Although reared in the North, Toni Morrison is the genetic and historical offspring of southern traditions. These traditions derive from her maternal grandfather, a carpenter and farmer who, seeing no chance for advancement in Kentucky’s racism and poverty, moved his family to Ohio. Morrison’s father, sharecropper George Wofford, had similar reasons to escape racial oppression in Georgia and relocate in northern shipyards, where he found welding jobs that he supplemented by washing cars. In the relative calm of the far north, Wofford, an embittered racist, still found reasons to distrust “every word and every gesture of every white man on earth.” In contrast, Morrison’s mother, Ramah Willis Wofford, a more educated, trusting person than her husband, offered her family a gentler, less vitriolic point of view concerning race relations.
The second of the four Wofford children, Morrison (nee Chloe Anthony Wofford) was born February 18, 1931, and grew up on the western fringe of Cleveland, which sits on the south shore of Lake Erie. In the multicultural environment of Lorain, Ohio — a steel town of around 75,000, blending Czech, German, Irish, Greek, Italian, Serb, Mexican, and black suburbanites — Morrison experienced exclusion but did not suffer the intense racism leveled at other black writers, as demonstrated in the autobiographies of Maya Angelou, Dick Gregory, and Richard Wright. Although a landlord torched their apartment with the Woffords inside in 1933, Ramah, in order to foster mental health, taught her daughter to avoid animosity. (However, an experience with insect-riddled food from the welfare dole provoked Mrs. Wofford to write a letter of complaint to President Franklin Roosevelt.)
Brought up in a nurturing, religious environment, Morrison says, “We were taught that as individuals we had value, irrespective of what the future might hold for us. The women of the black community, whether aunt, grandmother, or neighbor, served as a tightly woven safety net.” The oral tradition, carried on by both men and women, cushioned blows to self-esteem with stories and songs about the Underground Railroad, daring rescues, and other perils and triumphs of black history. In addition, Morrison absorbed stories about the post-Reconstruction South from her maternal grandparents, John Solomon and Ardelia Willis, who emigrated from Alabama in 1912.
Stronger than the men in Morrison’s memory, the women of the black community were, as she says, “liberated women of the world, who could shroud the dead, nudge African violets into bloom, make beautiful biscuits, plow; they could hold you in their arms, honey, and you’d think you were in heaven.” Morrison felt an obligation to these larger-than-life role models, and she recognized that “whatever I did was easy in comparison with what they had to go through.”
A born mimic, actor, storyteller, and reader from early childhood, Morrison was expected to excel, even though she had to fight the paranoia that accompanied growing up in an educational milieu that ignored the contributions of nonwhites. Undeterred, she wrote and told stories, read poetry, and followed the example of ballerina Maria Tallchief, who Morrison idolized for her ability to promote her Native American culture while simultaneously enriching the arts. At Lorain High School, Morrison completed four years of Latin and graduated at the top of her class. She then surprised her family by insisting on leaving Lorain to obtain a college degree, which her father paid for by working three jobs.
Having educated herself in the achievements of blacks, Morrison — already steeped in the fiction of French, English, and Russian novelists — entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she changed her first name to Toni. She studied under strong African-American spokesmen: poet Sterling Brown and philosopher and critic Alain Locke, a Rhodes scholar who edited The New Negro.
Morrison received the standard English education: a strong grounding in the white males who dominate literature — Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, and Wordsworth. She immersed herself in the Howard Unity Players, the university repertory company, and toured the South for the first time, playing to black audiences during the unsettled pre-civil rights era. Morrison graduated with a B.A. in 1953 and completed a master’s degree in English at Cornell two years later, with a concentration in the work of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.
Teaching and Writing
The first two years after Cornell, Morrison taught humanities and English at Texas Southern University. She then worked for eight years as an English instructor at Howard University. Her two most promising students were civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael and Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land. The year after she left teaching, Morrison gravitated toward writing. She joined a monthly literary symposium in 1962 and contributed stories that she had begun in high school. Chief among them was a story she read aloud about a black girl who wanted to make up for her shortcomings by petitioning God for blue eyes.
