Toni Morrison (1931-2019) was best known for her intricately woven novels, which focus on intimate relationships, especially between men and women, set against the backdrop of African American culture. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel, Beloved, the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature, and a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom. She released her eleventh novel, God Help the Child, in 2015. In 2016, she was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
Chloe Anthony Wofford, better known in the literary world as Toni Morrison, was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931 to Ramah and George Wofford. Her maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, had left Greenville, Alabama, around 1910 after they lost their farm. Morrison's paternal family left Georgia and headed north to escape sharecropping and racial violence. Both families settled in the steel-mill town of Lorain on Lake Erie.
Morrison's childhood was filled with the African American folklore, music, rituals, and myths that were later to characterize her prose. Her mother sang constantly, much like the character "Sing" in Song of Solomon, while her Grandmother Willis (reminiscent of Eva Peace in Sula and Pilate Dead in Song of Solomon) kept a "dream book," in which she tried to decode dream symbols into winning numbers. Her family was, as Morrison says, "intimate with the supernatural" and frequently used visions and signs to predict the future. Her real-life world, therefore, was often reflected later in her novels. Morrison attributes the breadth of her vision to the precision of her focus. She sees her literature as functioning much as did the oral storytelling tradition of the past that reminded members of the community of their heritage and defining their roles.
Choosing a Literary Career
Morrison cited the difficulty people at Howard University had in pronouncing "Chloe" as the reason for changing her name to Toni. While at Howard, she was a member of the Howard University Players, a repertory company that presented plays about the lives of African American people in the South during the 1940s and 1950s. This experience brought into focus her own family's history of lost land and racial violence. Years later this theme would appear time and time again in her fiction.
After receiving a BA in English from Howard and an MA from Cornell, also in English, Morrison returned to Howard to teach. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a young architect from Jamaica who also taught at Howard. The marriage, which ended in divorce in 1964, produced two sons, Harold (also known as Ford) and Slade. A year and half later she was in Syracuse, New York, working as a textbook editor for a subsidiary of Random House, with two small children, and with lots of free time in the evenings. This environment helped her turn to writing novels.
For several years Morrison continued as a senior editor at Random House, where she became a force in getting other African American writers published, including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and June Jordan. She not only held down this job, but taught part-time and lectured across the country, while at the same time writing novels: The Bluest Eye (1970); Sula (1974), which was nominated for a National Book Award; Song of Solomon (1977), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and was chosen as the second novel by an African American to be a Book-of-the-Month selection (the first was Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940); Tar Baby (1981); and Beloved (1987), a novel of recovering power out of the devastation of slavery. Meanwhile she served as writer-in-residence at New York State University, first at Stony Brook and later at Albany, before moving to Princeton.
Morrison's novels were characterized by carefully crafted prose, in which ordinary words were placed in relief so as to produce lyrical phrases and to elicit sharp emotional responses from her readers. Her extraordinary, mythic characters were driven by their own moral visions to struggle in order to understand truths that are larger than those held by the individual self. Her subjects were large: good and evil, love and hate, friendship, beauty and ugliness, and death.
Making Her Point Through Fiction
The Bluest Eye depicts the tragic life of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wants nothing more than to have her family love her and to be liked by school friends. These rather ordinary ambitions, however, are beyond Pecola's reach. She surmises that the reason she is abused at home and ridiculed at school is her black skin, which she equates with ugliness. She imagines that everything would be all right if she had blue eyes and blonde hair; in short, if she were cute like Shirley Temple. Unable to withstand the assaults on her frail self-image, Pecola goes quietly insane and withdraws into a fantasy world in which she is a beloved little girl because she has the bluest eye of all.
Against the backdrop of Pecola's story is that of Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, who manage to grow up whole despite the social forces that pressure African Americans and females. For them, childhood was much like it was for Morrison herself in Lorain; their egos were comforted and nurtured by family members, whose love did not fail them.
Sula is about a marvelously unconventional woman, Sula Pease, who becomes a pariah in her hometown of Medallion, Ohio, which is much like Lorain. With the discovery at the age of 12 that she and her friend Nel Wright "were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be." Nel marries, and her life follows convention, while Sula's life evolves into an unlimited experiment. Not bound by any social codes, Sula is first thought to be unusual, then outrageous, and eventually evil. In becoming a pariah in her community, she is the measure for evil and, ironically, inspires goodness in those around her. At her death, both the community and Nel learn that Sula was their life force; she was the other half of the equation. Without Sula, Nel feels incomplete.
The female vantage point shifted to an African American male perspective in Song of Solomon, which traces the process of self-discovery for Macon Dead III. Macon, or "Milkman" as he is called by his friends, set out on a series of journeys to recover a lost treasure in his family's past, but instead of discovering economic wealth, he uncovers something more valuable. He gathers together the details of his ancestry, which he thought had been lost to him forever. In a larger context, Milkman's odyssey becomes a kind of cultural epic for all African American people; it maps in symbolic fashion the heritage of a people, from a mythic African past, through a heritage obscured by slavery, to a present built upon questioned values.
