Toni Morrison Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her work includes some of the most engaging contributions to American literature in the last hundred years.

Early Life

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931. She was the second of four children born to George Wofford and Ramah Willis Wofford. Her father’s occupations included car washing, steel mill welding, road construction, and shipyard work, which typified the eclectic labor lifestyle of African American men living during the Great Depression of the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Her mother worked at home and sang in church. Both parents had strong Southern roots. Morrison’s father was from Georgia and had vivid memories of racial violence in his childhood, while her mother’s parents were part of the migration of African Americans from Alabama, via Kentucky, who sought to find a better life in the North.

Morrison’s parents taught her much about understanding racism and growing up in predominantly white America. Her father was not very optimistic about the capacity of whites to transcend their bigotry toward blacks and remained acutely untrusting of all white people. Her mother’s judgment about whites was less pessimistic, although she adhered to the thinking that strength and hope in the black community had to be secured from within that community and not from without. These community values—values of the village—have become the cornerstone of Morrison’s literary and political thinking. Her focus is consistently directed within the black community, a focus that reflects her confidence in the tangible culture of black America and its crucial role in shaping strong and talented people.

In her childhood, Morrison’s eclectic literary tastes introduced her to such literary works as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and the works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Jane Austen. Morrison was quite aware of the disparity that existed between the largely white worlds of these works and her own black female experience. Her reading enabled her to understand the value of cultural specificity in literature and the universality of the particular. It also demonstrated that her own culture, values, dreams, and feelings were not being represented in the literature she was reading. In many ways, her movement toward writing fiction was spurred by a need to redress what she felt was a woeful silence about black experience in the literature she read.

After completing high school in Lorain, Morrison went on to receive her B.A. from Howard University. She became involved with theater and had the opportunity to travel through the South performing before black audiences. Those trips gave her a better understanding of the geographical reality of the black American experience, a grounding that would be reproduced in her fiction. In 1953, she went on to Cornell University, where she completed her master’s degree, studying suicide in the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. These writers were fitting figures against which she could react as a writer. Faulkner, because of his white vision of the Southern experience, and Woolf, because of her white treatment of the female experience in a male-dominated world, provided Morrison with models upon which she would later improvise.

Morrison taught at Texas Southern University for two years and then taught at Howard. There she honed her political views on black America, arguing against the current desegregation rhetoric by suggesting that blacks needed greater economic independence and needed to be wary of distorting their own culture and values through assimilation.

At Howard she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect with whom she had two sons. The marriage was not a positive experience for Morrison; it left her feeling powerless and unsatisfied. She left Howard in 1964, divorced her husband, and assumed a post at Random House in New York City as an editor. Morrison continued her teaching career despite her intense work with Random House as a senior editor for so many years. She has taught at Yale University, Bard College, the State University of New York campuses at Purchase and Albany, and Princeton University.

Life’s Work

In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in recognition of her achievements as a novelist of outstanding talent. The award represented the culmination of a series of accolades that have followed Morrison after the publication of each of her six novels. These novels have become classics in American literature and have been the subject of extensive critical study. Morrison has also published remarkably intelligent discussions of her works in numerous interviews and essays. She forces literary critics to reevaluate their innate suspicion of writers who write and speak about their own works. The combination of the novels and Morrison’s engaging commentaries produces an insight into the deeply committed psyche and spirit of this woman. Her reviews and critical articles published in The New York Times and its Review of Books (to which she has been a regular contributor for years) constitute a significant body of critical approaches to literature and culture. Her commitment is to her African American experience, and her goal has been to evolve a...

(The entire section is 2226 words.)