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Morrison in 1998
|Born||Chloe Ardelia Wofford
February 18, 1931
Lorain, Ohio, U.S.
|Died||August 5, 2019 (aged 88)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019), known as Toni Morrison, was an American novelist. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987); she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. She earned a master's degree in American Literature from Cornell University in 1955. In 1957 she returned to Howard University, was married, and had two children before divorcing in 1964. Morrison became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City in the late 1960s. She developed her own reputation as an author in the 1970s and '80s. Her work Beloved was made into a film in 1998. Morrison's works are praised for addressing the harsh consequences of racism in the United States.
The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities, in 1996. She was honored with the National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters the same year. President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 29, 2012. She received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2016. Morrison was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2020.
Chloe Ardelia Wofford, the second of four children from a working-class, black family, was born in Lorain, Ohio, to Ramah (née Willis) and George Wofford. Her mother was born in Greenville, Alabama, and moved north with her family as a child. She was a homemaker and a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. George Wofford grew up in Cartersville, Georgia. When Wofford was about 15, a group of white people lynched two African-American businessmen who lived on his street. Morrison later 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 the hope of escaping racism and securing gainful employment in Ohio's burgeoning industrial economy. He worked odd jobs and as a welder for U.S. Steel. Traumatized by his experiences of racism, in a 2015 interview Morrison said her father hated whites so much he would not let them in the house.
When Morrison was about two years old, her family's landlord set fire to the house in which they lived, while they were home, because her parents could not afford to pay 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, ghost stories, and singing songs. Morrison also read frequently as a child; among her favorite authors were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy.
In 1949, she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., seeking the company of fellow black intellectuals. It was while at Howard that she encountered racially segregated restaurants and buses for the first time. She graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English and went on to earn a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. Her master's thesis was titled "Virginia Woolf's and William Faulkner's treatment of the alienated." She taught English, first at Texas Southern University in Houston from 1955 to 1957, and then at Howard University for the next seven years. While teaching at Howard, she met Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, whom she married in 1958. Their first son was born in 1961 and she was pregnant with their second son when she and Harold divorced in 1964.
After her divorce and the birth of her son Slade in 1965, Morrison began working as an editor for L. W. Singer, a textbook division of publisher Random House, in Syracuse, New York. Two years later, she transferred to Random House in New York City, where she became their first black woman senior editor in the fiction department.
In that capacity, Morrison played a vital role in bringing Black literature into the mainstream. One of the first books she worked on was the groundbreaking Contemporary African Literature (1972), a collection that included work by Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and South African playwright Athol Fugard. She fostered a new generation of Afro-American writers, including poet and novelist Toni Cade Bambara, radical activist Angela Davis, Black Panther Huey Newton and novelist Gayl Jones, whose writing Morrison discovered. She also brought to publication the 1975 autobiography of the outspoken boxing champion Muhammad Ali, The Greatest: My Own Story. In addition, she published and promoted the work of Henry Dumas, a little-known novelist and poet who in 1968 had been shot to death by a transit officer in the New York City Subway.
Among other books that Morrison developed and edited is The Black Book (1974), an anthology of photographs, illustrations, essays, and documents of black life in the United States from the time of slavery to the 1920s. Random House had been uncertain about the project but its publication met with a good reception. Alvin Beam reviewed the anthology for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, writing: "Editors, like novelists, have brain children – books they think up and bring to life without putting their own names on the title page. Mrs. Morrison has one of these in the stores now, and magazines and newsletters in the publishing trade are ecstatic, saying it will go like hotcakes."
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 on her own.
The Bluest Eye was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1970, when Morrison was aged 39. It was favorably reviewed in The New York Times by John Leonard, who praised Morrison's writing style as being "a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry ... But The Bluest Eye is also history, sociology, folklore, nightmare and music." The novel did not sell well at first, but the City University of New York put The Bluest Eye on its reading list for its new Black studies department, as did other colleges, which boosted sales. The book also brought Morrison to the attention of the acclaimed editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf, an imprint of the publisher Random House. Gottlieb later edited most of Morrison's novels.
In 1975, Morrison's second novel Sula (1973), about a friendship between two black women, was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), follows the life of Macon "Milkman" Dead III, from birth to adulthood, as he discovers his heritage. This novel brought her national acclaim, being a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, the first novel by a black writer to be so chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940. Song of Solomon also won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Morrison gave her next novel, Tar Baby (1981), a contemporary setting. In it, a looks-obsessed fashion model, Jadine, falls in love with Son, a penniless drifter who feels at ease with being black.
In 1983, Morrison left publishing to devote more time to writing, while living in a converted boathouse on the Hudson River in Nyack, New York. She taught English at two branches of the State University of New York (SUNY) and at Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus. In 1984, she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University at Albany, SUNY.
Morrison's first play, Dreaming Emmett, is about the 1955 murder by white men of black teenager Emmett Till. The play was performed in 1986 at the State University of New York at Albany, where she was teaching at the time. Morrison was also a visiting professor at Bard College from 1986 to 1988.