Morrison, Toni (1931—)
Morrison, Toni (1931—)
Major contemporary African-American novelist whose writing is a means of reclaiming her people's past. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio; daughter of George Wofford (who migrated from Georgia) and Rahmah Willis Wofford (who grew up alternately in Birmingham, Alabama, and Kentucky, before following her husband to Lorain, Ohio, in search of work and a better life for their family); graduated B.A. in English with a minor in the classics from Howard University; M.A. in English from Cornell University; married Harold Morrison (a Jamaican architect), in 1958 (divorced 1964); children: two sons, Harold Ford Morrison and Slade Kevin Morrison.
National Book Critics Circle Award (1977); Distinguished Writer of 1978 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters; appointed by President Carter to the National Council on the Arts (1980); elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Writer's Guild and Author's League (1981); Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1988); Robert F. Kennedy Award and Melcher Book Award from the Unitarian Universalist Association (1988) for Beloved; Modern Language Association of America's Commonwealth Award in Literature (1989); Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore International Award in Literature (1990); Nobel Prize for Literature (1993).
Grew up poor in the midwestern steel town of Lorain, Ohio; after graduating from Lorain High School (1949), went to Washington, D.C., to earn bachelor's degree in English from Howard University; received an M.A. from Cornell University (1955) and began a career as a professor, first at Texas Southern University and then at Howard, her undergraduate alma mater; left teaching post at Howard (1965), and began working as a textbook editor for Random House in Syracuse, N.Y.; moved to New York City (1967) to become a senior editor, publishing the work of other African-American writers; continued adjunct university teaching alternately at Yale, Bard College and S.U.N.Y. at Purchase; published her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), followed by Sula (1973); Song of Solomon became a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club before winning the National Book Critics Circle Award (1977); critical acclaim of her work grew steadily, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters named her Distinguished Writer (1978); left N.Y.C. to live on a house boat on the Hudson River (1979); after publication of Tar Baby (1981) was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; that same year, made the cover of Newsweek, the first African-American woman to do so since writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston in 1943; ended her career in publishing (1984) when she accepted the Albert Schweitzer Professorship of theHumanities at SUNY at Albany; published most highly acclaimed novel to date, Beloved (1987), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; accepted a professorship in the Humanities at Princeton University (1989) in African-American studies and creative writing; Jazz and first book of essays, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, made The New York Times' bestseller list (1992); won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993); published Paradise (1998); published children's book, The Big Box (1999).
The Bluest Eye (NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970); Sula (NY: Knopf, 1973); Song of Solomon (NY: Knopf, 1977); Tar Baby (NY: Knopf, 1981); Beloved (NY: Knopf, 1987); Jazz (NY: Knopf, 1992); Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Raceing Justice, Engendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (editor, NY: Pantheon Books, 1992); Toni Morrison: The Nobel Lecture in Literature (NY: Knopf, 1994); Paradise (NY: Knopf, 1998); (children's book) The Big Box (Jump at the Sun, 1999). Her lyrics to the 1983 musical, New Orleans, performed at New York's Public Theater; her script for Dreaming Emmett, produced by the Capital Repertory Company of Albany; her lyrics to Honey and Rue, song cycle performed by Kathleen Battle in 1993.
The first African-American to bring home the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, distinguished writer, editor and teacher as well as working mother, Toni Morrison has a literary career as stellar as it is short. She did not even begin writing fiction until middle age, having already established herself as a well-credentialed academic with a promising career in teaching and the editorial field. The prizes came steadily and from the first, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Distinguished Writer Award for that same year, following the success of her third novel Song of Solomon. In 1988, for her fifth novel, Beloved, she garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and the Melcher Book Award from the Unitarian Universalist Association. Her achievement was even more remarkable in light of her background as a child of the Depression and of the working poor, only one generation removed from her sharecropper grandparents on her mother's side.
