BHT Celebrates: Toni Morrison

  

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford) February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019 was an American Novelist, Essayist, Editor, Teacher and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. 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, she won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Beloved (1987).


Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio. She was the second of four children in a working-class, African American family. Her father, George Wofford, was about 15 years old when white people lynched two black businessmen who lived on his street. Morrison 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 hopes 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. When Morrison was about two, her family's landlord set fire to the house they lived in, while they were home, because her parents couldn't pay the 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." Her favorite authors were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy.


In 1949, she enrolled at the historically black Howard University, seeking the company of fellow black intellectuals. It was there in Washington, DC that she encountered racially segregated restaurants and buses for the first time.

She graduated from Howard in 1953 with a B.A. in English and went on to earn a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. She taught English, first at Texas Southern University in Houston for two years, then at Howard for seven years.


In 1967 she began working for 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 and Chinua Achebe and South African playwright Athol Fugard. She fostered a new generation of African American authors, including Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones, whose writing Morrison discovered, and she brought out the autobiography of boxer Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. She also published and publicized the work of Henry Dumas. Among other books Morrison developed and edited is The Black Book (1974), an anthology of photographs, illustrations, essays, and other documents of black life in the United States from the time of slavery to the 1970s.


Morrison developed the story for her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 when Morrison was thirty-nine. It did not sell well at first, but the City University of New York put the novel on its reading list for its new black-studies department, as did other colleges, which boosted sales. The book also brought her to the attention of the acclaimed editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf, an imprint of Random House. Gottlieb would go on to edit 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), brought her national acclaim. The book was 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 won the National Book Critics Circle Award.


In 1983, Morrison left publishing to devote more time to writing, and lived in a converted boathouse on the Hudson River in Nyack, New York.

Morrison's first play, Dreaming Emmett, is about the murder by white men of black teenager Emmett Till in 1955. It was performed in 1986 at the State University of New York at Albany, where she was teaching at the time.


In 1987, Morrison published Beloved. It was inspired by the true story of an enslaved African American woman, Margaret Garner, a piece of history that Morrison had discovered when compiling The Black Book. Garner had escaped slavery but was pursued by slave hunters. Facing a return to slavery, Garner killed her two-year-old daughter but was captured before she could kill herself. Morrison's novel imagines the dead baby returning as a ghost, Beloved, to    

haunt her mother and family. Beloved was a critical success, and a bestseller for 25 weeks. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote in a review for the New York Times, "Ms. Morrison's versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, 'Beloved' will put them to rest." 

Despite overall high acclaim, Beloved failed to win the prestigious National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Maya Angelou along with 48 other Black Critics and Writers, protested the omission in a statement that The New York Times published on January 24, 1988. "Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve," they wrote.

Two months later, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It also won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.


Beloved is the first of three novels about love and African American History, sometimes called the Beloved Trilogy. Morrison stated that they are intended to be read together, explaining, "The conceptual connection is the search for the beloved – the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you." The second novel in the trilogy, Jazz, came out in 1992 and the third of her Beloved trilogy, Paradise, about citizens of an all-black town, came out in 1997.

From 1997 to 2003, Morrison was an Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. From 1989 until her retirement in 2006, Morrison held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University.


Morrison wrote books for children with her younger son, Slade Morrison, who was a painter and a musician. Slade died of pancreatic cancer on December 22, 2010, aged 45. Morrison's novel Home was half-completed when her son died. She said that afterward, "I stopped writing until I began to think, He would be really put out if he thought that he had caused me to stop. 'Please, Mom, I'm dead, could you keep going . . . ?” She completed Home and dedicated it to her son Slade Morrison. 


Published in 2012, it is the story of a Korean War veteran in the segregated United States of the 1950s, who tries to save his sister from brutal medical experiments at the hands of a white doctor.

Morrison’s eleventh novel “Home” was published in 2015. It follows “Bride”, an executive in the fashion and beauty industry whose mother tormented her as a child for being dark-skinned––a childhood trauma that has dogged Bride her whole life. 


In writing about the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton, Morrison wrote that, since Whitewater, Bill Clinton was being mistreated in the same way black people often are:

“Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”

In the context of the 2008 Democratic Primary campaign, Morrison stated to Time magazine: "People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race." In the Democratic primary contest for the 2008 presidential race, Morrison endorsed Senator Barack Obama over Senator Hillary Clinton, though expressing admiration and respect for the latter. When he won, Morrison said she felt like an American for the first time. She said, "I felt very powerfully patriotic when I went to the inauguration of Barack Obama. I felt like a kid."


In April 2015, speaking of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott—three unarmed black men killed by white police officers—Morrison said: "People keep saying, 'We need to have a conversation about race.' This is the conversation. When I see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back. And I see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, 'Is it over?', I will say yes."


After the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, Morrison wrote an essay "Mourning For Whiteness," published in the November 21, 2016, issue of the New Yorker. In it she argues that white Americans are so afraid of losing privileges afforded them by their race, white    

voters elected Trump, a candidate supported by the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, in order to keep the idea of white supremacy alive.


Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Also, that year, she was honored with the National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.


This week on August 5, 2019, Toni Morrison died at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx, New York City  from complications of pneumonia. She was 88 years old. Morrison's papers are part of the permanent library collections of Princeton University.

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Remembering Toni Morrison