Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, born Chloe Ardelia Wofford (February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019), was an American novelist, editor, essayist, teacher, and professor. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her work examined the black experience, especially the black female experience, in American culture of the past and present.

Morrison was born and raised in Lorain, Ohio in a working-class African-American family. They influenced her immense love and appreciation for black culture as she grew up hearing folktales, songs, and storytelling. Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy were two of her favorite authors. 

 

First glimpse of racism 

As the second oldest of four children, Morrison was well aware of the issues that her family faced because of their race. When her father lived in Cartersville Georgia as a teenager, he witnessed two black businessmen who lived on his street get lynched by white people. Morrison said “He never told us that he’d seen bodies. But he had seen them. And that was too traumatic, I think, for him.” 

At the age of two, her house was set on fire by the family’s landlord while they inside because her parents were unable to pay rent. Rather than getting extremely angry, Morrison’s mother simply laughed at the landlord, calling his actions a “bizarre form of evil.” It was from that moment that Morrison became aware of her family’s ability to remain calm and not let racial actions get the best of them. 

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10 Fascinating Facts About Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Winner
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Education and the start of her career 

Morrison became a member of the Catholic church at the age of twelve and chose the baptismal name of Anthony. This led to the use of her nickname, Toni. She earned her degree from Howard University in 1953 and then attended graduate school at Cornell University.

After teaching at Texas Southern University for two years, she taught English at Howard University from 1957 to 1964. During this time, she was married to Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica who also taught at Howard, and had two children. They divorced in 1964. 

In 1965, Morrison began working as a fiction editor at Random House in their Syracuse, New York office. After two years, she transferred to Random House in New York City, becoming the first black woman senior editor of fiction.

In this role, Morrison brought black literature into the mainstream with the compilation of Contemporary African Literature (1972). She discovered the writings of African-American writers that are widely read and respected today, including Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, and Toni Cade Bambara. At the same time, she continued to teach part-time, lecture across the country, and write numerous novels. 

 

Her legendary works 

The Bluest Eye (1970) is the story of an African-American girl who dreams of having blue eyes to fit into Western beauty standards. Though it did not sell well at first, it made its way onto the bookshelves of black-studies departments of many colleges which helped boost its sales. 

Morrison’s second novel, Sula (1974), examines the various dynamics of friendships and the expectation to conform to a community’s standards. It was extremely popular and was nominated for the National Book Award. 

Her third novel was by far the most popular of her early works. Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national praise and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was also awarded the Book of the Month Club and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. 

Tar Baby (1981), her next novel, tells the story of Jadine, a fashion model who is obsessed with her looks and falls in love with a poor drifter who is comfortable in his dark skin. Along with this powerful novel, she also worked on her first play about Emmett Till, Dreaming Emmett, who was murdered by white men in 1955. 

In the years to follow, Morrison went on the publish more books that explore issues dealing with race, class, and sex. This next group of books included Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1997). While working on these novels, she was also a writer-in-residence at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and then at Albany. She moved to Princeton University in 1989. 

While working as a professor at Princeton, she brought out Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). After creating so many notable books, she was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

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Toni Morrison page on Amazon
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The Nobel Prize in Literature 

Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, making her the first African-American woman to be selected for the award. Typical of the high praise she received was that she “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” 

Upon receiving the award, she discussed the power of storytelling and spoke about a blind old black woman who is approached by a group of young people who ask, “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? … Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story.”

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14 Women Who Have Won the Nobel Prize in Literature
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Themes in her writing

The central theme of Morrison’s novels is the portrayal of the black American experience. Morrison used her characters to show readers the struggles that black people face, finding themselves and their cultural identity. Her characters seek to understand the unfortunate truth of the world while uncovering love, beauty, friendship, death, and more. 

Morrison employed a poetic style and provoke strong emotional responses from her audience. She occasionally included a bit of fantasy to imbue her stories with texture and power. 

 

Other Awards and Honors

In 1979, Morrison was awarded Barnard College’s highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction, during their commencement ceremony. 

