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Toni Morrison was one of the 20th Century’s most influential novelists and intellectuals. Her work has shaped not only African American culture and letters but also American and world history, more broadly. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, Morrison was the second of four children. Her parents, George and Ramah Wofford, had both migrated to Ohio from the Jim Crow South – her father from Georgia, her mother from Alabama. Morrison’s childhood deeply influenced her writing, much of which is set both in the South and in northern and mid-western states like Ohio, thus tracing the multi-directional flight paths of working-class black families escaping state-sanctioned racial violence.
Morrison graduated with a degree in English from historically black Howard University in 1953. After receiving a master’s from Cornell in 1955, Morrison taught at Texas Southern University and then returned to Howard to teach English, during which time she met her husband, Harold Morrison (whom she divorced in 1964). Morrison began her formal career in the literary world as an editor at Random House, beginning in their textbook division and just two years later becoming their fiction division’s first black, woman senior editor.
As an editor, Morrison’s impact cannot be understated. In addition to putting out works by Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Muhammad Ali and others, she worked on the 1972 anthology Contemporary African Literature and brought attention to the works of lesser-known writers such as Gayl Jones and Henry Dumas. During these years Morrison was deeply influenced by her peers – the circle of artists, thinkers and activists centered in and around the Black Arts Movement. Key figures included Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez and Maya Angelou. James Baldwin, though of an earlier generation, is also among Morrison’s many influences. But beyond intellectuals, the black folkloric and oral traditions passed down to her through family members and other elders of her community have perhaps most influenced Morrison’s work.
Even as Morrison broke new ground as an editor, she heroically embarked on her own literary path. She famously wrote her first book, The Bluest Eye (1970), in the morning hours between 4 a.m. and the start of her workday at Random House – while also raising two sons as a single mother. Set in her own hometown of Lorain, Ohio, The Bluest Eye tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl navigating life in the 1940s, surviving everyday violence and searching for everyday beauty. In this first novel, readers can detect the influence of William Faulkner, on whom Morrison wrote her master’s thesis. Her next novel, Sula (1973) was nominated for the National Book Award. And her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), would win the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Two years after the publication of Tar Baby (1981), Morrison left publishing to focus on writing and begin a new career in teaching. She taught courses in creative writing, African American Studies and Women's Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) and at Rutgers. In 1989, Morrison accepted an academic position at Princeton University, from which she retired in 2006.
Morrison published 11 novels, including Beloved (1987), which is widely regarded as one of the most important works of American literature. In addition to fiction, she wrote influential essays, such as “Black Matters,” which is included in her celebrated collection of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). The essays in this collection explore the haunting presence of blackness within the predominately white American literary canon. In 1974 Morrison also assembled The Black Book, which has been called “a scrapbook of the African American experience” and contains photographs, news clippings, sheet music, postcards and other ephemera. Much of her other influential nonfiction can be found in What Moves at The Margin: Selected Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn C. Denard (2008).
In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and she received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2012. Morrison’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, has been transformative in its writing and rewriting of black life, its history and future. She is noted for saying that she wrote for black people, a statement that some have found controversial, especially in the wake of the multiculturalism of the 1990s and the post-racial discourse that followed.
Unlike many writers of color, who take issue with the ethnic or racial “qualification” of their status as artists, Morrison always insisted that she was a black writer first. “I would like to write novels," she explained, "that were unmistakably mine but nevertheless fit first into African-American traditions and, second of all, this whole thing called literature.” Yet, such a position does not preclude an orientation of openness and dynamism, which we find at the heart of Morrison’s work. “In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination," she wrote, "I can't take positions that are closed. Everything I've ever done, in the writing world has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book – leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity." It is precisely this quality of openness in Morrison's work that has pushed generations of readers from all backgrounds to think critically about the past while imagining possible futures.
Written by Elleza Kelley, Ph.D. candidate in English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt). Black Reconstruction. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus-Thomson Organization Ltd, 1976.
Glaude, Eddie S. Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “Who Set You Flowin’’?": The African-American Migration Narrative.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Logan, Rayford Whittingham. The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901. New York: Dial Press, 1954.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. Place of publication not identified: Project Gutenberg, 2005.