She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, the second of four children, on February 18, 1931, on the "wrong side of the tracks" in the industrial midwestern town of Lorain, Ohio. Both her parents claimed southern lineage, choosing to escape the deep-rooted racism of the region that threatened their family. Her father George Wofford, who died before her third novel Song of Solomon appeared in 1977, grew up in Georgia. He left behind the race-torn state but not without a hardened hostility toward whites. His hatred developed into the view that whites were inferior to blacks. A hard-working family man who found gainful employ as a shipyard welder, Wofford reportedly worked three jobs to help his second born, Chloe, attend college. The second daughter and a sister to two younger brothers, Morrison distinguished herself by being the first to acquire a college education in her family. Her mother Rahmah Wofford , a positive and vital force in the tightly knit African-American community, involved herself in the church and community clubs. Morrison told Betty Fussell that her mother sang opera and jazz around the house and played piano at the silent movie houses.
Rahmah was the daughter of Solomon and Adelia Willis , poor Alabama sharecroppers who, under the influence of Christian mythology, drew their daughter's name from the Old Testament of the Bible. Toni Morrison looked to her grandmother Adelia as a model, as she told interviewer Nellie McKay , because she had the strength to leave "her home in the south with seven children and thirty dollars because she feared white sexual violence against her maturing daughters." In addition to the Christian influence, yet another kind of mysticism was at work in grandmother Adelia's use of a dream book to gamble when "playing the numbers." Adelia was also a midwife, Morrison reported to McKay, and people came from miles away seeking her care and advice. Grandfather Solomon, his sharecropper days behind him, became a carpenter and played the violin. Unlike her mother's family, Morrison's paternal grandparents were not as influential in her development, having died before she had the opportunity to know them.
In interviews, Morrison has spoken lovingly and admiringly of her richly eccentric and supportive family and black community. According to critic Wilfred Samuels, "This familial background, with an ambiance of historical and social consciousness, mysticism, master craftsmanship, and a love of excellence and work, helped to fashion Toni Morrison the artist." Her parents not only survived the Depression, racism, poverty and, briefly, a stint on welfare, but passed on to her the African-American oral tradition of storytelling. Threads of Morrison's own narrative style may be traced back to those ghost stories charged with the mystical and the magical, particularly those narrated by her father. Her mother completed high school but her father lacked the benefits of a formal education. Nevertheless, both George and Rahmah Wofford encouraged their bright daughter to read from an early age, thus preparing her for a successful career in language, in both the distinctive oral tradition of her culture and the language of education. Morrison admitted to feeling "anonymous" in the middle-child position, with "no pride of place," according to interviewer Dana Micucci , stressing her early and avid interest in reading. Through her literary achievement, Morrison has obviously since forged her own outstanding place of pride.
Forthcoming and opinionated in her views on racial politics and literary aesthetics, Toni Morrison has remained guarded in matters concerning her private life. Her taciturnity, compounded by the absence of any biography, authorized or unauthorized, renders any biography meager and limited to information made public through interviews with the author herself. But shades of Morrison's growing up years may also be detected in her fiction. In her earliest novel The Bluest Eye, for example, we meet a community of poor blacks suffering the debilitating effects of poverty and racism with their survival instincts intact; all, that is, save for the tragic little black girl who mistook her imagined blue eyes for reality and salvation. In an interview with Charles Ruas, Morrison reported having based Pecola on a childhood friend who abandoned her belief in God because he did not grant her cherished blue eyes. In an exchange with Robert Stepto for the Massachusetts Review, Morrison admitted to relying heavily on her memory of the past as fodder for her fictional world and characters.
The bits and pieces of Morrison's cherished African-American community of characters from her past ring as true as the sense of place in her work—the small midwestern town flavor spiced by the omnipresent hatred of absent whites. Instead of longing for acceptance into the dominant white group, Morrison, like her fictional child-character Claudia, turned to the communal language, rituals and sustenance of her own people. In a New York Times interview with Colette Dowling , in fact, Morrison confessed to her kinship with Claudia who mistrusts the Shirley Temple idol, having herself "eschewed the plastic celebrities of white culture." Quite likely, her father's separatist views helped form Morrison's own. In the same article, she described herself in childhood as an avid reader who, encouraged by her teachers, excelled in school and was inducted into the National Honor Society.
