Biography of Toni Morrison

About the Author

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, but their household was still steeped in the oral traditions of Southern African American communities. 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 greatly influenced by her family. Her grandparents had relocated to Ohio during the national movement of blacks out of the South known as the Great Migration. After leaving their farm in Alabama, Morrison’s mother’s parents (Ardelia and John Solomon Willis) 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 the inspiration for Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977).

Morrison 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 first-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.

Morrison graduated with honors in 1949 and matriculated at 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, Toni 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, Morrison 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, it was published to little fanfare and much criticism. Between 1971 and 1972, Morrison worked as a Professor of English at the State University of New York at Purchase while holding her job at Random House and working on Sula, which 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. 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 that many consider 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 as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Beloved could be called a foundation story (like Genesis or Exodus) for Black America. It became a bestseller and received a Pulitzer Prize.

In 1987, Toni Morrison became the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University. She was the first African American woman 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 author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. 1998 saw the publication of her seventh novel, Paradise. In subsequent years she published Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2015).

One of the most critically acclaimed American writers, Morrison was a major architect in creating a literary language for African Americans. Her work is told in black vernacular, black settings, and is focused on blackness—deeply unusual for her time. Her work formed a distinctly black literary sensibility, while drawing a reading audience that cut across racial boundaries.

On August 5th, 2019, Toni Morrison died at the age of 88 in New York, creating a crater-sized hole in the American literary landscape. But as Nikki Giovanni articulated in a 2019 interview with Democracy Now!, “We will never lose Toni Morrison. She will always be here.” This is in part because of Morrison’s staggering body of work, and also because of the legacy she leaves behind. Many of her peers and critics commend Morrison not only for her creation of a literary language for African Americans, but also for the way her writing privileged and displayed the interiority of Black America. Angela Davis credits Morrison with teaching the world “to imagine enslaved women and men with full lives, with complex subjectivities, with interiority,” and essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah says that by doing that, Morrison gave Black America “a record of gesture and custom and being and belonging.”

Another aspect of Morrison’s legacy was the work she did as an editor for Random House, working closely with black authors and publishing books by Muhammad Ali, Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Toni Cade Bambara, Gail Jones, etc. By highlighting and uplifting not just her own voice, but the voices of other black writers as well, Morrison paved the way for African American studies and Black female literary criticism in the academy. Morrison also published a work of literary criticism, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012. As an author, editor, professor, and political commentator, Toni Morrison was a luminary.


Study Guides on Works by Toni Morrison

Beloved is Toni Morrison's fifth novel. Published in 1987 as Morrison was enjoying increasing popularity and success, Beloved became a best seller and received the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Its reception by critics was overwhelming, and the...

Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye came about at a critical moment in the history of American civil rights. Morrison began Pecola's story as a short piece in 1962; it became a novel-in-progress by 1965. It was written, as one can see from the...

Jazz was first published in 1992, a year before Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Chronologically, Jazz is Morrison's sixth novel of seven, followed by Paradise and preceded by The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby...

A Mercy is a non-fiction novel written by American author Toni Morrison. Morrison is an author, a teacher, and a professor in the Princeton University. She won numerous prizes, including the Nobel for literature, and is most known for her story...

Paradise was published in 1997, the seventh of Morrison’s novels and her first after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. It completes a trilogy that begins with Beloved and follows with Jazz, each probing themes of memory, violence,...

"Recitatif" is Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison’s only short story. It was published in 1983 in Amiri and Amina Baraka’s Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women. Though race is a central component of the story about two...

Song of Solomon, a rich and empowering novel published in 1977 that focuses on black life across America, follows the path of Milkman Dead, a young black male in search for his identity. Toni Morrison's gift of storytelling clearly shines through...

Published in 1973, Sula is Toni Morrison’s second novel. Like her first novel, The Bluest Eye, this one also deals with the life experiences of two black girls. Yet it does not merely address the childhood experiences but follows the girls as they...

Sweetness was written by Toni Morrison and published on February 2, 2015. It is the second short story she has published. It was published in The New Yorker magazine.

The story Sweetness is about a light-black skinned mother who gives birth to a...

Tar Baby is a novel written by Toni Morrison and published in 1981. Morrison was a professor at various universities all over the United States, but she moved to NYC to become a part time writer in the mornings before she went to work as an editor...

Born in raised in small town Ohio, author Toni Morrison accomplished a lot in her 88 year long life. After receiving her undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and her master's degree in American Literature from Cornell University, she went...