Childhood to Womanhood
Although she grew up in the North, southern traditions played a large part in Toni Morrison's upbringing. Her maternal grandfather, a Kentucky carpenter and farmer, saw no chance for advancement because of the state's racism and poverty, so he moved his family to Ohio. From them, Morrison absorbed stories and tales about the horrors of black life during the Reconstruction era — roughly, the twelve years following the Civil War — when the southern states that seceded from the Union were politically restructured and economically restored. She recognized that "whatever I did was easy in comparison with what they had to go through."
Morrison's father, sharecropper George Wofford, had similar reasons to escape racial oppression in Georgia and relocate in the North. Even there, however, he distrusted "every word and every gesture of every white man on earth." In contrast, Morrison's mother, Ramah, a more educated, trusting person than her husband, was a gentler, less confrontational parent to young Chloe Anthony Wofford, who would become world-renowned Toni Morrison, 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The second of four children, Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, and grew up on the far western fringe of Cleveland, in the multicultural environment of Lorain, Ohio — a steel town of around 75,000, blending Czech, German, Irish, Greek, Italian, Serb, Mexican, and black suburbanites. There, she experienced exclusion but did not suffer the intense racism felt by such black writers as Maya Angelou, Dick Gregory, and Richard Wright.
Brought up in a nurturing, religious environment, Morrison says, "We were taught that as individuals we had value, irrespective of what the future might hold for us." The women of the black community, whether aunts, grandmothers, or neighbors, served as a tightly woven safety net. The oral tradition, passed down by both men and women, cushioned blows to self-esteem with stories and songs about the Underground Railroad, daring rescues, and other perils and triumphs of black history.
Morrison was expected to excel even though she had to contend with the racial prejudice that accompanied growing up in an educational system that ignored the contributions of nonwhites. At Lorain High School, she graduated at the top of her class, then surprised her family by insisting on leaving Lorain to obtain a college degree — a decision that necessitated her father working three jobs. The move from Ohio alarmed her mother; all of her daughter's friends and relatives were in Ohio. Self-assured about her ambitions, Morrison has remarked, "You take the village with you. There is no need for the community if you have a sense of it inside."
Morrison entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., changed her first name from Chloe to Toni, and began studying under strong African-American spokesmen, including poet Sterling Brown and philosopher and critic Alain Locke, a Rhodes scholar who edited The New Negro. She graduated with a B.A. in 1953 and completed a master's degree in English at Cornell two years later, with a concentration in the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.
Teaching and Writing
In 1957, Morrison taught humanities and English at Texas Southern University, then worked for eight years as an English instructor at Howard University. In 1966, she joined a monthly literary symposium and contributed stories that she had begun in high school. Among them was a story she read aloud to the symposium about a black girl who wanted to make up for her so-called physical shortcomings — her strong Negroid features — by petitioning God for blue eyes.
From 1965 to 1983, Morrison served as a textbook editor at Random House, in Syracuse, New York. Divorced, raising two small sons, and working at a full-time, demanding job, she still managed to plug away at The Bluest Eye, her personal therapy for depression and isolation. Explaining her drive to write, Morrison has said that she had a deep need for "books that I had wanted to read. No one had written them yet, so I wrote them." She has said this about her compulsion to complete her first manuscript: "I had no will, no judgment, no perspective, no power, no authority, no self — just this brutal sense of irony, melancholy, and a trembling respect for words. I wrote like someone with a dirty habit. Secretly — compulsively — slyly."
By the time the manuscript for The Bluest Eye was complete in 1968, Morrison had risen to the rank of senior editor at Random House's publishing headquarters in New York City. According to her, her first novel sold for racial reasons: Random House wanted a black writer in its stable.
