Toni Morrison: Black Life Story Writer
The career of the Nobel Prize winner highlights the African-American presence in life and literature
Telling about the lives of black people in the United States of America was Toni Morrison's professional mission. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature fulfilled it in many ways over the course of her impressive career1. As a gifted fiction writer, she created imaginative novels that portrayed the harrowing experiences of blacks in a society dominated by whites. As a dedicated university professor, she gave insightful lectures that analyzed the stereotypical roles of colored people in American literature. As an ambitious editor, she published fascinating books that revealed the wide variety of African-American culture. As a critical intellectual, she wrote perceptive essays that explored the historical reasons for the economic exploitation, legal discrimination and political oppression of the black minority.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931. She grew up the second of four children in a destitute working-class family in Lorain, Ohio. At the time, the industrial town on Lake Erie had a population of about 45,000, and the colored community was well integrated. The local U.S. Steel mill offered George Wofford, an immigrant from Georgia, employment as a welder, while Ella Ramah Willis, a native of Alabama, managed the household. Even though the family was forced to move several times for lack of money, a cheerful mood prevailed in the Wofford household. At home, the daughter listened enthusiastically to her father's stories and her mother's songs, and in the town library she read the European classics attentively. As a schoolgirl, she was active in the debate and drama clubs and was part of the newspaper and yearbook editorial staff. At the age of 12, she converted to Catholicism and took the baptismal name Antony.
After graduating from high school in 1949, Toni Morrison went to study at Howard University in Washington, D.C. At this conservative institution for young African-Americans, she majored in English and minored in Classics. In her spare time, she was a member of the student theater troupe, with which she toured extensively throughout the American South. With the aim of escaping the black colorism on campus and the white racism in the capital, she transferred to the prestigious Cornell University, New York, in 1953. There and then she studied the works of the Western literary canon because the curricula did not permit study of other narrative traditions. An essay she proposed on the black characters in Shakespeare's plays met with fierce rejection, so she wrote her thesis on alienation in the novels of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and William Faulkner (1897-1962). As if to draw a line under her university education, she henceforth called herself Toni.
From 1955 to 1964 Toni Morrison was working as an English lecturer. Initially, she taught at Texas Southern University in Houston, where she first encountered a vibrant black culture. She enjoyed reading a variety of African-American newspapers and attending academic events on the history of colored people. She later taught at Howard University, where she attended regular meetings of a group of radical black writers2 who also encouraged her to author literary texts and recite from them. In 1958 she married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison (1932-2016), from whom she separated shortly after the birth of her sons, Harold Ford (b. 1961) and Kevin Slade (1965-2010). Those years were an eventful time, with the numerous protests of the black civil rights movement led by Malcom X (1925-1965) and Martin Luther King (1929-1968) raising Morrison's political awareness of her African-American identity.
A new phase in her life began in 1964, when Toni Morrison accepted a full-time position as an editor with the textbook publisher L.W.Singer in Syracuse, New York. In addition to her demanding work in the office, she made an effort to raise her children and run the household. At night, she remade an earlier story into her first novel, in which a black girl loses her mind over her wish to achieve the white ideal of beauty. By the time The Bluest Eye (1970) finally appeared in 2,000 copies with Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Morrison had moved to New York to take up work as an editor at Random House. In the era of Black Power activism, she made significant contributions to African American literature by publishing the novels of Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995) and Gayl Jones (b. 1949), the poetry of Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) and June Jordan (1936-2002), and the autobiographies of Angela Davis (b. 1944) and Muhammad Ali (1942-2016). What is more, she saw to the publication of such remarkable text and image anthologies as The Black Book (1974) and The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978).
In the 1970s and 1980s Toni Morrison achieved literary and academic success. With Sula (1973), she wrote a novel about the failed friendship of two women of color, which earned her the National Book Award. In Song of Solomon (1977), she told a family story against the backdrop of a militant black secret organization, which led to the bestowal of the National Book Critics Circle Award. In Tar Baby (1981), she reshaped a West-African folk narrative into an African-American Bildungsroman, for which she was admitted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In parallel with her writing, Morrison pursued a university career. Beginning in 1971, she taught at the State University of New York, Rutgers University, Yale University, and Bard College. She held the Albert Schweitzer Professorship at the State University of New York from 1984 to 1989, and the Robert Goheen Professorship at Princeton University from 1989 to 2006. Her literary scholarship found its way into the volumes Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) and The Origins of Others (2017).