Tar Baby, Morrison's fourth novel, moved beyond the small Midwestern town setting to an island in the Caribbean. As the title suggests, the story employs a folktale about how a farmer used a tar baby to catch a troublesome rabbit. When the tar baby doesn't return the rabbit's greeting, he hits the tar baby and gets stuck. He begs the farmer to skin him alive, to do anything but throw him into the briar patch. The farmer throws him in the briar patch, where the rabbit escapes.
As the story opens, Jadine (also called Jade) has left Paris, where she was a fashion model, to visit Valerian and Margaret Street in the Caribbean. Jade, who was orphaned at an early age, has been cut off from her black heritage. She was raised and educated by Valerian Street, a rich, white, retired candy magnate and employer for her aunt and uncle, Sydney and Ondine. Valerian has paid for Jade's French education, and she has substituted Valerian's cultural heritage of wealth and status for her black heritage of struggle and survival. Therefore, Jade was an orphan in the literal sense of the word, with no personal attachments.
On Christmas Eve, a young black vagrant, Son, jumps ship and intrudes on their lives. His presence brings to the surface years of their locked up secrets and forces them to give expression to their violent racial, sexual, and familial conflicts. Jade and Son become passionately entangled with one another. Because she has no racial past, no tribe, to cling to--no briar patch, as it were--she cannot share his life with him, but he does not want to live without her. She flees from him, and he searches for her.
Beloved, Morrison's fifth novel, has been called one of her most technically sophisticated works. Using flashbacks, fragmented narration, and shifting viewpoints, Morrison explores the story of the events that have led to the protagonist Sethe's crime. Sethe lived with her surviving daughter, Denver, on the outskirts of Cincinnati in a farmhouse haunted by the tyrannical ghost of her murdered baby daughter. Paul D., fellow slave from Kentucky, comes to live with them. He violently casts out the baby spirit, or so they think, until one day a beautiful young stranger with no memory arrives, calling herself 'Beloved.' The stranger is the embodiment of Sethe's murdered daughter and the collective anguish and rage of sixty million and more who have suffered the tortures of slavery. She eventually takes over the household, feeding on Sethe's memories and explanations to gain strength. Beloved nearly destroys her mother, until the community of former slave women who have ostracized Sethe and Denver since the murder join together to exorcise Beloved at last.
Although the work was considered Morrison's masterpiece, she failed to win either the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Forty-eight prominent African American writers and critics, who were outraged and appalled at the lack of recognition for the novel, signed a tribute to her achievement that was published in the New York Times in January of 1988. Later that year, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Beloved. She won the Nobel Prize for literature based upon the quality of her work in 1993. In 1996 the National Book Awards presented her with its NBF Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. During her acceptance speech, Morrison said "writing is a craft that seems solitary but needs another for its completion, that requires a whole industry for its dissemination. At its best, it offers the fruits of one person imaginative intelligence to another without restraints."
In 1993 Morrison became the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. In awarding her the honor, the Swedish Academy called Morrison "a literary artist of the first rank," and commended her ability to give "life to an essential aspect of American reality" in novels "characterized by visionary force and poetic import." The academy also asserted that Morrison "delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the luster of poetry."
Morrison's next novel, Paradise (1998), was generally warmly received by critics who found that the novel lived up to Morrison's previous works. The backdrop of the story is the settling of former slaves in the western United States in the nineteenth century. A group of African American men bring their wives and children to Oklahoma and found the town of Haven, where the inhabitants are haunted throughout the twentieth century by a past of bondage and the rejection they suffer by light-skinned members of their own race. The novel also tackles the issues of female rebellion against a patriarchal society and the search for paradise--some sort of happiness and security--in a less than perfect world.
In addition to her award-winning fiction, Morrison also published Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), her first work of literary criticism. In the book, which began as a series of lectures she presented at Harvard University, Morrison argues that the importance of black characters in American literature has been downplayed by literary critics.
In 1999 Morrison's first children's book, The Big Box, was published. A collaboration with her son Slade, the book offers a vision of modern American childhood that pushes kids and parents to take a fresh look at the rules and values that structure their lives. The book reflects on the ways in which well-meaning adults sometimes hinder children's independence and creativity. In April of 2000, Oprah Winfrey chose Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye as the month's selection for "Oprah's Book Club."
Being on Oprah's book list helped Morrison gain a new legion of fans, and she treated them to a new novel in 2003, simply titled Love. Though the book is much slimmer than most Morrison tomes--this one checks in at just over 200 pages--it features Morrison's same unapologetic writing style. The story revolves around the dysfunctional family of Bill Cosey, owner of the once-prominent Cosey Resort where upper-middle-class blacks came during times of segregation. As the story unfolds, Cosey's wife and granddaughter fight for the estate and a tangle of history and lies and illusions entraps them.
