Morrison, Toni (b. 1931), novelist, essayist, editor, short fiction writer, lecturer, educator, and Nobel Prize laureate. From “Quiet as it's kept,” the phrase that begins the narrative of The Bluest Eye(1970), her first novel, to “Look where your hands are. Now,” the final phrase of Jazz (1992), her sixth novel, Toni Morrison has distinguished herself as an author, editor, and critic who has transformed the American literary landscape with her presence in the African American literary tradition. When she won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy referred to her as one “who, in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” Indeed, in her Nobel lecture, delivered on 7 December 1993 in Stockholm, she eloquently demonstrated that the visionary force and poetic import of her novels reflect her worldview and understanding of how language shapes human reality. Through her own use of the spoken and written word, she has created new spaces for readers to bring both their imaginations and their intellects to the complex cultural, political, social, and historical issues of our time. Moreover, through her work as an editor and novelist, she has made it possible for the texts of both African American and feminist writers to reshape the contours of what we call American literature.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on 18 February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, the second of four children of Ramah Willis Wofford and George Wofford. Having grown up in a family of storytellers and musicians, she developed an early appreciation for language, folk wisdom, and literature. Formative influences in her life not only include listening to family history through the stories of her relatives, but growing up in an ethnically and racially diverse community whose coherence seemed to come from its identity as a poor steel town twenty-five miles west of Cleveland. Despite the sense of cooperation that class consciousness created in Lorain neighborhoods, Morrison learned from her parents that racial politics were a reality with which African Americans had to contend. She tells of her father's blatant hostility toward white people and her mother's somewhat optimistic belief that over time race relations in America would improve. It is no surprise, therefore, that her novels reflect both the pessimism that racism produces and the optimism that has empowered African American people to survive and thrive in spite of racism.
After graduating from Lorain High School, Morrison attended Howard University, where she earned a BA degree in 1953. While at Howard, where she changed her name from Chloe to Toni, she appeared in campus productions as a member of the Howard University Players, a campus theater company, and she toured the South with a faculty-and-student repertory troupe. From Howard she went on to Cornell University, where she earned an MA in English in 1955, with a thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. After working for two years as an instructor at Texas Southern University in Houston, she joined the faculty of Howard University where she taught in the English department from 1957 to 1964. A year after going to Howard to teach, she married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison, with whom she had two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. Morrison regarded the marriage as part of the stifling situation that led her to turn to writing for solace during the early 1960s. She joined a writers’ workshop and began work on a short story about a black girl who wanted blue eyes. This short story would later become her first novel, The Bluest Eye. In 1964 she resigned from her teaching post at Howard, divorced her husband, and returned with her two sons to her parents’ home in Lorain, where she stayed for eighteen months before moving to Syracuse.New York, to accept a position as a textbook editor for a subsidiary of Random House. Though she admits she began writing at night after her sons were asleep as a way to combat her own loneliness, it is clear that this activity was well on its way to reshaping her identity and her entire life. As she says, she realized, “Writing was … the most extraordinary way of thinking and feeling. It became the one thing I was doing that I had absolutely no intention of living without.”
In 1968 Toni Morrison moved to New York City, where she became a senior editor at Random House. Her significance in this role cannot be overestimated because she was assigned to working, almost exclusively, on black writers. Authors who were published as a result of her work include Angela Davis, Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, Muhammad Ali, and Gayl Jones. One of the most important books she edited during her time at Random House was The Black Book, published in 1974. An eclectic collection of more than three hundred years of history that attempts to record what it has been like to be of African descent on American soil, this book contains documents pertaining to slavery (such as bills of sale and announcements of searches for runaway slaves), pictures of slave quilts, photographs from family albums, recipes, songs, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and other miscellaneous memorabilia. Viewing the book as a representation of “Black life as lived,” Morrison considered The Black Book an antidote for the unhistorical sense of self she felt was emerging from the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She integrates this same concern for the African American past, history, and cultural memory into each of her novels.
During her early years as an editor at Random House, she developed the short story she began at Howard into her first novel, The Bluest Eye, and thus established her reputation as a writer with its publication in 1970. From 1970 to 1992, Morrison published five more novels, a play, a book of literary criticism, and an anthology of social criticism. In the midst of her already demanding schedule of editing and writing, she also began teaching part-time at various places on the East Coast, taking positions at SUNY-Purchase in 1971, at Yale in 1976, at SUNY-Albany in 1984, and at Bard College in 1986. Since 1988 she has been the Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, where she teaches in the Afro-American Studies and creative writing programs.
The rewards for deciding to devote her life to writing have been great. In 1975 Morrison received the National Book Award nomination for Sula, published in 1973. With Song of Solomon, published in 1977, she received even greater acclaim in the form of a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Following the publication of Tar Baby in 1981, she wrote the play Dreaming Emmett, which was first produced in Albany, New York, in 1986. In 1988 she won the Pulitzer Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Beloved, the novel she published in 1987. She received her most prestigious award, the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1993 after the publication of Jazz in 1992.
Toni Morrison has not only established herself in American and African American literature as a first-rate novelist but also as a popular lecturer and first-rate literary and cultural critic. On 7 October 1988 she delivered the Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Michigan, a presentation entitled “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” This often-quoted lecture is noteworthy for the ease with which she engages in the literary critical discourse about canon formation and curriculum revision at the precise moment that these were central issues on campuses throughout the nation; for its meticulous, close reading of the first line of each of her first five novels, which places her in company with other African American writers such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Sterling A. Brown, who were also critics and theorists of their own writing; and for the way it introduces the commentary that becomes the focus of Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Morrison's first book of literary criticism. In this book, she argues that canonical texts in American literature are long overdue for an analysis of how they are structured in subtle and not so subtle ways by their antithesis to blackness. With the publication of Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, a book she edited in 1992, Morrison offers insightful social commentary on the race and gender politics of one of this nation's most significant moments in recent history. In 1997, Morrison published Birth of a Nationhood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case, ed., with Claudia Brodsky Lacour.
