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Toni Morrison

Chloe Ardelia Anthony Wofford Morrison (aka Toni Morrison)
February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019
Notable: Novelist
Nationality: American

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Show Notes

Chloe Anthony Wofford was born the second of her parent’s four children. Her mother, Ella Ramah Willis Wofford, worked as a domestic while her father, George Wofford, supported the family as a welder and through odd jobs. As a child, Wofford lived in a semi-integrated town but her life was still affected by racism. Her parents were originally from the South and one of her grandparents had been born into slavery.

During the Great Depression when Wofford was still a toddler, the landlord who owned her family’s apartment set the home on fire while they were inside in an attempt to evict them. While her mother was optimistic about the possibility of progress being made with racial issues, her father distrusted all White men. (It’s unclear if this was just White males or the old-fashioned use of “men” referring to White people, both male and female.)

Growing up, Wofford’s family handed down ghost stories and folktales that they’d heard in the South. The stories were part of the family’s everyday life and were told to pass the time. Combined with her grandmother’s passion for dream interpretation she was exposed to a variety of oral traditions. These early experiences sparked her interest in literature which her parents encouraged. When she began the first grade, Wofford was the only Black student in her class but also the only child who could read which resulted in her being regarded as an equal to her peers rather than it being assumed that she was inferior.

At the age of 12, she converted to Roman Catholicism and adopted Anthony as her baptismal name, becoming Chloe Anthony Wofford. Classmates had some difficulty with Wofford’s first name so over time her baptismal name became more frequently used and was eventually shortened to “Toni”. In school, Wofford was a diligent student who read the European classics and studied Latin. Her extracurricular activities included working as secretary to the head librarian at the local library as well as being a member of the debate team and yearbook staff.

For undergrad, Wofford enrolled at Howard University where she majored in English and minored in the classics. Located in Washington, D.C., Howard was one of the first Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU) and offered Wofford an opportunity to interact with creatives and activists. She toured the South as a member of the school’s theater group where she experienced segregation first hand and witnessed how colorism was used to create a caste system that maintained division among Black people.

After graduating from Howard, Wofford next attended grad school at Cornell University from which she earned a master’s degree in English. She then spent two years in Houston teaching at Texas Southern University before returning to Howard where she taught for seven years. While teaching at Howard, Wofford had a few experiences that would have a tremendous impact on her life.

First, she met Harold Morrison, and the couple married in 1958 at which point Wofford took the last name, Morrison. And then shortly after the birth of their first son in 1961, Morrison joined a fiction writing workshop in search of a creative outlet. It was in this environment that she began working on a short story about a Black girl who desperately wants blue eyes. In 1964, now separated from her husband, Morrison temporarily returned home to Ohio to give birth to their second son.

Following her divorce, Morrison accepted a position in Syracuse, New York as a textbook editor at the publishing company Random House. She eventually transferred to the company’s New York office where she was primarily a fiction editor. While Black authors had certainly been published, Morrison felt that much of the work had been written for “the White gaze”. Morrison spent 20 years in the role and used her tenure to develop what she regarded as a “canon of Black work” where Black authors wrote for Black readers. She was involved in the publication of work from authors such as Chinua Achebe, Angela Davis, and Muhammad Ali.

Outside of her day job, Morrison continued working on her short story about a Black girl who wants blue eyes. In 1970 at 39-years-old, she released the story in its expanded novel form as The Bluest Eye, the first of her contributions to the Black literary canon. Published under the name “Toni Morrison”, the book was regarded as being controversial and was not a commercial success. Despite her debut novel being unappreciated at the time of its release, Morrison remained undeterred and continued writing.

She published Sula three years later and the book was more positively received resulting in a National Book Award nomination. Morrison finally achieved true commercial success with the 1977 release of her third book, Song of Solomon. The book was hailed by critics, won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and was the first book by a Black author to be featured in the Book of the Month Club in decades. Song of Solomon’s success gave Morrison the freedom to leave her publishing career to focus full-time on her writing. Unfortunately, her next novel, Tar Baby, received mixed reviews.

In 1974 while working on what came to be known as The Black Book, Morrison found a story about a fugitive slave. Margaret Garner was a real woman who had killed her infant daughter when she was in fear of being recaptured. For more than a decade, Morrison nourished this kernel of inspiration, eventually transforming it into a novel. Released in 1987, Beloved was an instant best-seller and came to be regarded as Morrison’s masterpiece. Yet, it was not awarded a National Book Award and arguably only received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when a petition by several notable Black writers advocated for the book.

Morrison continued writing novels but also released non-fiction titles as well as children’s books, some of which were collaborations with her youngest son. The 1990s would bring the beginning of an avalanche of awards with one of the most notable being a 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. Toni Morrison released her last book in 2017 and passed away two years later from pneumonia complications on August 5, 2019.

Bibliography

  1. Alexander, Kerri Lee. 2019. “Biography: Toni Morrison.” National Women’s History Museum. 2019. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/toni-morrison.
  2. Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Toni Morrison.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 14, 2021. https://www.biography.com/writer/toni-morrison.
  3. Chow, Andrew R. 2019. “Toni Morrison Dies at 88.” Time. Time USA, LLC. August 10, 2019. https://time.com/5630489/toni-morrison-dies/.
  4. Fox, Margalit. 2019. “Toni Morrison, Towering Novelist of the Black Experience, Dies at 88.” The New York Times. The New York Times. August 6, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/books/toni-morrison-dead.html.
  5. Innes, Lyn. 2019. “Toni Morrison Obituary.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. August 6, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/06/toni-morrison-obituary.
  6. Langer, Emily. 2019. “Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate Who Transfigured American Literature, Dies at 88.” The Washington Post. WP Company. August 7, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/toni-morrison-nobel-laureate-who-transfigured-american-literature-dies-at-88/2019/08/06/49cd4d46-b84d-11e9-a091-6a96e67d9cce_story.html.

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