Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Growing up during the Depression, Morrison witnessed the struggle of her parents, George and Ramah Wills Wofford, as they worked multiple jobs to support their four children. In the face of hard and often demeaning work, her parents held on to a sense of pride and self-respect which they passed on to their children. Because of their experiences with racism, they also emphasized the value and strength of African-American individuals, families, and communities. Music and storytelling were also valued in Morrison’s home, and dreams and ghostly apparitions were often featured in the stories people told each other. Reading was highly regarded in the family-one grandfather was a figure of respect because he had taught himself to read-and Morrison learned the skill at an early age. As she matured, Morrison became a capable student and read widely, from Russian novels to Jane Austen. While these works did not speak directly to her experience as a young black woman, they taught her about creating setting and atmosphere. As she told Jean Strouse in Newsweek: “I wasn’t thinking of writing then-I wanted to be a dancer like Maria Tallchief-but when I wrote my first novel years later, I wanted to capture that same specificity about the nature and feeling of the culture I grew up in.”

After high school, Morrison attended Howard University, where she studied English and classic literature in preparation for becoming a teacher. She graduated in 1953 and then enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University. After earning her master’s degree in 1955, she became an English instructor at Texas Southern and then Howard University. During this time the author met and married architect Harold Morrison, with whom she had two sons. After the marriage ended in divorce in 1964, Morrison moved to New York, where she worked as an editor with Random House. Although working in the publishing industry, it took her several tries to find a publisher for her first novel. When The Bluest Eye was published in 1969, reviews were generally positive and established the young author as one to watch. Her next works, Sula (1973) and Song of Solomon (1977), fulfilled the promise of her early works. The former earned a nomination for the National Book Award, while the latter won the National Book Critics Circle Award and became the first work by a black author since Richard Wright’s Native Son to be a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Morrison was earning more than just critical acclaim, however. When her fourth novel, Tar Baby, was published in 1981, it remained on bestseller lists for four months.

Meanwhile, Morrison was still working at Random House, where she influenced several upcoming African-American writers. In addition to editing their works, she edited several nonfiction collections. While preparing the 1974 anthology The Black Book, Morrison came across the shocking but true story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who attempted to murder her children rather than allow them to be captured and sent back into slavery. For the author, Garner’s story epitomized one of the chief horrors of slavery: the deliberate separation of families and the destruction of the bond between parent and child. Morrison used this story as a springboard for her novel Beloved, creating a haunting tale of the challenge of memory and the strength of family.

Morrison left publishing in 1985 for academia, and became in 1989 the Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first African American and just the eighth woman to earn the accolade. The National Book Foundation similarly honored her in 1996 with its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison continues to teach, lecture, and write, attempting to create stories that have meaning for both author and reader. As she stated in Black Women Writers: A Critical Evaluation, fiction “should be beautiful, and powerful, but it should also work. It should have something in it that enlightens; something in it that opens the door and points the way. Something in it that suggests what the conflicts are, what the problems are. But it need not solve those problems because it is not a case study, it is not a recipe.”

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