Her post-high school years, beginning in 1949, saw Morrison leaving the midwest to attend Howard University in the Northeast, where she continued her early scholastic success. At this time, she also changed the difficult-to-pronounce Chloe to Toni and nurtured an interest in the theater, through which she became further acquainted with her African-American heritage. Despite her academic and personal advancement, Morrison has expressed longing for her people and roots necessarily left behind in Ohio. She told Dowling that she returns to that place and her past continually in her writing, because in order for black people to succeed "in this culture, they must always leave. There's a terrible price to pay. … Once you leave home, the things that feed you are not available to you anymore. … And the American life, the white life, that's certainly not available to you. So you really have to cut yourself off. Still, I can remember that world. I can savor it. I can write about it."
With her family's ongoing support, however, she pursued the academic and literary career that took her far from her modest beginnings. Her father worked several jobs at a time and her mother, whom Morrison held as a model alongside her grandmother, undertook "humiliating jobs" to help support her through graduate school. Apart from her involvement at Howard with the University Players Theater group, Morrison apparently attended assiduously to her school work, earning a B.A. in English with a minor in classics in 1953.
From Howard, she went directly to Cornell University, earning an M.A. in English literature, only to return to a teaching post at her under-graduate alma mater two years later. By 1958, she had embarked on a career, and a marriage to Harold Morrison, an architect of Jamaican descent. Morrison has divulged little about the six-year marriage that she ended following a family trip to Europe in 1964, but by that time she had given birth to Harold Ford (1961) and then returned home to Lorain where her second son, Slade Kevin, was born (1964).
The mid-1960s seem to have been a time of soul-searching for Morrison who remained in her hometown for a year or so. Certainly, at least, she was re-evaluating her career, and by 1965 she had relocated to Syracuse, New York, her two young sons in tow, to accept a position as a textbook editor with L.W. Singer, a division
of Random House. Morrison did not see herself as a writer at this time, although she had joined a writer's group while teaching at Howard. It was in this group and at the start of her third decade that she wrote the short story that would later evolve into her groundbreaking novel, The Bluest Eye. In several interviews, Morrison claimed to have written the story out of a desire to read an authentic rendering of her people, and was surprised later to find then little-known works of Zora Neale Hurston , whom Morrison came to admire. Indeed, a budding writer herself, Morrison used her editorial position to help other African-Americans get on to the literary map, publishing the work of such writers as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones . But by this time, 1968, Random House had promoted Morrison to senior editor, which required another move, this time to New York City, the hub of the publishing industry. There, she balanced the work and family responsibilities of a single parent, simultaneously concentrating on her manuscript of the little black girl who craved blue eyes and white acceptance. In interviews, Morrison has characterized this period as a lonely one, and her writing seemed to provide her with an avenue for self-exploration and interior dialogue. She never planned on being a writer, she told Jane Bakerman , but she was isolated and without anyone to talk to: "And then, after I had published, it was sort of a compulsive thing because it was a way of knowing, a way of thinking that I found really necessary." Holt published The Bluest Eye in 1970, marking the birth of a promising literary star.
I know I can't change the future but I can change the past. It is the past, not the future, which is infinite.
A fledgling writer and a well-established editor by 1971, Morrison had also managed to reignite her teaching career. After a brief stint at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase, she also taught at Yale (1976–78). By this time, however, she was a novelist whose star was on the rise, particularly after her second novel, Sula (1973), proved even more successful than her first. The accolades began arriving following her third critically acclaimed novel, Song of Solomon, which was published by Knopf in 1977. After making it on the Book-of-the-Month selection list, Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Richard Wright's Native Son was the only other book by an African-American writer to be named to the list, a fact which testifies to Morrison's growing impact and appeal. The striking verisimilitude of her fictional world combined with her lyrical language had struck a chord. Toni Morrison would never again wonder if she were a writer.
By this time, she was living outside the city in Rockland County, New York, commuting to her office and juggling her editorial responsibilities with her fiction writing and occasional teaching. She has said that she worked on her writing in the evenings and when her children were sleeping, an amazing accomplishment for any mother let alone a working one. Her children, who had attended United Nations International School in the city, were later transferred to public school in Spring Valley. Morrison, a conscientious mother, arranged her schedule around theirs, and taxied them to and from school. Her responsibilities mounted with the growing success of her work, and she managed the increased publicity and demands by shielding her time from social events and expectations and devoting herself to her work.