More important than any of her literary and cultural criticism, however, are the six novels that have established her literary reputation as a writer whose work possesses tremendous aesthetic beauty and political power. We first bear witness to this power in The Bluest Eye, the novel about Pecola Breedlove, the black girl whose insatiable desire to be loved is manifested in a desire for blue eyes that ultimately drives her into insanity. The novel's treatment of some tragic dimensions of black life, such as incest and poverty, and the larger racialized context from which some of this tragedy springs reflect Morrison's desire to invite her reader to examine the family values, gender politics, and community secrets that shape individual and collective identity. With her second novel, Sula, Morrison ventures into a treatment of female friendship, exploring the dynamics of the relationship between two women, Sula Peace and Nel Wright, to examine what Deborah McDowell calls the representation of character as process, not essence. The novel not only narrates the story of how Sula and Nel become friends, but also the implications of the rift that separates them when one chooses a traditional life of marriage and family and the other chooses independence from traditional expectations for women. Moreover, through her meticulous treatment of place in her depiction of the Bottom, the neighborhood where Sula and Nel grow up, Morrison illustrates how a black community's identity evolves and shapes itself with its own cultural resources and elaborate social structure.
In her third novel, Song of Solomon, Morrison narrates a complex tale of a black man, Milkman Dead, and his search to understand himself in the context of family history and racial politics. Weaving memories of her own family stories of relatives who lost land during Reconstruction, Song of Solomon chronicles Milkman's journey from the North back to the South to the very places and people of his ancestry that his middle-class life had encouraged him to devalue. Morrison uses her fourth novel, Tar Baby, to synthesize an interest in racial politics and the African diaspora with gender relations. A love affair between a black upper middle-class model and art historian, Jadine Childs, and Son Green, the uneducated stowaway who intrudes in the Caribbean island mansion of her wealthy white benefactors, illustrates Morrison's interest in debates about how blackness and authenticity get defined in the African American community. In Beloved, Morrison connects her preoccupation with history with an exploration of how personal and cultural memory operate in the formation of relationships. Using the story of Sethe Suggs, a slave woman who took her child's life to protect it from slave catchers, Morrison takes the core of a real story recorded in The Black Book as the basis of this intricately narrated novel about two former slaves who work their way through remembering the pain of enslavement and dealing with the dead child's ghost, to healing, wholeness, and love. Finally, in Jazz, a novel inspired by her reading in The Harlem Book of the Dead about a young woman who, as she lay dying, refused to identify her lover as the person who shot her, Morrison combines the history and music of the Harlem Renaissance with a fascination with New York City, the story of a stale marriage, and a fatal love affair. What distinguishes the novel more than its plot is Morrison's innovative telling of it, a telling that is meant to emulate the improvisational techniques of jazz.
In 1998, Morrison published Paradise, her seventh novel. Set in an all-black town in the Southwest, it explores the relationships among darker and lighter skinned black people, the efforts of a group to create a sanctuary from discrimination and prejudice, and the complicated ways in which history returns to haunt those who try to make themselves immune from history and racism.
In sum, Toni Morrison's novels reflect her desire to draw on the people, places, language, values, cultural traditions, and politics that have shaped her own life and that of African American people. In so doing, she offers no solutions to problems, nor does she simplify the complex realities of the past or present. Instead, out of respect for the cultural knowledge that black people bring to life and living, she uses the power and majesty of her imagination to address them and anyone interested in the stories that have created a permanent place for her among America's greatest writers.[See also Baby Suggs; Eva Peace; Hannah Peace; Paul D.; Pilate Dead; Shadrack.]
Toni Morrison (born 1931) was best known for her intricately woven novels, which focused on intimate relationships, especially between men and women, set against the backdrop of African American culture. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel "Beloved" and the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature.
Chloe Anthony Wofford, better known in the literary world as Toni Morrison, was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931 to Ramah and George Wofford. Her maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, had left Greenville, Alabama, around 1910 after they lost their farm. Morrison's paternal family left Georgia and headed north to escape sharecropping and racial violence. Both families settled in the steel-mill town of Lorain on Lake Erie.
Morrison's childhood was filled with the African American folklore, music, rituals, and myths which were later to characterize her prose. Her mother sang constantly, much like the character "Sing" in Song of Solomon, while her Grandmother Willis (reminiscent of Eva Peace in Sula and Pilate Dead in Song of Solomon) kept a "dream book," in which she tried to decode dream symbols into winning numbers. Her family was, as Morrison says, "intimate with the supernatural" and frequently used visions and signs to predict the future. Her real life world, therefore, was often reflected later in her novels. Morrison attributes the breadth of her vision to the precision of her focus. She sees her literature as functioning much as did the oral storytelling tradition of the past that reminded members of the community of their heritage and defining their roles.
Choosing a Literary Career
Morrison cited the difficulty people at Howard University had in pronouncing "Chloe" as the reason for changing her name to Toni. While at Howard she was a member of the Howard University Players, a repertory company that presented plays about the lives of African American people in the South during the 1940s and 1950s. This experience brought into focus her own family's history of lost land and racial violence. Years later this theme would appear time and time again in her fiction.
After receiving the B.A. in English from Howard and the M.A. from Cornell, also in English, Morrison returned to Howard to teach. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a young architect from Jamaica who also taught at Howard. The marriage, which ended in divorce in 1964, produced two sons, Harold (also known as Ford) and Slade. A year and half later she was in Syracuse, New York, working as a textbook editor for a subsidiary of Random House, with two small children, and with lots of free time in the evenings. This environment helped her turn to writing novels.