Beloved (1987), based on the true story of a runaway slave, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A film adaptation of the novel was released in 1998 and starred Oprah Winfrey. 

In 1996, Morrison received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. 

In 1997, Morrison appeared on the cover of Time magazine. She was the second female writer of fiction and African-American writer to appear on America’s most significant magazine cover of the era.

In 2001, Morrison was given the National Arts and Humanities Award by former President Bill Clinton in Washington, D.C. Upon giving the award, the president said that Morrison had “entered America’s heart.”

In 2005, Morrison won the Coretta Scott King Award for her novel Remember (2004), which delved into the struggles of black students during the time of integration amongst America’s public school system. 

Morrison was made an officer of the French Legion of Honour in 2010 and was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. 

In 2017, Princeton University changed the name of a building, previously known as West College. It was changed to Morrison Hall. 

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Toni Morrison and former President Barack Obama
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Her final years 

In 2011, Morrison worked with directors Peter Sellars, Malian, and Rokia Traoreon on a production called Desdemona, which takes a fresh look at William Shakespeare’s Othello. The production premiered in Vienna in 2011. 

When Morrison’s son Slade died, she had stopped working on her latest novel. She decided to start writing again because she thought her son would be upset if he knew that he was the reason she stopped writing. “Please, Mom, I’m dead, could you keep going … ?” she thought he would say. She completed her novel, Home, in 2012 and dedicated it to her son. 

On August 5, 2019, the legendary Toni Morrison passed away at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx, New York City, from complications of pneumonia. She was eighty-eight years old.

 

The Legacy of Toni Morrison

As of 2014, Morrison’s papers are part of the permanent library collections of Princeton University, where she worked for seventeen years. Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber told those who attended a tribute to Morrison’s legacy:

“This extraordinary resource will provide scholars and students with unprecedented insights into Professor Morrison’s remarkable life and her magnificent, influential literary works. We at Princeton are fortunate that Professor Morrison brought her brilliant talents as a writer and teacher to our campus 25 years ago, and we are deeply honored to house her papers and to help preserve her inspiring legacy.”

Morrison has influenced numerous writers, including National Book Award finalist Jamel Brinkley, best-selling author Julia Alvarez, prize-winning poet Saeed Jones, and many more. When speaking about her work, American writer George Saunders said, “There is something about the scale of her work that inspires other writers to think in a more expansive way,” and added, “she inspires with her incredible language and also the moral-ethical intensity of her work.” 

The Pieces I Am, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is a 2019 documentary on Toni Morrison’s life and powerful works. “I wanted as many people who could hear my voice to understand the importance of her work,” says Oprah Winfrey in the trailer. “Toni Morrison’s work shows us through pain all the myriad ways we can come to love. That is what she does with some words on a page.”

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More about Toni Morrison

On this site

Major Works 

Novels

  • The Bluest Eye (1970)
  • Sula (1973)
  • Song of Solomon (1977)
  • Tar Baby (1981)
  • Beloved (1987)
  • Jazz (1992)
  • Paradise (1997)
  • Love (2003)
  • A Mercy (2008)
  • Home (2012)
  • God Help the Child (2015)

Children’s books (with Slade Morrison)

  • The Big Box (1999) 
  • The Book of Mean People (2002)
  • Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper?, The Lion or the Mouse?, Poppy or the Snake? (2007)
  • Peeny Butter Fudge (2009)
  • Please, Louise (2014) 

Selected short fiction

  • “Recitatif” (1983)
  • “Sweetness” (2015)

Plays

  • Dreaming Emmett (performed 1986)
  • Desdemona (first performed May 15, 2011, in Vienna)

Libretto

  • Margaret Garner (first performed May 2005)

Selected nonfiction

Toni Morrison was the editor of several compilations and wrote numerous essays as well.

  • The Origin of Others (2017)
  • The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, Meditations (2019)

More Information and Sources 

Skyler Isabella Gomez is a 2019 SUNY New Paltz graduate with a degree in Public Relations and a minor in Black Studies. Her passions include connecting more with her Latin roots by researching and writing about legendary Latina authors.

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