With the publication of a loose trilogy of novels3, Toni Morrison made it to the top of the international literary world. She took the basic idea for Beloved (1987) from a historical newspaper report about a fugitive slave and child murderer in Cincinnati, Ohio4. In Morrison's postmodern fictionalization, it became a revenant story in the time before the American Civil War5. Full of powerful imagery and poetic language, the novel was awarded prestigious prizes such as the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Morrison was able to seamlessly follow up this brilliant success with Jazz (1992). In it, she used the expressive forms of the rhythmic music for the literary depiction of a violent death in interwar Harlem. Even before Paradise (1998) unfolded the destructive forces in an African-American settlement at the beginning of the 1970s, she was the first black writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 19936.
In the years that followed, Toni Morrison's life continued to be marked by enormous intellectual and creative activity. After the essay collection Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power (1992), she edited critical essays on the controversial O.J.Simpson (b. 1947) case entitled Birth of a Nation'hood (1998). To mark the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling against segregation in public schools, she published Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004) and, as part of a worldwide anti-censorship campaign conducted by PEN International, Burn This Book (2009). A prominent voice of American liberalism, she advocated minority rights and supported Democratic presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Besides co-authoring three children´s books with her younger son, Morrison penned the text for the opera Margaret Garner, which premiered in Cincinnati in 2005, and the play Desdemona, first shown in Vienna in 2011. In her last four novels she once again proved herself an imaginative writer of black life stories7. While A Mercy (2008) unfolds the sorrowful existence of a slave woman in colonial America, Love (2003), Home (2012) and God Help the Child (2015) reveal the distressing experiences of colored people in modern America
Toni Morrison was widely recognized for her extensive body of work during her lifetime. She received honorary doctorates from Oxford University, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Geneva. She was awarded the National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (1996), the Premio Ginzane Cavour Special Award (2001), and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction (2016). She was overwhelmed with joy when she received the Order of Merit of the French Legion of Honor (2010) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012). In 1995, a reading room at the Lorain Public Library and in 2017, a building on the Princeton University campus were named after her. On August 5, 2019, the author died of pneumonia in New York at the age of 88. Almost two years later, on the occasion of her 90th birthday in 2021, Ohio celebrated its first official Toni Morrison Day8.
1 In an interview for The New Yorker, Morrison made the following statement: “I really only do one thing. I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It´s one job.” (Als, 64).
2 Among the young men that Morrison encountered in the reading group were Claude Brown (1937-2002) and Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998). The former is commonly known for his autobiographical novel Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), the latter for his black power activism.
3 With reference to her trilogy, Wagner-Martin has remarked that “Morrison creates in Beloved, Jazz and Paradise a triptych of past ages of African American life” (128).
4 Regarding Morrison´s 1987 novel as her master piece, Buell has even claimed that “Beloved is likely to stand for some time to come among all Morrison novels as the likeliest Great American Novel candidate” (317).
5 Gray has argued that “Beloved is an extraordinary mix of narrative genre. It has elements of realism, the Gothic and African American folklore. It is a slave narrative that internalizes slavery and its consequences. It is a historical novel that insists on history as story, active rehearsal and reinvention of the past. It weaves its way between the vernacular and charged lyricism, the material and the magical, as it emphasizes the centrality of the black, and in particular black female, experience” (693).
6 The Swedish Academy stated in their motivation that the Nobel Prize for Literature 1993 was awarded to Toni Morrison “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”.
7 Li has pointed out that “for Morrison, storytelling and the process of writing are ways to explore the central challenges of human existence—how individuals both flourish and hurt one another, how oppression operates, how communities sustain generations” (XIII).
8 Legislation to proclaim February 18 as Toni Morrison Day was passed by the Ohio House of Representatives on December 2, 2020, and signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine on December 21, 2020.