By that time, Morrison’s 1957 marriage to Jamaican architect Harold Morrison had produced a son, Harold Ford, born in 1962. She ended the marriage in 1965, returned to Lorain for a year and a half (during which her second child, Slade Kevin, was born), and renewed her literary outlet as an antidote to loneliness. Explaining her urge to write, she emphasizes a need for “books that I had wanted to read. No one had written them yet, so I wrote them.”
From 1965 to 1983, Morrison served as a textbook editor at Random House, working from her home in Syracuse, New York. The move from Ohio alarmed her mother, who admonished, “You don’t have anybody there.” Self-assured of her ambitions, Morrison replied, “You take the village with you. There is no need for the community if you have a sense of it inside.”
Tending to two small sons and a demanding job, she still managed to plug away at The Bluest Eye, her personal therapy for depression and isolation. Set in the Midwest, the story centers on a compelling, unloved child, Pecola Breedlove, a victim of incest and a survivor of ego abuse. As Morrison describes the compulsion to complete the manuscript, “I had no will, no judgment, no perspective, no power, no authority, no self — just this brutal sense of irony, melancholy, and a trembling respect for words. I wrote like someone with a dirty habit. Secretly — compulsively — slyly.” The novel is a haunting portrayal of a marginal child, one so unlovely, so unloved that she finds no reclamation. As Morrison concludes Pecola’s tragic destruction, “[O]n the edge of my town, among the garbage and the sunflowers of my town, it’s much, much, much too late.”
By the time the manuscript was complete in 1968, Morrison had risen to the rank of senior editor at Random House company headquarters in New York City, where, as developer of black talent, she groomed such stars as Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, Wesley Brown, Gayl Jones, and Muhammad Ali. She reports that her own first novel sold for racial reasons: The company wanted a black writer in its stable. When the black fiction market burgeoned, Morrison reminded herself that the trend reflected the honor accorded the struggles of the black race. To steady herself on such holy ground, she repeated a mantra recalling the “very real life-threatening obstacles people in my family face, and whenever I would feel overwhelmed, that’s all I had to think about.”
As a senior editor, Morrison became immersed in contemporary literature and was aware of an upsurge in black literary voices. Buoyed by this upsurge, in 1969, she returned to the classroom for a year as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at State University of New York in Purchase. She settled into a renovated boathouse outside the town of Nyack and kept writing. Four years later, she completed Sula, her second novel, which continues her demarcation of the black woman’s world, with its secret power, perversity, unity, and mysticism. The critics were divided on the character’s murder of her drug-dealing son, a sign of something sinister and unsettling and an omen of ghetto life in the coming decades. More popular than The Bluest Eye, the second novel was excerpted in Redbook and featured as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate.
As Morrison’s name began to take on public recognition, her byline appeared more frequently on book reviews for the New York Times. In 1974, she compiled a memory album, The Black Book, which was introduced by Bill Cosby as a “folk journey of Black America.” Composed of oddments from slave narratives, advertising, photographs, media clippings, recipes, and patent office records, the book revealed three centuries of black history in the United States. The research was almost like a remedial cultural education for Morrison — an education that had been denied previously. Her “literary archeology” provided a cache of motifs, themes, and images for later fiction. It also unearthed a clipping from a nineteenth-century magazine that would inspire Beloved.
During the next decade, visiting lecturer posts drew Morrison to Yale from 1975-1977 and Bard College from 1979-1980. The need to express beliefs and truths from her active imagination led in 1977 to the publication of Song of Solomon, a Midwestern saga strongly influenced by the death of her father. Like a patchwork vision of her collective unconscious, the novel draws on family lore and a wisdom sprung from survival. In Morrison’s words, her forebears became “my entrance into my own interior life.” Song of Solomon is a mythic tale centering on slaves who fly to Africa. The novel’s success, a popular television interview with Dick Cavett, and inclusion in the PBS series “Writers in America” brought Toni Morrison to the forefront of American fiction.
Within four years, Morrison followed up on the promise of earlier works with Tar Baby. In a provocative departure from her earlier all-black casts, Tar Baby introduced the ambivalent Jadine, a world-weary traveler who searches for self-actualization among West Indian servant-caste relatives through a brief fling with a mysterious black man. Critics were divided as to the direction that Morrison seemed to be moving as she departed from less familiar themes, characters, and settings. Nonetheless, Morrison became the first black woman championed in a cover story for Newsweek, which heralded her as the top black writer in the United States. Her response was a teasing one-liner: “Are you really going to put a middle-aged, gray-haired, colored lady on the cover of this magazine?”
In January 1986, the New York State Writers Institute commissioned Morrison to write Dreaming Emmett, a dramatization of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till by Mississippi racists in the 1950s. Having proven herself worthy of stage production from the writing of the musical Storyville and a screen version of Tar Baby, she felt equal to the task of recreating the grisly murder, which was presented in Albany by the Capital Repertory Company.
Three years after Dreaming Emmett was produced, Morrison published her fifth novel, Beloved. With this novel, Morrison returned to a focus on women. The novel arose from Morrison’s ten-year contemplation of a slave narrative featuring Margaret Garner, a Kentucky slave woman who murdered one of her four children in 1855 rather than submit her family to what Morrison terms “creative cruelty.”
Beloved probes the paradox of motherhood within slavery. This paradox is revealed through the humiliation of Sethe (the character inspired by Garner) and her desperate murder of her infant daughter. Intent on honoring an extraordinary act of maternal love, Morrison had incubated the characters for two years and then withdrew into her house and wrote Sethe’s story in longhand. Strengthened by research provided by writer Michael Blitz from sources as far away as Brazil and Spain, she salted the powerful narrative with details about labor opportunities for blacks along the Ohio River, housing, clothing, furniture, prices, torture devices to constrain the tongue or keep a slave from sleeping, Cincinnati society, and particularly white abolitionists who were the black population’s lifeline after passage of the Fugitive Slave Laws and during Reconstruction.
To keep an artistic perspective on the fictional Sethe, Morrison departed from the story of the real Margaret Garner, who was returned to her owner. Morrison fictionalizes the scene in which the cruel slavemaster known only as “schoolteacher” returns to Kentucky without Sethe and her children, but the book’s dedication reminds the reader that, at heart, Morrison deals with reality. The “sixty million and more” she refers to in the dedication are the victims of two centuries of slavery, the ones who did not escape drowning, disease, sharks, whipping, mutilation, burning, boiling, rape, emasculation, starvation, and other horrors. Justifying her choice of the highest number of victims that scholars offer, Morrison explained, “I didn’t want to leave anybody out.”
In 1992, Morrison published Jazz, the story of Joe Trace; his wife, Violet; and his lover, Dorcas, whom he murders. The book is set against events in African American history from 1880 through 1926, with much of the main story taking place in Harlem in the 1920s. The novel explores the themes of community, artistic expression, and personal growth, using blues and jazz to represent the importance of change.
Morrison continued her exploration of the black community in 1998’s Paradise. The novel explores the history of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black town where its residents learn that isolating themselves from the rest of the world does not guarantee freedom from oppression or exclusion.
Currently, Morrison devotes a great deal of time to a host of speaking engagements plus honorary memberships in organizations such as the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, New York Public Library, Helsinki Watch Committee, and the advisory council of New York’s Queens College.
Reviewers, often more certain of Morrison’s success than the author herself, have lauded the quality and power in her brutal yet tender honesty, her melodrama, and her use of oral tradition and myth. Reviewing her first novel, Ruby Dee wrote, “I’ve just finished reading Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye and my heart hurts.” Marcia Ann Gillespie, former Ms. Editor-in-chief, says that “Morrison’s women — some are big, powerful people, others shadows and totally powerless, some risk takers, others safety seekers.” She adds that “through all of them, Morrison asks us, What’s power? What’s love? What’s the real cost of living? Who and what can you claim and/or control? What tricks do you have to play in order to get through? How do you define yourself?” Such perceptive interrogation reminds us that Morrison questions more than black/white relations; she probes humanistic terrain.