For several years Morrison continued as a senior editor at Random House, where she became a force in getting other African-American writers published, including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and June Jordan. She not only held down this job, but taught part-time and lectured across the country, while at the same time writing novels: The Bluest Eye (1970); Sula (1974), which was nominated for a National Book Award; Song of Solomon (1977), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and was chosen as the second novel by an African American to be a Book-of the-Month selection (the first was Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940); Tar Baby (1981); and Beloved (1987) a novel of recovering power out of the devastation of slavery. Meanwhile she served as writer-in-residence at New York State University, first at Stony Brook and later at Albany, before moving to Princeton.
Morrison's novels were characterized by carefully crafted prose, in which ordinary words were placed in relief so as to produce lyrical phrases and to elicit sharp emotional responses from her readers. Her extraordinary, mythic characters were driven by their own moral visions to struggle in order to understand truths which are larger than those held by the individual self. Her subjects were large: good and evil, love and hate, friendship, beauty and ugliness, and death.
Making Her Point Through Fiction
The Bluest Eye depicted the tragic life of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wanted nothing more than to have her family love her and to be liked by school friends. These rather ordinary ambitions, however, were beyond Pecola's reach. She surmised that the reason she was abused at home and ridiculed at school was her black skin, which was equated with ugliness. She imagined that everything would be all right if she had blue eyes and blond hair; in short, if she were cute like Shirley Temple. Unable to withstand the assaults on her frail self-image, Pecola goes quietly insane and withdraws into a fantasy world in which she was a beloved little girl because she has the bluest eye of all.
Against the backdrop of Pecola's story was that of Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, who managed to grow up whole despite the social forces which pressured African-Americans and females. For them, childhood was much like it was for Morrison herself in Lorain; their egos were comforted and nurtured by family members, whose love did not fail them.
Sula was about a marvelously unconventional woman, Sula Pease, who becomes a pariah in her hometown of Medallion, Ohio, which was much like Lorain. With the discovery at the age of 12 that she and her friend Nel Wright "were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be." Nel married and her life follows convention, while Sula's life evolved into an unlimited experiment. Not bound by any social codes, Sula was first thought to be unusual, then outrageous, and eventually evil. In becoming a pariah in her community, she was the measure for evil and, ironically, inspired goodness in those around her. At her death both the community and Nel learned that Sula was their life force; she was the other half of the equation. Without Sula, Nel felt incomplete.
The female vantage point shifted to an African-American male perspective in Song of Solomon, which traced the process of self-discovery for Macon Dead III. Macon, or "Milkman" as he was called by his friends, set out on a series of journeys to recover a lost treasure in his family's past, but instead of discovering economic wealth, he uncovered something more valuable. He gathered together the details of his ancestry, which he thought had been lost to him forever. In a larger context Milkman's odyssey became a kind of cultural epic for all African-American people; it mapped in symbolic fashion the heritage of a people, from a mythic African past, through a heritage obscured by slavery, to a present built upon questioned values.
Tar Baby, Morrison's fourth novel, moved beyond the small Midwestern town setting to an island in the Caribbean. As the title suggested, the story employed a folktale about how a farmer used a tar baby to catch a troublesome rabbit. When the tar baby doesn't return the rabbit's greeting, he hits the tar baby and gets stuck. He begs the farmer to skin him alive, to do anything but throw him into the briar patch. The farmer throws him in the briar patch, where the rabbit escapes.
As the story opens, Jadine (also called Jade) has left Paris, where she was a fashion model, to visit Valerian and Margaret Street in the Caribbean. Jade, who was orphaned at an early age, has been cut off from her black heritage. She was raised and educated by Valerian Street, a rich, white, retired candy magnate and employer for her aunt and uncle, Sydney and Ondine. Valerian has paid for Jade's French education, and she has substituted Valerian's cultural heritage of wealth and status for her black heritage of struggle and survival. Therefore, Jade was an orphan in the literal sense of the word, with no personal attachments.
On Christmas Eve a young black vagrant, Son, jumped ship and intruded on their lives. His presence brings to the surface years of their locked up secrets and forced them to give expression to their violent racial, sexual, and familial conflicts. Jade and Son became passionately entangled with one another. Because she had no racial past, no tribe, to cling to - no briar patch, as it were - she cannot share his life with him, but he does not want to live without her. She flees from him, and he searches for her.
Beloved, Morrison's fifth novel, has been called her most technically sophisticated work to date. Using flashbacks, fragmented narration and shifting viewpoints, Morrison explored the story of the events that have led to the protagonist Sethe's crime. Sethe lived with her surviving daughter, Denver, on the outskirts of Cincinnati in a farmhouse haunted by the tyrannical ghost of her murdered baby daughter. Paul D., fellow slave from Kentucky comes to live with them. He violently casts out the baby spirit or so they think, until one day a beautiful young stranger with no memory arrived, calling herself 'Beloved'. The stranger was the embodiment of Sethe's murdered daughter and the collective anguish and rage of sixty million and more who have suffered the tortures of slavery. She eventually takes over the household, feeding on Sethe's memories and explanations to gain strength. Beloved nearly destroyed her mother until the community of former slave women who have ostracized Sethe and Denver since the murder join together to exorcise Beloved at last.
Although the work was considered Morrison's masterpiece, she failed to win either the National Book Award or the National Book Critic's Award. Forty-eight prominent African-American writers and critics who were outraged and appalled at the lack of recognition for the novel, signed a tribute to her achievement that was published in the New York Times in January 1988. Later that year Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Beloved. She won the Nobel Prize for literature based upon the quality of her work in 1993. In 1996, the National Book Awards presented her with its NBF Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. During her acceptance speech Morrison said "writing is a craft that seems solitary but needs another for its completion, that requires a whole industry for its dissemination. At its best, it offers the fruits of one person imaginative intelligence to another without restraints."
