An acclaimed novelist and literary critic, Toni Morrison is dedicated to exploring and exposing the black experience. She is also the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Toni, whose given name was actually Chloe Anthony Woodward, was born in Lorain, Ohio, on 18 February 1931. She was raised in an integrated neighborhood, a rarity in America during that time. As such, her experiences growing up were very different from that of many other African-American children raised in America prior to the Civil Rights Movement.
“When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child who could read.”
Despite growing up in an integrated community, black culture was an integral part of Toni’s upbringing. While it’s true that Toni grew up reading works by Austen, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, she also grew up surrounded by African-American storytelling and folklore. Her father, a welder who often worked multiple jobs in order to support their family, would tell her stories steeped in African-American tradition, and these stories went on to have a tremendous impact on her work.
Toni was bright, graduating from Lorain High School with honors, after which time she went on to attend Howard University, a historically black college in Washington DC. At Howard, she majored in English and minored in Classics before going on to Cornell University, where she earned her masters degree in 1955.
After graduating from Cornell, Toni worked briefly as a teacher at Texas Southern University before returning to Howard, where she taught English from 1957 to 1964. During that time, she met Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect. The two fell in love and were married a short time later, and in 1961, she gave birth to their first child. However, the marriage was short-lived, and in 1963, Toni made the decision to leave her husband, despite the fact that she was pregnant with their second child.
Toni moved back to Ohio to have the baby, but she relocated to New York shortly after he was born. She began working as senior editor at a publishing house in Syracuse before moving on to work at Random House. During this time, she also began working on her first novel, The Bluest Eye, a book she’s described as the one she always wanted to read but couldn’t because it didn’t exist. Writing a book is a massive undertaking, particularly when you’re a working, single mother of 2, but Toni wasn’t about to let that stop her. Instead, she got up every morning at 4am and carefully crafted the story of Pecola, a young, African-American girl who desperately longs for blue eyes. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 and marked the beginning of Toni’s long, prolific writing career.
“… being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it.”
Over the next 17 years, Toni wrote four more novels, all dealing with various aspects of the black experience in America. Sula was published in 1973, Song of Solomon followed in 1977, and in 1981, she released Tar Baby. All three garnered critical acclaim and raised her profile as a writer, but it was Beloved, published in 1987, that really cemented her position as one of America’s most important literary voices.
“Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours… tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.”
Beloved, which was loosely based on true events, tells the story of Sethe. Sethe was enslaved in the American south, but she, and her children, managed to escape the horrors of slavery and flee to the North. However, their freedom was short-lived, as a group of slave hunters found them in Ohio less than a month after their escape. Unable to watch her daughter suffer the same way she did, Sethe kills her 2-year-old baby girl in an effort to save her from a life spent as a slave. That decision haunts her, both literally and figuratively, throughout the novel.
Beloved garnered tremendous critical acclaim and won her the respect of her fellow writers. In fact, when the National Book Award for that year was announced, and the winner wasn’t Beloved, forty-eight African-American writers signed a letter of protest, which was ultimately published in The New York Times. While it may not have won the National Book Award, Beloved did go on to win a number of prestigious honors, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Two years after the publication of Beloved, Toni began working at Princeton University, where she spent the next seventeen years helping aspiring writers grow and develop. During that time, she continued writing novels, producing important essays and works of literary criticism, and winning awards for her work, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. She retired from teaching in 2006, but she continues to write. In the time since her retirement, she has completed several additional books (both fiction and non-fiction), and she has continued to be recognized for the importance of her work with a number of awards, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.