Morrison tried children's literature once again in 2004, with a piece called Remember: The Journey to School Integration. The book contains archival photographs of actual young African Americans who endured the turbulent times of school integration. To write the book, Morrison looked at the photos, then tried to imagine the thoughts and feelings of those pictured. Her fictional interpretations accompany the photos. Interspersed throughout the book are factual pages that set the scene for the story. The book was published in 2004, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which integrated schools. According to Newsweek, Morrison writes in the book, "Our parents sued the Board of Education not because they hate them but because they love us."
Morrison began collaborating with her younger son, Slade, in the early 2000s, and the two wrote several children's books together. The Book of Mean People, stars a rabbit who encounters various mean people and explores the feelings children have when others are overbearing and rude and make them feel angry or powerless. The book not only lets children know that it's all right to feel negative emotions, but also gently reminds parents that when they are angry and take it out on their kids, it hurts the children.
Morrison and Slade next wrote a series of retellings of Aesop's fables, in a hip-hop style. The fables don't end in the traditional manner; the Morrisons wanted to give fresh meanings to the tales. They suggest that a victim can strike back; the fool can become smart; the frightened can become courageous; the weak can get strong. Titles include Who's Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? (2003), Who's Got Game? The Lion or the Mouse? (2003), and Who's Got Game? The Poppy or the Snake? (2004).
In 2009 Morrison returned to adult fiction with the novel A Mercy, which like her earlier novels, explores issues of gender and race. Set in the seventeenth century, the book explores a time when slavery was less related to race and more related to indebtedness and social origin. The characters include a black child, an orphan, and two indentured servants, who all suffer in a culture of servitude.
In 2012 Morrison released Home, a novel about Frank Money, a Korean War veteran who is angry and bitter. He returns home to find his younger sister, Cee, is being abused and needs his help. He finds Cee in their native Georgia, and together they return to their rural hometown of Lotus. There, Frank begins to unravel memories from his childhood and war that explain his self-loathing. His journey of self-discovery helps him learn the true meaning of manhood and what it means to be home. Also in 2012, Morrison received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama. In 2013 she received the Nichols-Chancellor's Medal, awarded by Vanderbilt University to an individual who exemplifies the human spirit and defines the twenty-first century.
Two years later, Morrison released her eleventh novel God Help the Child. The novel follows the life of a young woman with blue-black skin and her experiences with love and family. The book was the first of Morrison's works to be set in the present day. It received mixed reviews from critics, with some praising the novel's lush wording and others feeling its characters were just stand ins for Morrison's political ideals.
Morrison received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2016. That same year, she penned an essay titled "Mourning for Whiteness," a reflection on the election of President Donald Trump, whose vocal supporters included members of the Ku Klux Klan. The following year, she released a non-fiction work titled The Origin of Others. The book analyzed ideas such as race, fear, and humanity's desire to belong. Morrison reflected on people's tendency to term certain people as "Others" and questioned the fear that results from this labeling.
In January of 2019, a documentary about the author titled Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the film follows Morrison's life and literary career. On August 5, 2019, Morrison passed away in New York following a short illness; she was 88.
Morrison's death was seen as a huge loss for American literature, and people from the United States and around the world marked the author's passing by remembering her groundbreaking work. In early 2022 her fans were rewarded when Penguin Random House published one of Morrison's few short stories, "Recitatif," as a stand-alone book. The volume included an introduction by Zadie Smith. The short story was originally published in 1983 as part of an anthology.
National Book Award nomination and Ohioana Book Award for Sula, 1975; National Book Critics Circle Award and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Song of Solomon, 1977; New York State Governor's Art Award, 1986; National Book Award nomination and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both 1987, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Robert F. Kennedy Award, and American Book Award (Before Columbus Foundation), 1988, all for Beloved; Elizabeth Cady Stanton Award from the National Organization of Women; Nobel Prize for literature, 1993; National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, 1996; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2012; Nichols-Chancellor's Medal from Vanderbilt University, 2013; PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, 2016; The Edward MacDowell Medal, 2016.
For biographical information see the following periodical pieces: Colette Dowling, "The Song of Toni Morrison," The New York Times Magazine (May 20, 1979); Charles Ruas, "Toni Morrison's Triumph," The Soho News (March 11, 1981); Jeane Strouse, "Black Magic," Newsweek (March 30, 1981); Stebbins Jefferson, "Toni Morrison's Next Journey," Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, FL) (November 8, 2003); R.K., "What's 'Racism'?" Newsweek (May 24, 2004). For critical information see the following books: Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists (1981); Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism (1985); Mari Evans, "Toni Morrison" in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 (1983); and Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work. Morrison's works include The Bluest Eye, Sula, The Black Book, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Dreaming Emmett, Beloved, Jazz, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Love, Remember: The Journey to School Integration, Paradise, and Home.
"Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump's America," New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/21/aftermath-sixteen-writers-on-trumps-america#anchor-morrison (July 9, 2018).
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"Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted In Black Lives, Dies At 88," NPR, https://www.npr.org/2019/08/06/542391535/toni-morrison-whose-soaring-novels-were-rooted-in-black-lives-dies-at-88 (August 6, 2019).
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