For biographical information see the following periodical pieces: Colette Dowling, "The Song of Toni Morrison," The New York Times Magazine (May 20, 1979); Charles Ruas, "Toni Morrison's Triumph," The Soho News (March 11, 1981); and Jeane Strouse, "Black Magic," Newsweek (March 30, 1981). For critical information see the following books: Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists (1981); Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism (1985); Mari Evans, "Toni Morrison" in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 (1983); and Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work. The Bluest Eye, Sula, The Black Book, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Dreaming Emmett, Beloved, Jazz, and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination are a few of Morrison's works.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, February 18, 1931, in Lorain, OH; daughter of George and Ramah (Willis) Wofford; married Harold Morrison (a Jamaican architect), 1958 (divorced); children: Harold Ford, Slade Kevin.
Education: Howard University, B.A., 1953; Cornell University, M.A., 1955.
Memberships: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, National Council on the Arts, Authors' Guild (council member), Authors' League of America.
Writer. Texas Southern University, Houston, instructor in English, 1955-57;Howard University, Washington, DC, instructor in English, 1957-64; Random House, New York City, senior editor, 1965-85; State University of New York at Purchase, associate professor of English, 1971-72; State University of New York at Albany, Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, 1984-89; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities,1989--. Visiting lecturer, Yale University, 1976-77, and Bard College,1986-88; Clark Lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Massey Lecturerat Harvard University, both 1990.
When Toni Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her fifth novel, Beloved, the award brought her the national recognition many critics and fellow artists believed long overdue. "Ms. Morrison's versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds," wrote Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood in the New York Times Book Review, adding, "If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest." But receiving the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature earned the author a dizzyingly different slot in history as she became the first black woman ever to win the field's highest honor.
Since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, Morrison has earned increasing critical and popular acclaim. Her works are taught in courses on the novel as well as in African American literature courses, and she is a sought after commentator not only on racial issues but on American arts and culture in general. She is held in high esteem by her peers, the reading public, and critics alike.
Paradoxically, Morrison attributes the breadth of her vision to the precision of her focus. Each of her novels highlights the struggles of black people to rediscover and maintain connections to their cultural history and mythology--to their "ancestors," as she put it in an essay entitled "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation." Morrison envisions her literature of suffering and survival functioning as did the oral storytelling of the past, reminding members of the community of their heritage and defining their roles.
Morrison has fostered these ends by teaching such courses as African American literature and techniques of fiction at various colleges and universities, as well as by using her position as a senior editor at Random House to publish other black authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Angela Davis, and Henry Dumas. Through her teaching and editing, therefore, as well as her own writing, she has exerted unparalleled influence in the African American literary renaissance of the past several decades.
Morrison's early life was steeped in the black folklore, music, language, myth, and history that now richly texture her fiction. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, she grew up during the Depression in the small steel-mill town of Lorain, Ohio, on Lake Erie. Her maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, had been sharecroppers in Alabama until they migrated north in 1912 to Kentucky, where John Solomon, a violinist, worked in a coal mine. Ardelia took in washing. When they discovered, however, that their daughters knew more mathematics than the one-room schoolhouse teacher, they determined that they must move again. Continuing north, they settled in Lorain.
Morrison's parents displayed the same resourcefulness, pride, and creativity that her grandparents had. Her father, George Wofford, was a shipyard welder who took such intense pride in his work that he would write his name in the side of a ship whenever he welded a perfect seam. A tireless worker, he held three jobs simultaneously for 17 years. Morrison's mother, Ramah Wofford, dealt diplomatically with white bill collectors, and once when the meal the family received on relief was bug-ridden, she wrote a long letter of protest to then-U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
George and Ramah thrilled their four children with ghost stories and nourished their pride with stories of black ingenuity. In an essay in the bicentennial issue of the New York Times titled "Rediscovering Black History," Morrison captured one such instance: "'Oh Mama,' I cried, 'everybody in the world must have had sense enough to wrap his feet.' 'I am telling you,' she replied, 'a Negro invented shoes.'" Morrison's mother sang around the house and in the church choir, and her grandmother kept a dreambook by which she played the numbers. Not surprisingly, Morrison characteristically juxtaposes riveting realism in her novels with what she calls forms of knowledge "discredited" by the West: lore, gossip, magic, sentiment. Many critics agree that both the searing accuracy of her portrayals of black life in America and the fabulistic qualities for which her work has been praised clearly derive from Morrison's own life experiences in a family of storytellers.
Morrison's appetite for stories led her to read voraciously as a child and adolescent. When she entered the first grade she was the only black child in her class and the only child who could already read. Before she graduated with honors from Lorain High School, she had read widely among the great Nineteenth-century Russian novels and such other European classics as Madame Bovary and the works of Jane Austen. She has cited these novels as particular influences on her, justifying the cultural specificity of her own work with reference to them. These classics, Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Susan Blake quoted her as saying, "were not written for a little black girl ... but they were so magnificently done that I got them anyway--they spoke directly to me." She expanded on this comment in an interview with Walter Clemons for Newsweek: "When I write, I don't translate for white readers.... Dostoevski wrote for a Russian audience, but we're able to read him. If I'm specific, and I don't overexplain, then anyone can overhear me."
Morrison attended Howard University as an undergraduate, majoring in English and minoring in the classics. At Howard she changed her name to Toni because people consistently mispronounced Chloe. Howard disappointed her in many ways; she found the social life there shallow: "It was about getting married, buying clothes, and going to parties," she related, as quoted by Blake. In the summers, Morrison traveled with the Howard University Players, a student-faculty repertory troupe that took plays on tour in the South. These tours, Blake suggested, "provided a geographical and historical focus for the sense of cultural identity her parents had instilled in her."
