Toni Morrison is a world renewed author, essayist, lecturer, and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. Toni’s magnanimous writing skills have made her one of the most celebrated authors in modern history. Her novels capture the black American experience while examining its complexities in an unjust society. Her characters struggle to find themselves and their cultural identity, through the interweaving of poetic and fervent language. She was been awarded a number of literary distinctions, among them the Pulitzer Prize (1988) and the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature (1993).
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, she was the second of four children in a black working-class family that possessed an intense love and appreciation for black culture. Storytelling, songs, and folktales were deeply apart of her formative years. At an early age, she displayed an interest in literature.
When she was twelve years old, she converted to Catholicism, taking Anthony as her baptismal name, after St. Anthony. Her friends shortened it to Toni. In junior high, one of her teachers sent a note home to her mother: “You and your husband would be remiss in your duties if you do not see to it that this child goes to college.” Shortly before graduating from Lorain High School—where she was on the debating team, on the yearbook staff, and in the drama club —Toni told her parents that she’d like to go to college. “I want to be surrounded by black intellectuals,” she said, and chose Howard University, in Washington, D.C.
In 1949, after graduating from high school, she matriculated to the historically black Howard University, where she studied English, earning her B.A. in 1953. Then she attended Cornell University, earning her M.A. in 1955. She then moved to the Lone Star State to teach at Texas Southern University. After teaching for two years in Texas, she returned back to Howard University, where she met Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect. The couple soon married in 1958 and welcomed their first child, Harold, in 1961. She was pregnant with their second son when she and Harold divorced in 1964.
In 1965, she worked for Random House Publishing, where she became their first black woman senior editor in the fiction department. It was during this period of time she had begun writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University who met to discuss their work. She attended one meeting with a short story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. She later developed the story as her first novel, The Bluest Eye, getting up every morning at 4 am to write, while raising two children alone.
In 1970, at the age of thirty-nine, Toni published her first novel, The Bluest Eye. It took her five years to complete the book, because she enjoyed the process so much. Initially, the book did not sell well, but the City University of New York put the novel on its reading list for its new black-studies department, which helped to boost sales. Many other colleges then followed suit.
In 1975, Morrison’s second novel Sula (1973), about a friendship between two black women, was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), became a bestseller, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Tar Baby (1981), set on a Caribbean island, explores conflicts of race, class, and sex.
The critically acclaimed Beloved (1987),won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was based on the true story of a runaway slave who, at the point of recapture, kills her infant daughter in order to spare her a life of slavery. A film adaptation of the novel was released in 1998 and starred Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. In addition, Morrison wrote the libretto for Margaret Garner (2005), an opera about the same story that inspired Beloved.
In 1992 Morrison released Jazz, a story of violence and passion set in New York City’s Harlem during the 1920s. Subsequent novels were Paradise (1998), a richly detailed portrait of a black utopian community in Oklahoma, and Love (2003), an intricate family story that reveals the myriad facets of love and its seemly opposite. A Mercy (2008) examines slavery in 17th-century America. In the redemptive Home (2012), a post-traumatic Korean War veteran encounters racism after returning home and later overcomes apathy to rescue his sister from a nefarious doctor. In God Help the Child (2015), Morrison chronicled the ramifications of child abuse and neglect through the main character Bride, a black girl with dark skin who is born to light-skinned parents.
“In [Morrison’s] works, she strips away the idols of whiteness and of Blackness that have prevented Blacks in the United States from knowing themselves and gives them their own true, mythical, remembered words to live by. She takes on the whole culture and seeks to restore the mythos and the ethos that will clarify the meaning of the journey of African-Americans in the United States. She is healer and prophet; she is nurturer and guide; and because she achieves these tasks with such grace, such love, and such confidence, courage, and skill, Morrison holds an indelible position of prominence in African-American history and in the history of great writers throughout the world.” – Carolyn Denard
Toni has earned a plethora of honorary degrees and and accolades. In 2010 Morrison was made an officer of the French Legion of Honour. In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama presented her with the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 2019, Toni passed away at a hospital in New York. She was 88 years old.
The Bluest Eye
Song of Solomon
|God Help the Child||
1977: National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon
1977: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award
1987–88: Robert F. Kennedy Book Award
1988: Helmerich Award
1988: American Book Award for Beloved
1988: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations for Beloved
1988: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Beloved
1988: Frederic G. Melcher Book Award for Beloved. A remark in her acceptance speech that “there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” honoring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States; “There’s no small bench by the road,” led the Toni Morrison Society to begin installing benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America; the first “bench by the road” was dedicated July 26, 2008, on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, the point of entry for about 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to British North America.
1989: MLA Commonwealth Award in Literature
1989: Honorary Doctor of Letters at Harvard University
1993: Nobel Prize for Literature
1993: Commander of the Arts and Letters, Paris
1994: Condorcet Medal, Paris
1994: Rhegium Julii Prize for Literature
1996: Jefferson Lecture
1996: National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
2000: National Humanities Medal
2002: 100 Greatest African Americans, list by Molefi Kete Asante
2005: Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Oxford University
2008: New Jersey Hall of Fame inductee
2009: Norman Mailer Prize, Lifetime Achievement
2010: Officier de la Légion d’Honneur
2011: Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction
2011: Honorary Doctor of Letters at Rutgers University Graduation Commencement
2011: Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Geneva
2012: Presidential Medal of Freedom
2013: The Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal awarded by Vanderbilt University
2014 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award given by the National Book Critics Circle
2016 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction
2016 The Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry (The Norton Lectures), Harvard University
2016 The Edward MacDowell Medal, awarded by The MacDowell Colony
Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children (2008) – Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? The Lion or the Mouse? Poppy or the Snake?
“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
“I get angry about things, then go on and work.”
“Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorious art form.”
“I always looked upon the acts of racist exclusion, or insult, as pitiable, from the other person. I never absorbed that. I always thought that there was something deficient about such people.”
“When there is pain, there are no words. All pain is the same.”
“Somebody has to take responsibility for being a leader.”
“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
“As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.”
“Make a difference about something other than yourselves.”
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
“it was as though 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.”
The New Yorker
The Toni Morrison Society
Recreate Model: Jasmine Y. Mallory
Recreated Photograph: Kimberly Staples of Photos by KBS