- Born: Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, OH on February 18, 1931
Started life in a middle class Ohio family. During her youth was influenced by her Father’s story-telling of black folklore. Earned her undergraduate degree from Howard University (1953), proceeded to earn a Master of Arts in English from Cornell (1955).
Early life and career
In 1949 Morrison entered Howard University, where she received a B.A. in English in 1953. She then earned a Master of Arts degree in English from Cornell University in 1955, for which she wrote a thesis on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. After graduation, Morrison became an English instructor at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas (1955–57), then returned to Howard to teach English. She became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect and fellow faculty member at Howard University. They had two children, Harold and Slade, and divorced in 1964. After the divorce she moved to Syracuse, New York, where she worked as a textbook editor. A year and a half later she went to work as an editor at the New York City headquarters of Random House.
As an editor Morrison played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream, editing books by authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones.
Toni Morrison at the Miami Book Fair International of 1986 – Morrison began writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University who met to discuss their work. She went to one meeting with a short story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. The story later evolved into her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), which she wrote while raising two children and teaching at Howard. In 2000 it was chosen as a selection for Oprah’s Book Club.
In 1975 her novel Sula (1973) was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), brought her national attention. The book was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the first novel by a black writer to be so chosen since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1940. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 1987 Morrison’s novel Beloved became a critical success. When the novel failed to win the National Book Award as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award, a number of writers protested over the omission. Shortly afterward, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award. Beloved was adapted into the 1998 film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Morrison later used Margaret Garner’s life story again in an opera, Margaret Garner, with music by Richard Danielpour. In May 2006, The New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best American novel published in the previous twenty-five years.
In 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her citation reads: Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” Shortly afterwards, a fire destroyed her Rockland County, New York home.
In 1996 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Morrison’s lecture, entitled “The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations,”began with the aphorism, “Time, it seems, has no future,” and cautioned against misuse of history to diminish expectations of the future.
Morrison was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which is awarded to a writer “who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work.”
Although her novels typically concentrate on black women, Morrison does not identify her works as feminist. She has stated that she thinks “it’s off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I’m involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don’t subscribe to patriarchy, and I don’t think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it’s a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.”
In addition to her novels, Morrison has also co-written books for children with her younger son, Slade Morrison, who works as a painter and musician. Slade 45, died on December 22, 2010.
Morrison taught English at two branches of the State University of New York. In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University at Albany, The State University of New York. From 1989 until her retirement in 2006, Morrison held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University.
Though based in the Creative Writing Program, Morrison did not regularly offer writing workshops to students after the late 1990s, a fact that earned her some criticism. Rather, she has conceived and developed the prestigious Princeton Atelier, a program that brings together talented students with critically acclaimed, world-famous artists. Together the students and the artists produce works of art that are presented to the public after a semester of collaboration. In her position at Princeton, Morrison used her insights to encourage not merely new and emerging writers, but artists working to develop new forms of art through interdisciplinary play and cooperation.
At its 1979 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded her its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. Oxford University awarded her an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in June 2005.
In November 2006, Morrison visited the Louvre Museum in Paris as the second in its “Grand Invité” program to guest-curate a month-long series of events across the arts on the theme of “The Foreigner’s Home.” Inspired by her curatorship, Morrison returned to Princeton in Fall 2008 to lead a small seminar, also entitled “The Foreigner’s Home.”
In May 2010, Morrison appeared at PEN World Voices for a conversation with Marlene van Niekerk and Kwame Anthony Appiah about South African literature, and specifically, van Niekerk’s novel, Agaat.
She is currently a member of the editorial board of The Nation magazine.
In writing about the impeachment in 1998, Morrison wrote that, since Whitewater, Bill Clinton had been mistreated because of his “Blackness”:
Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.
The phrase “our first Black president” was adopted as a positive by Bill Clinton supporters. When the Congressional Black Caucus honored the former president at its dinner in Washington D.C. on September 29, 2001, for instance, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the chair, told the audience that Clinton “took so many initiatives he made us think for a while we had elected the first black president.”
In the context of the 2008 Democratic Primary campaign, Morrison stated to Time magazine: “People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.” In the Democratic primary contest for the 2008 presidential race, Morrison endorsed Senator Barack Obama over Senator Hillary Clinton, though expressing admiration and respect for the latter.
- Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988)
- Nobel Peace Prize in Literature (1993)
Sources: Wikipedia, distinguishedwomen.com