After graduating from Howard, Morrison spent two years at Cornell University earning a master's degree in English. She wrote a thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and then went on to teach English for two years at Texas Southern University. Morrison began to write when she drifted into a writers' group after returning to Howard in 1957 to teach English. The only rule governing this group was that everyone had to bring something to read. In a conversation with fellow African American novelist Gloria Naylor published in Southern Review, Morrison explained that when she had run out of "old junk from high school" to bring along, she wrote a short story about a little black girl who wanted blue eyes. Out of this story she developed her first novel, The Bluest Eye, a novel that Naylor credits with having inspired her to begin writing seriously.
At Howard, Morrison met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architectural student. Though she speaks very little about this difficult period in her life, she has said that the marriage suffered because of cultural differences between them, and eventually it ended in divorce. In the early 1960s, Morrison returned with her two young sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin, to her parents' home in Lorain. After about a year and a half, she found an editing job with a textbook subsidiary of Random House in Syracuse. It was there, each night after her children were asleep, that she returned to her short story and developed it into a novel. Though it was rejected many times, Morrison eventually found an editor who read an unfinished version of The Bluest Eye and encouraged her to complete it. In 1970, Holt, Rinehart and Winston published the novel.
The plot of The Bluest Eye is as simple as its implications are staggering. Morrison illuminates the multiple levels of victimization at work in brutally racist and sexist American society by placing at the story's center the quietly tragic figure of Pecola Breedlove, a little black girl on the verge of adolescence, who desperately wants to be loved. Barraged on all sides--from the movies, from teachers at school, from her own family--with the message that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned appearance of Shirley Temple is beautiful, she concludes that the reason she is ridiculed and hated is that she is black and therefore ugly. Violated over and over by other characters reacting to their own victimizations, Pecola finally retreats into insanity, believing that she is the most beloved little girl of all because she has the bluest eyes of all.
The Bluest Eye received a moderate amount of attention, for the most part appreciative. The very features of Morrison's writing that some critics selected for praise prompted negative criticism from other reviewers, and such divergence has been a hallmark of Morrison criticism ever since. For instance, though Frankell Haskell in the New York Times Book Review objected to a "fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery" and a lack of focus in the novel, Phyllis R. Klotman praised its "lyrical yet precise" language in Black American Literature Forum.
Later in the 1960s, Morrison moved to a senior editorial position at Random House in New York City. She began to contribute articles and reviews to various journals, most notably the New York Times. At the same time she was writing her second novel, Sula, which was published in December of 1973. "I always thought of Sula," Morrison said in an article in the Michigan Quarterly Review, "as ... new world black and new world woman.... Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out-of- the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained and uncontainable."
Sula explores the life and death of a black community called The Bottom in the town of Medallion, Ohio, by focusing on the friendship from childhood between two very different women, Sula Peace and Nel Wright. Nel grows up to marry, have children, and otherwise conform to all that society and her community expects of her. Sula, on the other hand, embarks on what the narrator terms an "experimental life." She becomes a pariah, defining by her rebellious violations the boundaries and social codes of the community: "Their conviction of Sula's evil," the narrator tells us, "make[s] the townspeople their best selves."
Morrison speaks of Nel and Sula as two halves of one person; the ideal, she told Bill Moyers on a segment of his PBS television show World of Ideas, would be "a Sula with some responsibilities." Nevertheless, Morrison will not allow her readers to rest comfortably in any particular moral stance toward the events or characters in Sula: we wonder whether to admire Sula's grandmother Eva's bravery in allowing her leg to be cut off by a train in order to collect insurance money to feed her children, or instead to be repulsed by such self-mutilation, just as we vacillate on whether to celebrate Sula's autonomy or to deplore her selfishness.
Sula garnered more attention than had The Bluest Eye and was nominated for the 1975 National Book Award in fiction. Sara Blackburn's review in the New York Times Book Review caused a minor controversy because it suggested first that the novel lacked "the stinging immediacy" of Morrison's nonfiction and then that "Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life." But Blackburn stood virtually alone in her impression that Morrison's novel was limited by its focus on a black community. Faith Davis's review in the Harvard Advocate was more nearly representative in its assessment that Sula has the capacity to touch all readers: "Her citizens of the Bottom jump up from the pages vital and strong because she has made us care about the pain in their lives."
In February of 1974, Random House published The Black Book, a volume compiled by Middleton Harris and edited by Morrison. In "Rediscovering Black History," Morrison explains that she hopes that The Black Book, a scrapbook of 300 years of black life in America, will enable blacks to "recognize and rescue those qualities of resistance, excellence, and integrity that were so much a part of our past and so useful to us and to the generations of blacks now growing up." Amid the photographs, patents, newspaper clippings, advertisements, recipes, etc. that make up the book, Morrison found verification of the stories of black achievement--despite slavery, racism, and sexism--that her parents and grandparents had told her when she was growing up: "[I] felt a renewal of pride I had not felt since 1941, when my parents told me stories of blacks who had invented airplanes, electricity, and shoes.... And there it was among Spike Harris's collection of patents: the overshoe. The airplane was also there as an airship registered in 1900 by John Pickering." Once again, Morrison had discovered a sustaining connection between her family history and habit of storytelling, black history, and her own sense of identity.
