Like her character Milkman Dead, Toni Morrison came of age in a family that had only recently left the South and moved to the Midwest. Her mother’s family migrated north from Greenville, Alabama, around the turn of the century as part of the Great Migration of southern blacks to the urban North. Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931-the same year as Milkman Dead’s birth-in Lorain, Ohio, where her first book, The Bluest Eye, is set. She recalled a childhood in which she was “intimate with the supernatural,” and read the classics of the Western tradition.
Morrison graduated from Howard University and took a master’s degree at Cornell, then returned to Howard to teach, including among her students Claude Brown and Stokely Carmichael. While at Howard, she married a Jamaican architectural student named Harold Morrison, the father of her two sons. After a later divorce, she started her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970. Also that year, Morrison began work on Sula, her second novel, and took a job as an editor at Random House, where she worked with some of the prominent black authors of the 1970s. After publishing Sula, she produced her third novel, Song of Solomon, which established her as a major American writer and won her the National Book Critics Circle Award. This was followed by Tar Baby in 1981, and the book considered her masterpiece, Beloved, in 1987.
When Beloved failed to win either a National Book Award or a National Book Critics Circle Award, a group of black writers and intellectuals decried the lack of national recognition given to Morrison. Beloved did win the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993, following the 1992 publication of Jazz, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The first African American woman to win the Nobel, her acceptance speech in Stockholm, in which she spoke about the power of, and necessity for, language, prompted a standing ovation. In recent years, Morrison has turned out several works of nonfiction, writing Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and publishing essays on the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, the O. J. Simpson case, and other current events.