Toni Morrison Biography


Personal Background

Chloe Anthony Wofford — Toni Morrison — was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, a racially mixed Midwestern steel town of around 75,000 that — like the settings of most of her novels — was "neither ghetto nor plantation." She was the second of four children born to George Wofford, a laborer, and Ramah (Willis) Wofford, a homemaker whose name, according to Morrison, was "picked blind" from a page in the Bible. Morrison's parents taught her to believe in herself and not let external events control her life. Growing up during a time marked by overt racism and open hostility toward blacks, Morrison learned early on that in order to survive, she had to develop a strong character and create her own life. She also learned the value of being part of a loving, supportive family and community, the futility and self-destructiveness of hatred, and the healing power of music.

After graduating from Lorain High School with honors, Morrison moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University, where one of her professors was Alain Locke, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. While at Howard, she began writing short stories and changed her name to Toni. Much of the African-American literature she encountered while at Howard left her, in her own words, "bereft" since it seemed to be written to someone other than herself or the black people whom she knew. Consequently, she resolved to write books that focused on "black people . . . talking to black people."

In 1953, Morrison began graduate work at Cornell University. Two years later, she received a master's degree in English, with a minor in classics. As part of her degree requirements, she wrote her thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

From 1955 to 1957, Morrison taught humanities and English at Texas Southern State University in Houston. In 1957, she returned to Washington, D.C., to teach English at Howard University, and a year later, she met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect. Stifled by her marriage, she discovered that writing enabled her to cope with depression and isolation: "I had nothing left but my imagination. 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." Consequently, she joined a writer's workshop and began developing a short story about a black girl's obsession with blue eyes, which eventually became her first novel, The Bluest Eye.

In 1964, following a family trip to Europe, Morrison left Howard University, divorced her husband, and moved back to Lorain with her two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. A year later, in 1965, she moved her children to Syracuse, New York, where she worked as a textbook editor for Random House. In 1967, she was promoted to senior editor, a position that enabled her to help publish the works of several African-American authors, including Andrew Young, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Angela Davis.

In 1970 — while working as a full-time editor, teaching part-time, and raising her two sons — Morrison completed The Bluest Eye, which depicts the psychological destruction of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who idealizes white standards of female beauty. In 1971, Morrison returned to the classroom as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the State University of New York in Purchase; she continued to write. In 1973, she completed her second novel, Sula, which would be nominated for the National Book Award in 1975. In Sula, Morrison established a theme that would pervade each of her subsequent works: the secret, mystical world of the black woman living in a pariah community.

Morrison's editorial position at Random House enabled her to work on The Black Book, a project that would provide a wealth of material for her later writing and profoundly influence her approach to literature. Published in 1974, The Black Book is a collection of African-American memorabilia that spans three centuries of black history, from slavery to the 1940s. It contains newspaper clippings, bills of sale, sheet music, announcements of slave auctions, invitations to "rent parties," letters, graphic photographs, sports files, patents granted to African Americans, and other memorabilia gathered from the scrapbooks and attics of its editors and other supporters. Although her name does not appear on the book, Morrison conceived The Black Book as a tribute to "the anonymous black man." In explaining her desire to publish the book, Morrison says that she wanted to create a genuine black-history book that "simply recollected life as lived" and celebrated the common, collective achievements and experiences of black people.

The publication of Morrison's third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), which focuses on the quest for cultural identity, heralded the public's recognition of her as a serious author. The mythic folktale evolved from Morrison's grief over her father's death. Song of Solomon was awarded the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Eighteen years later, in 1996, it soared to the number one position on national bestseller lists when it was announced as a featured novel of Oprah Winfrey's book club.

In 1981, Morrison published her fourth novel, Tar Baby, an allegorical fable about colonialism, commitment, and black identity, based on white folklorist Joel Chandler Harris' "Uncle Remus" story. Morrison imposes her own interpretations on the original story, which, she recalls, frightened her as a child. Consequently, the tar baby in her novel — a beautiful, light-skinned model named Jadine — is "the black woman who can hold things together."

Seven years later, in 1988, Morrison published her next novel, Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Based on the life of Margaret Garner, an escaped Kentucky slave, Beloved tells the harrowing story of a mother who kills her infant daughter rather than see her enslaved; she is forced to come to terms with her desperate act when, twenty years later, the dead daughter's ghost returns to haunt her and demands an explanation for her murder. In preparation for the book, Morrison researched the shameful history of the institution of slavery and found that no memorials existed to mark that history. She decided that her book would provide such a memorial.

Morrison's sixth novel, Jazz, published in 1992, explores the relationship between Joe and Violet Trace, a middle-aged couple who find their way back to each other after the husband has a tragic affair with an eighteen-year-old girl. Set in Harlem during the 1930s, the novel unfolds as a series of scenes, or jazz "riffs."

Morrison followed Jazz with Paradise. Published in January 1998, Paradise completes the trilogy that includes Beloved and Jazz. Set in the 1970s, it tells the story of four young women who are brutally attacked in a convent near Ruby, Oklahoma, a fictional town populated exclusively by African Americans. In writing the novel, Morrison says that she wanted to understand "the love of God and love for fellow human beings."

Career Highlights

In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African-American writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The prestigious honor, which marks the crowning achievement of Morrison's literary career, was another in a series of "firsts" in her distinguished career. In 1977, Morrison's third novel, Song of Solomon, was chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which had not selected a novel written by a black author since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940. And in 1981, Morrison became the first African-American woman since Zora Neale Hurston in 1943 to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

Morrison has held teaching posts at Yale, Bard College, and Rutgers, among others. She held the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at the State University of New York for six years. In 1990, she delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Massey Lectures at Harvard. In addition to receiving honorary degrees from many prestigious institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Sarah Lawrence, and Brown, she is the recipient of numerous awards: She was named Distinguished Writer of 1978 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in 1980, she was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by former President Carter; the following year, in 1981, she was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Writer's Guild, and the Author's League. In 1988, she was named as a member of the Helsinki Watch Committee and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her fourth novel, Beloved. And in 1989, she won the Modern Language Association of America's Commonwealth Award in Literature. That same year, she accepted the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Council at Princeton University, where she holds a joint appointment in African studies, creative writing, and women's studies.

Renowned for her detailed imagery and visual language, her powerful metaphors, her "righting" of black history, and her inimitable gift of fusing fantasy and reality, Morrison, in addition to her novels, is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including a landmark essay, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), a book of literary criticism that explores the way white authors deliberately and systematically exclude blacks from their works. She is also the author of a play, Dreaming Emmett, which focuses on the murder of a black urban youth who travels to Mississippi in 1955, and a song cycle, "Honey and Rue," which won the New York State Governor's Art Award in 1986. She is the editor of several books, including Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, a collection of essays on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy, and Birth of a Nation'hood.

In her multiple roles as writer, editor, educator, scholar, parent, and activist, Morrison has consistently demonstrated her commitment to black literature and culture. Speaking of her concern for black people, who provide the catalyst for her art and activism, she has said, "If anything I do, in the way of writing novels or whatever I write, isn't about the village or the community or about you, then it isn't about anything. I am not interested in indulging myself in some private exercise of my imagination."