Appropriately, Morrison's third novel, Song of Solomon, charts a similar discovery. Milkman Dead sets out on a trek down south from his home in Ohio in hopes of recovering lost family treasure. What he finds is not gold, however, but the spiritual wealth of his rich family history. For Milkman, the journey becomes not only one from ignorance to knowledge, but also from selfish materialism and immaturity to joy, love, and selfless commitment to community. Morrison casts the narrative in the familiar mythological pattern of the odyssey and specifically invokes an African American folktale about a group of African-born slaves who rise up from the plantation and fly back home across the ocean. At the end of the novel, Milkman has clearly freed himself from the confinements of materialism and entered into the realm of possibility, but whether or not he will survive his leap into that unknown remains unresolved.
Song of Solomon secured Morrison's place as a major writer of American fiction. A critical and commercial success, it became a paperback bestseller and in 1978 won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Those critics who had reservations about the novel generally felt that Morrison failed to integrate believably the realistic with the mythic elements. Vivian Gamick wrote in the Village Voice: "At a certain point one begins to feel a manipulativeness in the book's structure, and then to sense that the characters are moving to fulfill the requirements of that structure." Other critics discerned, however, that in Song of Solomon Morrison extended her primary themes across a much broader spectrum of subject matter than she had previously dealt with. Song of Solomon sweeps out from one man's quest for self- discovery to encompass his entire family history--becoming, as Claudia Tate put it in Black Women Writers at Work, "a kind of cultural epic by which black people can recall their often obscured slave heritage." Reynolds Price summed up this evolution in the New York Times Book Review: "Here the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives."
Morrison published her fourth novel, Tar Baby, in March of 1981. It, too, made the New York Times bestseller list, and Newsweek magazine devoted its March 30th cover that year to Morrison. Like Song of Solomon, Tar Baby is a novel saturated in black folklore. It is set primarily on a tiny French West Indian island named Isle des Chevaliers, after a group of mythical African horsemen. According to the legend, these blind horsemen were imported to work as slaves but were never actually enslaved and are said to still be riding the hills. Against this mythological backdrop, Morrison stages a modern adaptation of the African American folktale of Tar Baby and Brer Rabbit, in which a farmer devises tar baby as a lure to trap the rabbit, who has been raiding gardens. Once captured, Brer Rabbit outwits the farmer by begging not to be thrown into the briar patch, which is of course his only real haven.
In Morrison's novel, the character of Jadine parallels that of Tar Baby. Jadine, a jet-setting, Sorbonne-educated black model is the niece of Sydney and Ondine Childs, butler and cook to retired white millionaire Valerian Street. Street has financed Jadine's education and treats her like a guest. When the handsome outlaw Son intrudes on the household during a visit by Jadine, hostile racial and sexual undercurrents bubbling beneath the surface of the familial relationships burst forth. Jadine and Son fall in love, but neither can adapt to the life ways of the other. Cut off from the "ancient properties" of her ancestors, Jadine cannot live with Son in the "briar patch," which is the black community of Eloe, Florida; nor can Son adapt to the superficial materialism of Paris or New York society.
A number of critics objected to the convoluted plot structure of Tar Baby, which some felt deprived the characters of credibility. Webster Schott suggested in the Washington Post Book World that the characters' actions seem at times "determined by Morrison's convictions, not their histories," and in a Nation article, Brina Caplan attributed this heavy-handedness to Morrison's decision to displace the small black communities that "nourish her mythology" with settings dominated by white culture. Nevertheless, critics agreed in the main that the book's flaws, due primarily to the ambitiousness of her project, are outweighed by the power of Morrison's voice and the richness of her language.
Morrison's characters typically yearn for freedom, which, like Jadine, they often narrowly associate with escape from the restrictions placed upon them by their membership in a visible and exploited minority. Morrison suggests that while achieving that freedom may require individual rebellion against an unjust order, it certainly demands a communal effort to confront history and to assume collective responsibility for it and for one another. In her fifth novel, Beloved, published in 1987, Morrison sharpens her focus on the question of personal freedom and the lengths to which one might justifiably go in order to secure it.
More than a decade earlier, while working on The Black Book, Morrison had come across a Nineteenth-century magazine clipping which became the inspiration for Beloved. According to the article, a young runaway slave woman named Margaret Garner was tracked by her owner to Cincinnati, where she had sought refuge with her freed mother-in-law. Facing imminent capture, Garner attempted to kill her four children, and in one case succeeded. All of the accounts of the tragedy remarked on the woman's tranquility, Morrison explained in various interviews, but Garner was simply insisting that her children must not be forced to live as she had lived--as a slave.
Beloved has been called Morrison's most technically sophisticated novel to date. Using flashbacks, fragmented narration, and shifting points of view, the author explores in the story the events that have led to protagonist Sethe's crime. Sethe lives with her surviving daughter, Denver, on the outskirts of Cincinnati in a farmhouse haunted by the tyrannical ghost of her murdered baby daughter. Paul D., a fellow slave from the Kentucky plantation to which Sethe refused to return, comes to live with them. He violently casts out the baby spirit, or so they believe, until one day a beautiful, young, memory-less stranger arrives, calling herself "Beloved." This stranger, the embodiment of Sethe's murdered daughter and of the collective anguish and rage of the "60 million and more" who have suffered the tortures of slavery, eventually takes control of the household. Feeding on Sethe's memories and explanations, Beloved nearly destroys her mother, until the community of former slave women who have ostracized Sethe and Denver since the murder join together to exorcise Beloved at last.
Beloved sparked controversy soon after its publication. Although widely regarded as Morrison's masterpiece, it failed to win either the annual National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. 48 prominent black writers and critics--outraged over the lack of recognition afforded Morrison for her novel--signed a tribute to her achievements that was published in the New York Times Book Review on January 24, 1988. Later that year, Morrison was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Beloved.
