life in the day after the news broke.

Total Duration of this Snapshot: 1 day, 3 hours
Earliest Tweet: 9:08AM (CST) August 6, 2019
Latest Tweet: 12:18PM (CST) August 7, 2019

Number of Tweets That Mentioned Toni Morrison: 976,0141
Number of Twitter Users: 510,093
Number of Languages Used in Tweets: 48

Top 10 Most Retweeted

  1. Former President Barack Obama’s celebration of Morrison was the most widely recirculated tweet in the wake of her death, and it was shared over 50,000 times. The photo that he included of himself and Morrison was taken in 2012 on the day that she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S.

  2. This video clip, in which Morrison confronts Australian journalist Jana Wendt for asking a “powerfully racist” question during their 1998 interview, was retweeted more than 50,000 times, and it was shared in many other tweets, as well. Quotations and video clips from Morrison’s media appearances were extensively featured in tweets memorializing the author’s life and career.

  3. Many tweets in the wake of Morrison’s death reflected on the age at which she published her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), 40 years old. This particular tweet was first shared almost a year earlier and gained renewed momentum after Morrison’s passing.

  4. Another remediated television interview, a 1993 conversation between Morrison and Charlie Rose, also became a popular source for Twitter users venerating Toni Morrison. Many users particularly latched onto her claim during this interview that “[i]f you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”

  5. This excerpt from Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Beloved (1997) comes from an exchange between Paul D. and Denver near the end of the narrative. It is notable that this quotation is taken from a work of Morrison’s fiction—with the trappings of third-person narration and dialogue—since the other most retweeted quotations were cribbed from nonfictional television interviews.

  6. A significant number of the tweets in this archive, such as the one featured above, praised Morrison as a central node in a literary network of Black women writers. This tweet made the network explicit as well as expanded it by tagging the Twitter user names of dozens of Black women authors in a 20-plus-part thread.

  7. Like the #2 most retweeted Toni Morrison citation, the above tweet also included a video clip from Morrison’s 1998 interview with Jana Wendt. Like #3, it was also a tweet first published months earlier, back in February 2019. This pattern makes clear that some Toni Morrison tweets and videos had long circulating lives on the internet and that they took on renewed significance in the wake of Morrison’s death.

Top Quotations in Tweets

  1. “If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is: White people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it.”

    Excerpted from a Charlie Rose interview (1993)

  2. “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’”

    Excerpted from an Oprah Magazine interview (2003)

  3. “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

    Excerpted from Morrison’s Nobel Lecture (1993)

  4. “‘Well, if you want my opinion—’
    ‘I don’t,’ She said. ‘I have my own.’”

    Excerpted from Beloved (1987)

  5. “If there is a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”

    Excerpted from a 1981 speech at the Ohio Arts Council later reported on by The Cincinnati Enquirer

  6. “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”

    Excerpted from Beloved (1987)

You can also see a bar chart version of the top Toni Morrison quotations.

Top 5 Novel Titles Mentioned in Tweets

Many of the Twitter users featured in this archive shouted out their first-read, favorite, or most memorable Toni Morrison novel by name. To see which novels were mentioned the most, I identified tweets that included Morrison’s fiction titles in a capitalized or all-caps form (generally indicating the proper noun usage of the word or words).

Common Quotations in Toni Morrison Tweets

The top five Morrison novels mentioned on Twitter after her death appeared to be Beloved (1987), Song of Solomon (1977), The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and A Mercy (2008). All eleven of Morrison’s novels were mentioned within these roughly million tweets, however, and you can also explore a bar chart that compares mentions of all her novels.

Top Emojis in Tweets

  1. 14,106 tweets
  2. 💔 6,510 tweets
  3. 🙏🏾 6,070 tweets
  4. 🖤 4,611 tweets
  5. 😭 4,055 tweets
  6. 📚 3,745 tweets
  7. 😢 3,517 tweets
  8. 🙏 3,333 tweets
  9. 🕊 3,027 tweets
  10. 2,396 tweets

Top Tweets From Most Followed Accounts

Toni Morrison was a truly colossal public figure. So I was also interested in seeing which other highly influential public figures were discussing her after her death. The Twitter accounts with the most followers that also tweeted about Morrison between August 6-7 were Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Oprah, The New Yorker, Bernie Sanders, NPR, Common, Kerry Washington, and Bill Clinton.

To Access the Toni Morrison Tweet Archive

Twitter’s terms of service do not allow tweet datasets to be shared openly on the web, but they do allow for the sharing of unique identifiers, which are tethered to every tweet and which can be used to access an original tweet if that tweet is still public and has not been deleted yet. This policy, as DocNow puts it, “speaks to users rights as content creators, while also allowing researchers to share their data with others.” Accordingly, I have shared a data set of 1,170,032 unique identifiers for tweets that mentioned “Toni Morrison” with or without a space between August 6 and August 9, 2019 on the Internet Archive. It will also be available through DocNow’s Tweet ID Catalogue.

If you want to access and analyze this data yourself, you can do so with twarc or the desktop application, Hydrator (and the “hydration” process is explained in greater detail in both places). If you choose to use this data, I highly recommend consulting DocNow’s white paper about archiving social media content, especially their concluding recommendations:

  1. Archivists should engage and work with the communities they wish to document.
  2. Documentation efforts must go beyond what can be collected without permission from the web and social media.
  3. Archivists should follow social media platforms’ terms of service where they are congruent with the values of the communities they are attempting to document.
  4. When possible, archivists should apply traditional archival practices such as appraisal, collection development, and donor relations to social media and web materials.

Reconstituting and Rereading Toni Morrison

The loss of Toni Morrison is a profound one. Like so many others, I am drawn to Obama’s widely recirculated words to put this loss into perspective. It really does feel like a “gift” to have “breathe[d] the same air” as the great Toni Morrison, “if only for a while.” It’s hard to imagine that a more major literary figure will be alive again during my lifetime.

But it is also profound to have witnessed so many people testifying to Morrison’s literary influence and legacy this week, to have seen such sincere interest in her life and work, and to have observed the author reconstituted by those mourning and celebrating her on Twitter. These Twitter users collectively grieved Morrison—the author of deep, difficult, and complex narratives—in the necessarily reductive form of 240-character tweets, photos, and video clips, and they often did so with creativity, beauty, and power.

Many of these Twitter users also spoke about returning to Morrison’s difficult novels (or essays or literary criticism) or about wanting to dive into them for the first time. There have been many “essential” Toni Morrison reading lists published in the last few days, but I wanted to conclude by offering a short round-up of further scholarly reading on Morrison to also direct people to the work of scholars who have been studying and attending to Toni Morrison’s life and literature for many years now.

Barbara Hill Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison (1991).
Trudier Harris, Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison (1991).
David L. Middleton, ed., Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Contemporary Criticism (1997).
Nancy J. Peterson, ed., Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches (1997).
John N. Duvall, The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity and Postmodern Blackness (2000).
Lucille Fultz, Toni Morrison: Playing with Difference (2003).
Justine Tally, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison (2008).
Stephanie Li, Toni Morrison: A Biography (2009).
Evelyn Jaffe Schreiber, Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison (2010).
Tessa Roynon, The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison (2012).
Juda Bennett, Toni Morrison and the Queer Pleasure of Ghosts (2014).

Footnotes

  1. There were actually 1,001,518 tweets and retweets that mentioned Toni Morrison’s name within this period. By the time that I began hydrating them on August 8, however, there were only 976,014 tweets that were still public and not deleted.