Her fourth novel Tar Baby came out in 1981, the year she was featured on the cover of Newsweek. By 1983, she was trying her hand in the theater with New Orleans, a musical for which she wrote the lyrics that went into limited production in New York, starring Odetta . Dreaming Emmett was produced in 1986 and marked her next and more serious attempt at playwriting. Commissioned by the New York State Writers Institute, it won the New York Governor's State Award. Morrison based the play on a historical account of a 14-year-old black boy who was beaten and killed in 1955 by a group of whites, allegedly for whistling at a white girl. The killers escaped unpunished, and Morrison's complex rendering of the story has the young boy returning to life to seek revenge. She saw his character as a representation of contemporary black youth and the violence that has become a way of life for them. The play extended Morrison's deep and abiding concern for her people, not as white people see them but as they see and understand themselves: "Black people have a story, and that story has to be heard."
After nearly 20 years in publishing, Morrison resigned in 1984 and accepted a professorship in the humanities at SUNY Albany, where she worked on Dreaming Emmett. This move obviously freed her to devote herself more to her own writing, while providing a steady income. During this period, she completed her most critically acclaimed novel to date, Beloved (1987), which won the Pulitzer Prize for that year and cinched her reputation as a heavyweight in the world of American letters. A story about a slave who kills her daughter rather than have her suffer at the hands of the white oppressor, Beloved sent shock waves through the reading world. Morrison reportedly spent two years thinking about the book and three years actually writing it. The intense and powerful novel touched on her vision of blacks reclaiming their past, accepting personal responsibility and finding acceptance in their community or "village." Though it was her most difficult book to write emotionally because of its painfully tragic content, Morrison remarked that if slaves could live it, no matter how difficult or heart-wrenching, she could write it. Perhaps, too, Beloved was Morrison's way of paying tribute to her mother and grandmother and all the black mothers before them who served as both "safe harbor and ship" and toward whom she felt a strong responsibility.
In 1989, Morrison left Albany to accept a joint appointment in African-American studies and creative writing at Princeton University. Three years later, she saw her sixth novel, Jazz, published, along with a book of essays she both edited and introduced, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Both made it to The New York Times bestseller list and helped solidify Morrison's reputation as a novelist with definite views on the aesthetics governing the work of black writers. Keenly attentive to racial politics, Morrison also edited Raceing Justice, Engendering Power, an anthology of essays on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy. In 1993, she wrote the lyrics to a song cycle called Honey and Rue to the music of Andre Previn which was performed by opera diva Kathleen Battle . That same year, Toni Morrison made history as the first African-American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, the crowning achievement to nearly 25 years of creative work.
A powerful voice, an astonishing creative genius, and an astute mind characterize the public figure and writer known as Toni Morrison. The person who grew more elusive with fame, however, prefers to see herself as "a morally responsible human being," and that involves a "private struggle." Two abiding concerns seem to drive her moral responsibility: that which she owes to her children, and that which she owes as "role model for African-American women and for women in general." Both obligations hinge on how Morrison uses her writing for exploration and discovery.
In her remarks to the Swedish Academy members prior to her Nobel acceptance speech, Morrison narrated the story of the old blind woman being baited by a group of cynical young people. Holding a bird in their hands, they want to know if she could determine whether it is alive or dead. Likening the bird to language and the old woman to the writer, Morrison has the blind woman respond to the young people that she does not know if the bird is dead or alive, but she does know that the bird is in their hands. Like the old blind woman gifted with inner sight, Toni Morrison has used the gift of "language" to re-construct and reclaim her people's past—surely a glorious gift to pass on to one's children and community, and to the world at large.
Conversations with Toni Morrison. Edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.
Samuels, Wilfred D. Toni Morrison. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1990.
Toni Morrison: The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993. NY: Knopf, 1994.
Beloved (171 min. film), starring Oprah Winfrey , Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise , and Beah Richards , screenplay by Akosa Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks, directed by Jonathan Demme, 1998.
Paradise (audio with four cassettes, 6.5 hrs), read by Toni Morrison, Random House, 1998.
Kathleen A.Waites Lamm , Professor of English and Women's Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida