Toni Morrison, the first black woman to receive Nobel Prize in Literature, was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, U.S.A. She was the second of four children of George Wofford, a shipyard welder and Ramah Willis Wofford. Her parents moved to Ohio from the South to escape racism and to find better opportunities in the North. Her father was a hardworking and dignified man. While the children were growing up, he worked three jobs at the same time for almost 17 years. He took a great deal of pride in the quality of his work, so that each time he welded a perfect seam he’d also weld his name onto the side of the ship. He also made sure to be well-dressed, even during the Depression. Her mother was a church-going woman and she sang in the choir. At home, Chloe heard many songs and tales of Southern black folklore. The Woffords were proud of their heritage.
Lorain was a small industrial town populated with immigrant Europeans, Mexicans and Southern blacks who lived next to each other. Chloe attended an integrated school. In her first grade, she was the only black student in her class and the only one who could read. She was friends with many of her white schoolmates and did not encounter discrimination until she started dating. She hoped one day to become a dancer like her favorite ballerina, Maria Tallchief, and she also loved to read. Her early favorites were the Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, French author Gustave Flaubert and English novelist Jane Austen. She was an excellent student and she graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949.
Chloe Wofford then attended the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in English with a minor in classics. Since many people couldn’t pronounce her first name correctly, she changed it to Toni, a shortened version of her middle name. She joined a repertory company, the Howard University Players, with whom she made several tours of the South. She saw firsthand the life of the blacks there, the life her parents had escaped by moving north. Toni Wofford graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. She then attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and received a master’s degree in 1955.
After graduating, Toni was offered a job at Texas Southern University in Houston, where she taught introductory English. Unlike Howard University, where black culture was neglected or minimized, at Texas Southern they “always had Negro history week” and introduced to her the idea of black culture as a discipline rather than just personal family reminiscences. In 1957 she returned to Howard University as a member of faculty. This was a time of civil rights movement and she met several people who were later active in the struggle. She met the poet Amiri Baraka (at that time called LeRoi Jones) and Andrew Young (who later worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, and later still, became a mayor of Atlanta, Georgia). One of her students was Stokely Carmichael, who then became a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Another of her students, Claude Brown, wrote Manchild in the Promised Land which was published in 1965 and became a classic of African-American literature.
At Howard she met and fell in love with a young Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison. They married in 1958 and their first son, Harold Ford, was born in 1961. Toni continued teaching while helping take care of her family. She also joined a small writer’s group as a temporary escape from an unhappy married life. She needed company of other people who appreciated literature as much as she did. Each member was required to bring a story or poem for discussion. One week, having nothing to bring, she quickly wrote a story loosely based on a girl she knew in childhood who had prayed to God for blue eyes. The story was well-received by the group and then Toni put it away thinking she was done with it. Her marriage deteriorated, and while pregnant with their second child she left her husband, left her job at the university, and took her son on a trip to Europe. Later, she divorced her husband and returned to her parents’ house in Lorain with her two sons.
In the fall of 1964 Morrison obtained a job with a textbook subsidiary of Random House in Syracuse, New York as an associate editor. Her hope was to be transferred soon to New York City. While working all day, her sons were taken care of by the housekeeper and in the evening Morrison cooked dinner and played with the boys until their bedtime. When her sons were asleep, she started writing. She dusted off the story she had written for the writer’s group and decided to make it into a novel. She drew on her memories from childhood and expanded them with her imagination so that the characters developed a life of their own. She found writing exciting and challenging. Other than parenting, she found everything else boring by comparison.
In 1967 she was transferred to New York and became a senior editor at Random House. While editing books by prominent black Americans like Muhammad Ali, Andrew Young and Angela Davis, she was busy sending her own novel to various publishers. The Bluest Eye was eventually published in 1970 to much critical acclaim, although it was not commercially successful. From 1971-1972 Morrison was the associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Purchase while she continued working at Random House. In addition, she soon started writing her second novel where she focused on a friendship between two adult black women. Sula was published in 1973. It became an alternate selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Excerpts were published in the Redbook magazine and it was nominated for the 1975 National Book Award in fiction.
From 1976-1977, she was a visiting lecturer at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. She was also writing her third novel. This time she focused on strong black male characters. Her insight into male world came from watching her sons. Song of Solomon was published in 1977. It won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Morrison was also appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts. In 1981 she published her fourth novel, Tar Baby, where for the first time she describes interaction between black and white characters. Her picture appeared on the cover of the March 30, 1981 issue of the Newsweek magazine.
In 1983, Morrison left her position at Random House, having worked there for almost twenty years. In 1984 she was named the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at the State University of New York in Albany. While living in Albany, she started writing her first play, Dreaming Emmett. It was based on the true story of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed by racist whites in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman. The play premiered January 4, 1986 at the Marketplace Theater in Albany. Morrison’s next novel, Beloved, was influenced by a published story about a slave, Margaret Garner, who in 1851 escaped with her children to Ohio from her master in Kentucky. When she was about to be re-captured, she tried to kill her children rather than return them to life of slavery. Only one of her children died and Margaret was imprisoned for her deed. She refused to show remorse, saying she was “unwilling to have her children suffer as she had done.” Beloved was published in 1987 and was a bestseller. In 1988 it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction.
In 1987, Toni Morrison was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University. She became the first black woman writer to hold a named chair at an Ivy League University. While accepting, Morrison said, “I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing.” She taught creative writing and also took part in the African-American studies, American studies and women’s studies programs. She also started her next novel, Jazz, about life in the 1920’s. The book was published in 1992. In 1993, Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the eighth woman and the first black woman to do so.
Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1996.
Bibliography:1. Toni Morrison by Douglas Century, Chelsea House Publishers, 1994