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Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford February 18, 1931 in Loraine, Ohio
Toni Morrison is an American novelist, editor, teacher, and professor emerita at Princeton University.
Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016 she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
Toni Morrison is the second of four children in a working-class, African-American family. Her father grew up in Georgia. When her father was about 15, white people lynched two black businessmen who lived on his street. Morrison said: "He never told us that he’d seen bodies. But he had seen them. And that was too traumatic, I think, for him. Soon after the lynching, George Wofford moved to the racially integrated town of Lorain, Ohio, in hopes of escaping racism and securing gainful employment.
Morrison recounts her upbringing of extreme poverty, recalling that the family was constantly being evicted for their inability to pay the $4/week rent, even though her mother worked 3 jobs. When Morrison was about two, her family's landlord set fire to the house they lived in, while they were home, because her parents couldn't pay the rent. Her family responded to what she called this "bizarre form of evil" by laughing at the landlord rather than falling into despair. Morrison later said her family's response demonstrated how to keep your integrity and claim your own life in the face of acts of such "monumental crudeness."
Morrison's parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African American folktales and ghost stories and singing songs. Morrison’s mother talked about the South as paradise , as a magical place. Morrison also read frequently as a child; she describes herself as “living at the local library and that for her, given that her grandparents had been sharecroppers and that it was illegal for them to read, she considered reading a “revolutionary act”.She became a Catholic at the age of 12 and took the baptismal name Anthony (after Saint Anthony), which led to her nickname, Toni. She also worked as a domestic at the age of 12 and recalls telling her father that her employer was mean to her. To which he replied “go to work, get your money and come home. You don’t live there.”
Morrison enrolled at the Howard University in 1949 where she encountered both racially segregated restaurants and buses for the first time. She graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English and earned a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. She taught English, first at Texas Southern University in Houston for two years, then at Howard for seven years. While teaching at Howard, she met Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, whom she married in 1958. She was pregnant with their second son when she and Harold divorced in 1964.
In 1967, Morrison became the first black woman senior editor in the fiction department at Random House. In that capacity,she played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream. She fostered a new generation of African American authors, including Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayle Jones, whose writing Morrison discovered, and she brought out the autobiography of boxer Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. She also published and publicized the work of Henry Dumas. Among other books Morrison developed and edited is The Black Book (1974), an anthology of photographs, illustrations, essays, and other documents of black life in the United States from the time of slavery to the 1970s.
Morrison had begun writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University who met to discuss their work. She attended one meeting with a short story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. Morrison later developed the story as her first novel, The Bluest Eye, getting up every morning at 4 am to write, while raising two children alone.
The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 when Morrison was thirty-nine. It did not sell well until it began appearing on black studies programs reading lists. The Bluest Eye was followed by Sula (1975) and Song of Solomon (1977), which brought her national acclaim winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and Tar Baby (1981).
In 1983, Morrison left publishing to devote more time to writing, and lived in a converted boathouse on the Hudson River and taught English at several universities.In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University at Albany, The State University of New York.
Morrison's first play, Dreaming Emmett, is about the murder by white men of black teenager Emmett Till in 1955. It was performed in 1986 at the State University of New York at Albany, where she was teaching.
In 1987 Morrison published her most celebrated novel, Beloved. It was inspired by the true story of an enslaved African American woman, Margaret Garner, a piece of history which Morrison had discovered when she was compiling The Black Book. Garner had escaped slavery but was pursued by slave hunters. Facing a return to slavery, Garner killed her two-year-old daughter but was captured before she could kill herself.Morrison's novel imagines the dead baby returning as a ghost, Beloved, to haunt her mother and family.Beloved was a critical success, and a best-seller for 25 weeks and earned her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction..
Beloved is the first of three novels about love and African American history, sometimes called the Beloved Trilogy, [Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1997) Morrison has said they are intended to be read together, explaining, "The conceptual connection is the search for the beloved – the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you."
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 was the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize.
Also in 1998, the movie adaptation of Beloved was released, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, who had spent ten years bringing it to the screen. Winfrey also stars as the main character, Sethe, alongside Danny Glover as Sethe's lover, Paul D, and Thandie Newton as Beloved.
The movie flopped at the box office. Toni Morrisons books and presence became a regular on the Oprah Winfey show which made her work available to a wider audience.
In 2006, The New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best work of American fiction published in the previous 25 years, as chosen by a selection of prominent writers, literary critics, and editors. In his essay about the choice, "In Search of the Best," critic A. O. Scott said, "Any other outcome would have been startling, since Morrison's novel has inserted itself into the American canon more completely than any of its potential rivals. With remarkable speed, 'Beloved' has, less than 20 years after its publication, become a staple of the college literary curriculum, which is to say a classic. This triumph is commensurate with its ambition, since it was Morrison's intention in writing it precisely to expand the range of classic American literature, to enter, as a living black woman, the company of dead white males like Faulkner, Melville, Hawthorne and Twain."
Toni Morrison continues to write; "A Mercy" came out in 2008. Home (2012) and God Bless the Child (2015), her thirteenth novel. Tragedy struck Toni Morrison in 2010 when her youngest son Slade Morrison died of pancreatic cancer. In addition to her novels, Toni Morrison has written plays, librettos, operas, books of literary criticism and children’s books.
From 1989 until her retirement in 2006, Morrison held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University. She has said she doesn't think much of modern fiction writers who reference their own lives instead of inventing new material, and she used to tell her creative writing students, "I don't want to hear about your little life, OK?" Similarly, she has chosen not to write about her own life in a memoir or autobiography.
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