Biography of Toni Morrison (1931-)
Chloe Anthony Wofford, later known as Toni Morrison, was born in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931. She was the daughter of a shipyard welder and a religious woman who sang in the church choir. Morrison had a sister Lois and two younger brothers, George and Raymond. Her parents had moved to Ohio from the South, hoping to raise their children in an environment friendlier to blacks. Despite the move to the North, the Wofford household was steeped in the oral traditions of Southern African American communities. The songs and stories of Chloe Wofford's childhood undoubtedly influenced her later work; indeed, Toni Morrison's oeuvre draws heavily upon the oral art forms of African Americans. Although Toni Morrison's writing is not autobiographical, she fondly alludes to her past, stating, "I am from the Midwest so I have a special affection for it. My beginnings are always there.... No matter what I write, I begin there.... It's the matrix for me.... Ohio also offers an escape from stereotyped black settings. It is neither plantation nor ghetto."
Toni Morrison's writing was also greatly influenced by her family. Her grandparents had relocated from to Ohio during the national movement of blacks out of the South known as the Great Migration. Her mother's parents, Aredelia and John Solomon Willis, after leaving their farm in Alabama, moved to Kentucky, and then to Ohio. They placed extreme value in the education of their children and themselves. John Willis taught himself to read and his stories became inspiration for Morrison's Song of Solomon(1977).
She was an extremely gifted student, learning to read at an early age and doing well at her studies at an integrated school. Morrison, who attended Hawthorne Elementary School, was the only African American in her 1st grade classroom. She was also the only student who began school with the ability to read. Because she was so skilled, Morrison was often asked to help other students learn to read. She frequently worked with the children of new immigrants to America.
Her parents' desire to protect their child from the racist environment of the South succeeded in many respects: racial prejudice was less of a problem in Lorain, Ohio than it would have been in the South, and Chloe Wofford played with a racially diverse group of friends when she was young. Inevitably, however, she began to experience racial discrimination as she and her peers grew older. She graduated with honors in 1949 and went to Howard University in Washington D.C. At Howard, she majored in English and minored in classics, and was actively involved in theater arts through the Howard University Players. She graduated from Howard in 1953 with a B.A. in English and a new name: Toni Wofford (Toni being a shortened version of her middle name). She went on to receive her M.A. in English from Cornell in 1955.
After a teaching stint at Texas Southern University, she returned to Howard University and met Harold Morrison. They married, and before their divorce in 1964, Toni and Harold Morrison had two sons. It was also during this time that she wrote the short story that would become the basis for her first novel, The Bluest Eye.
In 1964, she took a job in Syracuse, New York as an associate editor at Random House. She worked as an editor, raised her sons as a single mom, and continued to write fiction. In 1967, she received a promotion to senior editor and a much-desired transfer to New York City. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970. The story of a young girl who loses her mind, the novel was well received by critics but failed commercially. Between 1971 and 1972, Morrison worked as a professor of English for the State University of New York at Purchase while holding her job at Random House and working on Sula, a novel about a defiant woman and relations between black females. Sula was published in 1973.
The years 1976 and 1977 saw Morrison working as a visiting lecturer at Yale and working on her next novel, Song of Solomon. This next novel dealt more fully with black male characters. As with Sula, Morrison wrote the novel while holding a teaching position, continuing her work as an editor for Random House, and raising her two sons. Song of Solomon was published in 1977 and enjoyed both commercial and critical success. In 1981, Morrison published Tar Baby, a novel focusing on a stormy relationship between a man and a woman. In 1983, she left Random House. The next year she took a position at the State University of New York in Albany.
Beloved, the book many consider to be Morrison's masterpiece, was published in 1987. Mythic in scope, Beloved tells the story of an emancipated slave woman named Sethe who is haunted by the ghost of the daughter she killed. The novel is an ambitious attempt to grapple with slavery and the tenacity of its legacy. Dedicated to the tens of millions of slaves who died in the trans-Atlantic journey, Beloved could be called a foundation story (like Genesis or Exodus) for black America. It became a best seller and received a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1987 Toni Morrison became the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University. She is the first African American female writer to hold a named chair at a university in the Ivy League. She published Jazz in 1992, along with a non-fiction book entitled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The next year she became the eighth woman and the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. 1998 saw the publication of her seventh novel, Paradise.
One of the most critically acclaimed living writers, Morrison has been a major architect in creating a literary language for Afro-Americans. Her use of shifting perspective, fragmentary narrative, and a narrative voice extremely close to the consciousness of her characters reveals the influence of writers like Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner: two writers that Morrison, not coincidentally, studied extensively while a college student. All of her work also shows the influence of African-American folklore, songs, and women's gossip. In her attempts to map these oral art forms onto literary modes of representation, Morrison has created a body of work informed by a distinctly black sensibility while drawing a reading audience from across racial boundaries.