One Book, One Chicago Fall 2010
About the Author
Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio to Ramah and George Wofford. Both of her parents came from sharecropping families that had moved north in the early years of the century.
Morrison was interested in classic literature and storytelling at an early age, passions encouraged by her parents. She attended Lorain High School, working in homes after school and earning two dollars a week. She graduated with honors in 1949. Morrison’s parents encouraged her to go to college, and she earned her Bachelor’s degree in English from Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1953. It was at Howard where she began to call herself Toni. She continued her studies at Cornell University, where she earned a Master’s in English in 1955, writing her thesis on alienated characters in the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Morrison went on to teach at Texas Southern University in Houston and at Howard.
While teaching at Howard in the early 1960s, Morrison joined a group of poets and writers and began to write fiction. She penned a short story that would eventually become her first novel, The Bluest Eye, about a young black girl who drives herself mad wishing that her eyes were blue.
In 1963, Morrison moved to New York, where she made a name for herself in publishing as an editor at Random House. She edited books by such authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis, and would remain at Random House until 1983, well into her career as a novelist.
While at Random House, Morrison worked on an anthology titled The Black Book that compiled images and items from African American cultural experience and history. While creating the book, Morrison came across the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who, when recaptured, slit the throat of her child rather than subject that child to bondage. Morrison’s discovery of this true story set her on a path to learn more about the lives of slaves, particularly women and mothers, and inspired her to write Beloved.
While working as an editor and pursuing her own writing, Morrison also taught at the State University College at Purchase, N.Y., and at the State University at Albany. In 1970, The Bluest Eye was published. Sula followed in 1974. The story of the lifelong friendship between two women who grew up together in a poor, black Ohio neighborhood, Sula was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1977 Song of Solomon, a novel that used aspects of magical realism to tell the story of four generations of an African American family, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1981 Morrison’s next novel, Tar Baby, told an intense love story while dealing in new ways with race, gender and class.
In 1987, Morrison was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton. In the same year, she published Beloved, the story inspired by the slave Margaret Garner. The novel received abundant praise from the public and critics alike, and earned Morrison the 1988 Pulitzer Prize. It remains a significant work of the American experience, and was adapted into a film in 1998 directed by Jonathan Demme, starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. The follow-up to Beloved was Jazz, published in 1992, bringing to life Harlem in the 1920s.
In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first African American woman to claim this honor. When she learned of the distinction, she was already at work on her next novel, Paradise. Published in 1998, Paradise was set in the all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma, and again made use of elements of magical realism. Next was Morrison’s 2003 novel Love, in which she focused on a charismatic hotel owner and the women who loved him in a black seaside community.
Morrison has also written essays, articles, a play and children’s and nonfiction books, as well as the libretto to the 2008 opera Margaret Garner, composed by Richard Danielpour. Other honors include the 1994 Pearl Buck Award; title of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters; the 2000 National Humanities Medal; and the 1996 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Beloved was chosen in 2006 by a New York Times survey of writers as the best work of American fiction of the last quarter century.
Morrison is a trustee of the New York Public Library and a member of the American Academy, the Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has honorary degrees from Harvard, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Dartmouth, Georgetown and the Sorbonne, among others.
A Mercy, Morrison’s most recent novel published in 2008, returns to the life of slaves in America, this time with a focus on the 17th century. Morrison’s dedication to paying homage to the lives of slaves is exemplified in her own statement about her need to write Beloved: “There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road… And because such a place doesn’t exist… the book had to” (The World, 1989). In July 2008, at a spot off of the South Carolina coast which was a point of entry into North America for millions of enslaved Africans, the “Bench by the Road” project, created by the Toni Morrison Society, dedicated the first of a series of benches honoring the African American contribution to the country.