A year later, she returned to the classroom for a year as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at State University of New York in Purchase, settled into a renovated boathouse outside Nyack, and continued to write. Four years later, she completed Sula, her second novel, which continues her demarcation of the black woman's world, with its secret power, perversity, unity, and mysticism. The critics were divided about the horror of a mother's murdering her drug-addicted son: To some, the act was unforgivable; to others, the woman exhibited a mother's utmost love and courage. What none of the critics could have foreseen, however, was that Morrison's portrait of the drug-addicted son was an omen of ghetto life in the coming decades.
In 1974, an attraction to the lodestone of black literature led her to compile a memory album. Introduced by Bill Cosby as a "folk journey of Black America" and composed of bits and pieces from slave narratives, advertising, photographs, media clippings, recipes, and patent office records, The Black Book reveals three centuries of black history. Almost like remediation in the culture that her public education had denied her, the research, her "literary archeology," provided a cache of motifs, themes, and images for later fiction — including a clipping from a nineteenth-century magazine that would inspire Beloved.
During the next decade, while serving as a visiting lecturer at Yale, she finished Song of Solomon (1977), a Midwestern saga. Like a patchwork vision of her collective unconscious, the novel draws on family lore and a wisdom sprung from surviving. In Morrison's words, her forebears became "my entrance into my own interior life." True to the revelation of self, Song of Solomon, a mythic tale centering on slaves who fly to Africa, evolved from her grief over her father's death. The novel was awarded the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and eighteen years later, in 1996, it soared to the No. 1 position on bestseller lists nationwide when it was announced as a featured novel in Oprah Winfrey's monthly book club.
Within four years after Solomon's success, Morrison followed up with Tar Baby. A provocative departure from her earlier all-black casts, the novel introduces the ambivalent Jadine, a world-weary traveler who searches for self-actualization among West Indian servant-caste relatives through a brief fling with a furtive black interloper. Propelled by the novel's success, Morrison became the first black woman championed in a cover story for Newsweek, which heralded her as the top black writer in the United States. Her response was a teasing one-liner: "Are you really going to put a middle-aged, gray-haired, colored lady on the cover of this magazine?"
Beloved was published in 1987. Returning to a focus on motherhood, the novel probes the pain of mothers who are slaves, revealed through the humiliation of Sethe, who kills one of her children rather than watch it grow to adulthood, when she would be brutally and repeatedly punished, robbed of a sense of self, and utterly debased by slavery.
In January 1988, having worked her way up in the literary hierarchy, Morrison received the Ritz-Hemingway, National Book, and National Book Critics Circle nominations for Beloved — but no awards. Led by poet June Jordan, a formal protest that white critics were unwilling to recognize Morrison's enormous talent ran in major newspapers, accompanied by an open letter from Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Henry Louis Gates, Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, Angela Davis, and forty-two other African Americans. Critic Houston A. Baker labeled the letter a "civil action" designed to call attention to a "miscarriage of judgment": "We wanted to call the attention of others to this ignoring of the beauty and greatness of Morrison."
Morrison was stunned by the deluge of support from her peers. On March 31, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, which had been on the bestseller list only eighteen weeks prior to the award. That same cataclysmic year, a list of awards came tumbling after. Fourteen honorary degrees poured in from mostly East Coast institutions, and Morrison was named Tanner Lecturer at the University of Michigan. The attractive, regal, literary matriarch accepted her windfall, winning audiences with her soft-spoken grace and a private, understated sense of self. "It was fabulous," she said. "I loved it. I felt crowned."
In fall 1989, Morrison left her Albany home to accept the Robert F. Goheen Professorship in creative writing, women's studies, and African studies at Princeton, becoming the first black female to be so honored by an Ivy League university.
After receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison's crowning achievement, she has been besieged by a host of speaking engagements and has been granted honorary memberships in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, New York Public Library, Helsinki Watch Committee, and advisory council of New York's Queens' College. Despite these new demands, she still struggles to make time for writing as she nurtures new black voices, but she has become an expert at finding privacy and sufficient solitude in order to write. As her father taught her in childhood, she still remains dubious of white society: "I teach my children that there is a part of yourself that you keep from white people — always."