Morrison experienced many personal trials during the next few years, including the death of her mother. Morrison stayed busy, however; in 1992 alone, she published another novel, Jazz, as well as two nonfiction works, including a collection essays she edited. Her reward came in 1993, when it was announced that the Swedish Academy had voted her the 1993 Nobel Laureate, a distinction which included an $817,771 monetary award. In winning, the woman who "gives voice to the voiceless," according to The Atlanta Constitution, accepted the prize as a "redemption" of the "female writer" and "black writer" categories.
Morrison related her feelings of triumph during an interview with the New York Times Magazine, stating, "I felt a lot of 'we' excitement.... I felt I represented a whole world of women who either were silenced or who had never received the imprimatur of the established literary world." She added, "It was very important for young black people to see a black person [succeed].... Seeing me up there might encourage them to write one of those books I'm desperate to read. And that made me happy."
Morrison also hoped the prize was a signal of her luck changing. She told the New York Times Magazine, "In the two years around the Nobel, I had a lot of bad luck, a lot of serious devastations. My mother died, other things. The only thing that ... was truly wonderful was the Nobel Prize. So I regard the fact that my house burned down after I won the Nobel Prize to be better than having my house burn down without having won the Nobel Prize." Despite the loss of her personal and sentimental effects, Morrison took small comfort in the fact that her works-in-progress and other papers were saved. Rather than rebuilding her Grand View-on-Hudson, New York home, she relocated to Princeton, New Jersey, where she had been teaching since 1989. Once settled, Morrison got back to the business of writing once again.
Among other published projects, Morrison edited a book by former Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton and revealed her thoughts and observations of regarding "The Trial of the Century," that of former football star O. J. Simpson, who was accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend. In March of 1995, Morrison delivered that year's Charter Day address to the graduating class of her alma mater, Howard University and was bestowed an honorary doctorate by the institution. Morrison's creative energies were sought by Atlanta's Cultural Olympiad in April of 1995. The three-day "Olympic Gathering" featured seven other Nobel Laureates in Literature, all of whom participated in discussion panels, read from their works, and signed autographs. Later that summer she collaborated with dancer Bill T. Jones and jazz drummer Max Roach to present "Degga," one of three dance performances commissioned for the American Visionaries series at New York City's Lincoln Center.
The following year, Morrison received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and was selected as the 1996 Jefferson Lecturer--one of the highest U.S. honors given for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities--by the National Endowment for the Humanities. While all of Morrison's novels had been made available as a boxed set by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. in 1994, Song of Solomon was propelled onto the bestseller lists in 1996, after talk show host Oprah Winfrey recommended the book to her viewers. Early the following year, Winfrey invited Morrison and "four regular women who love to read" to her Chicago home for dinner. Taped for television and aired in February of 1997, the group of women enjoyed one another's company, discussed Song of Solomon, and dined on a sumptuous meal of roasted Cornish hens, autumn vegetables, and pistachio pear tarts.
The program provided further evidence that Morrison is firmly entrenched in the literary psyche of readers all over the globe. Extremely popular, the writer and educator is "great fun--a woman of subversive jokes, gossip, and surprising bits of self revelation" who "unwinds to Court TV and soap operas," according to the New York Times Magazine. As Morrison informed the magazine, "I would like my work to do two things: be as demanding and sophisticated as I want it to be, and at the same time be accessible in a sort of emotional way to lots of people, just like jazz." Successful on both counts, perhaps that's why she is so beloved.
Morrison's 1998 novel, Paradise, was generally warmly received by critics who found that the novel lived up to Morrison's previous works. The backdrop of the story is the settling of former slaves in the western United States in the nineteenth century. A group of African American men bring their wives and children to Oklahoma and found the town of Haven, where the inhabitants are haunted throughout the twentieth century by a past of bondage and the rejection they suffer by light-skinned members of their own race. The novel also tackles the issues of female rebellion against a patriarchal society and the search for paradise--some sort of happiness and security--in a less than perfect world.
In addition to her award-winning fiction, Morrison also published Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), her first work of literary criticism. In the book, which began as a series of lectures she presented at Harvard University, Morrison argues that the importance of black characters in American literature has been downplayed by literary critics.
In 1999, Morrison's first children's book, The Big Box, was published. A collaboration with her son, Slade, the book offered a through-a-glass-darkly vision of modern American childhood that pushes kids and parents to take a fresh look at the rules and values that structure their lives. The book reflects on the ways in which well-meaning adults sometimes hinder children's independence and creativity. In April of 2000, Oprah Winfrey chose Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye as the month's selection for "Oprah's Book Club."
Morrison published her next novel, Love, in 2003. Once again, Morrison used her unapologetic writing style in telling yet another tale of love, race, and hatred, and the struggles people have trying to outlive their pasts. Love revolves around key character Bill Cosey, owner of a once-popular oceanside resort that upper-middle-class blacks flocked to during the years of segregation. After Cosey dies--leaving no will--his wife and granddaughter fight for control of the estate, unearthing twisted ties to the past that bind their hatred for one another. Much to some readers' delight, the novel is only 200 pages, which is much slimmer than most Morrison works.
Morrison forayed into children's literature again in 2004 with Remember: The Journey to School Integration. Published on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation, the book contains archival photos taken during the struggle to integrate schools. While the photos are real, the text that accompanies them is fiction. The narrative is composed of Morrison's musings as she tried to imagine the thoughts and feelings running through the minds of those pictured. "Our parents sued the Board of Education," she noted, according to Newsweek, not because they hate them but because they love us." Morrison hopes the book will serve as a testament to the past and will also help initiate future conversations for children wanting to know more about the struggles of the black American.
