The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Born on February 18, 1931, Chloe Anthony Wofford—the second of four children—spent her childhood in Lorain, Ohio, during the Depression. Her father, George, was a shipyard welder who held three jobs to support his family. Her mother, Ramah, took care of the necessary business matters for the family. Her great-grandmother had been a slave, and her grandfather was born into slavery, receiving his freedom at age five.
After high school, the honors student attended Howard University, earning a B.A. in English in 1953. During her university years she changed her name to Toni, a diminutive of her middle name, Anthony. Toni became involved with a student-faculty theatrical group, The Howard Players, and traveled throughout the South presenting programs each summer.
After completing her master’s degree in English at Cornell University in 1955, she became an English instructor at Texas Southern University. A play she wrote at this time, “Dreaming Emmett,” dealt with the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
In 1957, she returned to Howard University to teach English. Here she met and married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison, in 1958. The conflict due to their cultural differences created an uneasy relationship that ended in divorce in 1964. While at Howard, she attended a writing group and created a short version of her first novel, The Bluest Eye. During this time she gave birth to her two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. After the divorce, she moved back to her hometown with her sons and lived with her family for over a year.
In 1965, Morrison accepted an editing job with Random House in Syracuse, New York. She also taught English at the State University of New York in Purchase. After her boys were asleep at night, she wrote. In 1970 her first novel, the revised The Bluest Eye, was published. In 1974, her second novel, Sula, brought national recognition for her adept portrayal of black life. Two months later, Random House published The Black Book, a collection of news clippings, photographs, songs, advertisements, recipes, and other items related to authentic black experiences. Morrison, although not named as creator, was the major force in developing the book.
During 1975-1976 Morrison was a visiting lecturer at Yale University. In 1977, her third novel, Song of Solomon, became a best- seller. Her fourth novel, Tar Baby, was another best-seller in 1981. She was pictured on the cover of Newsweek when this book was released. From 1984-1989, Morrison was the Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the State University of New York in Albany.
Beloved, her fifth novel, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and has been made into a film by Jonathan Demme. In 1989, she became the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities at Princeton University, where she has taught creative writing and Afro-American Studies for ten years. Her sixth novel, Jazz, and a nonfiction work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, were both published in 1992. In 1997 she coedited a collection of essays, titled Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case. Her newest novel is Paradise, released in 1998.
The numerous awards and honors Morrison received reflect the respect she has earned by blending family history, relationships among aspects of black history, and her own sense of identity. Her language style—often poetic in its cadence, mythology, and creative metaphor—has earned her a major position among twentieth-century American writers. Her expressive language skill also accounts for her writing of musical lyrics. She has collaborated with Andre Previn on songs sung by Kathleen Battle and has also written lyrics for Jessye Norman.
Morrison has won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. The American Academy of Arts and Letters named her the Distinguished Writer of 1978. The Public Broadcasting System’s Writers in America, the London Weekend Television’s South Bank Show, and Swiss Television Production’s In Black and White have featured her. President Carter appointed her to the National Council of the Arts. Translations of her novels appear in German, Spanish, French, Finnish, and Italian.