Critic Nellie Y. McKay, a strong supporter of Toni Morrison’s approach to fiction, celebrates her imaginative flow and control of inner dialogue. Comparing her skills to those of James Joyce and William Faulkner, McKay notes that Morrison has absorbed the styles and methods of significant literary movements and periods, yet she remains true to her own understanding of what it means to be black — to look through the collective eyes of an entire race. As Toni Cade Bambara says, Morrison is “grand and majestic”; she is a writer who “courageously tackles the big issues all the time. She’s not small.”
By escaping Eurocentrism — that is, the Caucasian point of view — Morrison has liberated and expanded literature in the same way that Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Bill Robinson, Josephine Baker, Judith Jamison, and Spike Lee liberated and expanded music, dance, and film. Critic Dan Cryer describes Morrison’s novels depicting African-American life as “fluid and lyrical, as full of sorrow and gusto as the blues, at once eloquent laments for her people and tributes to their staying power.” The refusal to quit, to knuckle under, or to cower in self-doubt makes her characters memorable and, more important, admirable.
For Morrison, merging into the psyche of the character produces a mystical “something” — an awareness that approaches a seance, an out-of-self experience akin to communing with spirits of a former time and place. Her ability to identify with and actualize fictional creations has earned her the nickname “conjure woman.” Her belief that such expression draws on a collective consciousness of music and oral traditions — of stories that exist in a fragile, ephemeral state because they have yet to appear on paper — leads her to think of her art as political. Because she writes from an almost devout concern for the characters who people her imaginary landscapes, Morrison produces a quality of fiction that transcends race, gender, social or political circumstance, and time.
On a par with Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Mari Evans, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison has proven that African-American women writers no longer command only a black audience but can hold white readers’ interest and earn their respect while lessening their ignorance of the black race. With the publication of Song of Solomon, Morrison began setting records for achievements, beginning with a National Book Award and the Ohioana Book Award in 1975 and advancing to an appointment to the National Council on the Arts in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.
The first black female to produce a Book-of-the-Month Club key selection, Morrison won a $3,000 stipend from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, three consecutive Public Library Books for the Teen Age, and awards from the New York State Governor’s Arts Council, City College of New York Langston Hughes Festival, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. As evidence of her substantial presence in the literary world, in 1981 Morrison was invited to address the American Writers’ Congress.
In January 1988 (only a few months after James Baldwin died unsung in American literary circles), Morrison was nominated for Ritz-Hemingway, National Book, and National Book Critics Circle awards but won none of them. Led by poet June Jordan, a formal protest ran in major newspapers, accompanied by an open letter from Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Henry Louis Gates, Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, Angela Davis, and 42 other black colleagues who decried the slight of Morrison’s accomplishment. Morrison’s supporters argued that she advances “the moral and artistic standards by which we must measure the daring and love of our national imagination and our collective intelligence as a people.” Critic Houston A. Baker labeled the action a “civil action” designed to call attention to a “miscarriage of judgment.” He explained, “We wanted to call the attention of others to this ignoring of the beauty and greatness of Morrison. This is egregious.”
Morrison was stunned by the support of her peers. On March 31, 1988, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, which had enjoyed an 18-week run on the bestseller list. That same cataclysmic year, a list of awards came tumbling after: the Melcher Book Award, Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, and the City of New York Mayor’s Award of Honor for Art and Culture. From New York University came the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in Arts and Letters, marked by a medal and $2,000. Fourteen honorary degrees poured in from mostly east coast institutions, notably Oberlin, Dartmouth, Bryn Mawr, Columbia, and Yale. Morrison was named Tanner Lecturer at the University of Michigan.
The literary matriarch accepted her windfall, winning audiences with soft-spoken grace and a private, understated sense of self. “It was fabulous,” she said. “I loved it. I felt crowned.”
In fall 1989, Morrison left her Albany home to accept the Robert Goheen Professorship in creative writing, women’s studies, and African studies at Princeton, becoming the first black female to be so honored by the Ivy League. That same year she received the MLA Commonwealth Award, and the following year brought the Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore International Literary Prize.
In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The Nobel Foundation stated that Morrison “gives life to an essential aspect of American reality” through “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import.”