National Book Award nomination and Ohioana Book Award, both 1975, both for Sula; National Book Critics Circle Award and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, both 1978, both for Song of Solomon; New York State Governor's Art Award, 1986; National Book Award nomination and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both 1987, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Robert F. Kennedy Award, both 1988, all for Beloved; Elizabeth Cady Stanton Award from the National Organization for Women (NOW); Nobel Prize for Literature, 1993; founding of The Toni Morrison Society (education and appreciation group), American Literature Association's Coalition of Author Societies, 1993; named one of Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Americans, 1996; named 1996 Jefferson lecturer, National Endowment for the Humanities; National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, National Book Association, 1996. Honorary degrees from more than 15 universities.
— Susan Marren
From our Archives: Today's Highlights, February 18, 2006
Among Morrison's other works are the essay collections Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power (1992) and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992); several children's books, including The Big Box (2000), written with her son, Slade; a play, Dreaming Emmett (1986); a song cycle, Honey and Me (1992), written with André Previn; an opera libretto, Margaret Garner (2003); and, in collaboration with Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, Desdemona (2011), a dramatic and musical reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Othello. Awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, she was the first African American to win the coveted prize. Morrison, who was an influential editor at Random House for nearly two decades, has been a professor at Princeton since 1989 and was the founder (1994) of the Princeton Atelier, a writers' and performers' workshop.
See D. Taylor-Guthrie, ed., Conversations with Toni Morrison (1994) and C. Y. Denard, ed., Toni Morrison: Conversations (2008); studies by B. W. Jones (1985), A. I. Vinson (1985), N. Y. McKay, ed. (1988), H. Bloom (1990, repr. 2005), H. L. Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, ed. (1993), P. Page (1995), N. J. Peterson, ed. (1997), L. Peach (1995 and, as ed., 1998), D. L. Middleton, ed. (2000), S. A. Stave, ed. (2006), J. L. Carlacio (2007), S. N. Mayberry (2007), J. L. J. Heinert (2008), L. V. D. Jennings (2008), R. Lister (2009), and K. Zauditu-Selassie (2009).
|1970||The Bluest Eye. Morrison's first novel concerns a poor and abused black girl who imagines that her life would improve if only she could possess blue eyes, a white-derived standard for beauty. The novel introduces the writer's characteristic subject of black women's search for meaning and identity. Born in Ohio and educated at Howard University, Morrison taught English and worked as an editor at Random House.|
|1973||Sula. Morrison's second novel, a complex tale of the relationship between two black women and life in an Ohio black community, brings her first major public recognition.|
|1977||Song of Solomon. Morrison's breakthrough novel mixes naturalistic elements, myth, fantasy, and folklore as Milkman Dead tries to find a missing treasure and come to terms with his identity and black heritage. It is the first novel by an African American chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection since Richard Wright's Native Son (1940).|
|1981||Tar Baby. Morrison's novel portrays a love affair between a black upper-middle-class woman (Jadine Childs) and a white French art historian. Jadine, a model who claims no affinity with the African American heritage, opts for a cosmopolitanism that isolates her from her people and her history. In her story, Morrison deftly explores the meaning of blackness and creates considerable tension between characters who represent cultural tradition in its clash with modernity and mobility.|
|1987||Beloved. Morrison's harrowingly powerful novel deals with a black woman who must deal with the effect of murdering her own child rather than having the girl returned to slavery. The spirit of the murdered child returns to claim retribution. Suffused with realism and fantasy, the novel wins the Pulitzer Prize and is widely regarded as Morrison's masterpiece.|
|1992||Jazz. Set in Harlem in the 1920s, Morrison's novel chronicles a triangle involving a middle-aged door-to-door salesman, his mentally unstable wife, and his eighteen-year-old girlfriend.|
|1998||Paradise. Morrison bases her novel on a group of former slaves who establish a utopian community in the West. The novel opens in 1976, when the descendants of the slaves are caught in a bitter conflict linking past and present and demonstrating not merely the legacy of racism but the continuing tensions between black men and women, which Morrison has explored in many of her novels.|
Toni Morrison in 2008
February 18, 1931 |
Lorain, Ohio, United States
|Genres||African American literature|
|Notable work(s)||Beloved, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye|
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, and professor. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed characters. Among her best known novels are The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved. She also was commissioned to write the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. She won the Nobel Prize in 1993 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved. On 29 May 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, to Ramah (née Willis) and George Wofford. She is the second of four children in a working-class family. As a child, Morrison read fervently; among her favorite authors were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. Morrison's father told her numerous folktales of the black community (a method of storytelling that would later work its way into Morrison's writings).
In 1949 Morrison entered Howard University, where she received a B.A. in English in 1953. She 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.
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. She also taught at Yale University and Bard College during these years. As an editor, Morrison played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream, editing books by authors such as Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones.
Morrison began writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard 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. She later developed the story as her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). She wrote it while raising two children and teaching at Howard.
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, 48 black critics and writers protested the omission. Shortly afterward, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award. That same year, Morrison took a visiting professorship at Bard College.
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 the libretto for a new 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." She is currently the last American to have been awarded the honor. Shortly afterward, 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." She cautioned against the 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."
In 2002, Morrison was invited to serve as the first Mentor in Literature in the inaugural cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, an international philanthropic programme that pairs masters in their disciplines with emerging talents for a year of one-to-one creative exchange. Out of a very gifted field of candidates, Morrison chose young Australian novelist Julia Leigh as her protégée.
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 worked as a painter and musician. Slade died on December 22, 2010, aged 45.
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 at Princeton, 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.
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.
In May 2011, Morrison received an Honorable Doctor of Letters Degree from Rutgers University during commencement where she delivered a speech of the "pursuit of life, liberty, meaningfulness, integrity, and truth".
She is currently a member of the editorial board of The Nation magazine.
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.
Why distance oneself from feminism? In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can't take positions that are closed. Everything I've ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book -- leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity. I detest and loathe [those categories]. I think 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.
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