February 08, 2011

Feb 8 – Toni Morrison: Storyteller Extraordinaire

Toni Morrison
I have been an avid reader since I learned how to read. I still haven’t decided if I will ever buy a Kindle or Sony e-Reader because I like the feel of holding a book and turning the pages, but that’s a different matter.

One of my favorite authors is Toni Morrison. She is intelligent, feisty, trailblazing, award-winning, varied, somewhat mystical, often controversial – and she always stretches your mind and touches some part of your soul.

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, in Larain, Ohio, the daughter of a shipyard welder and a housewife, she was a voracious reader from an early age. She was also the only Black student in her first-grade class. As a young girl, her exposure to literature was quite diverse. Her father told her folktales of the Black community, and her favorite authors were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy.

High School Yearbook Photo

In 1953, ‘Chloe’ earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, from Howard University, in Washington, DC. It was at Howard when she first started writing fiction, as part of a writers’ group. One of her short stories was about a little, Black girl who longed for blue eyes. This story formed the basis for her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970. After graduating from Howard, ‘Chloe’ earned a Master of Arts degree, two years later, from Cornell University, in New York. At this point, she changed her name to Toni, and after she got married in 1958, she became Toni Morrison.

Ms. Morrison began her professional career teaching at Texas Southern University, Howard University and SUNY Albany. In 1964, she accepted a position as an editor at Random House Publishing, in New York City, where she remained for several years.  While there, she played a crucial role in bringing Black authors to light, such as Angela Davis. 

At this point, Ms. Morrison had also begun writing, and The Bluest Eye, Sula and Song of Solomon (winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award) were published between 1970-1977.  She also won more awards and was appointed to the National Council on the Arts. Ms. Morrison began teaching again in 1977, at Yale University. In 1981, Tar Baby was published – the same year that she became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and in 1987, her most famous novel, Beloved, was published. It won her a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and an American Book Award. It was also adapted into a film, starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover; and in May 2006, The New York Times Book Review named Beloved “The best American novel published in the previous twenty-five years.”

Rewinding a few years, in 1987, Ms. Morrison was appointed to the Robert F. Goheen Chair in Humanities, at Princeton University, becoming the first African-American female writer to hold a named Chair at any Ivy League university. Ms. Morrison held this position until 2006, when she retired.

A prolific writer, Ms. Morrison has written several other works of fiction, non-fiction, a play and other important pieces. She has even co-written some children’s books with her younger son, Slade Morrison.

Awards bestowed upon her continued to abound, including an honorary Doctor of Letters from Oxford University, in 2005; but probably the highest honor was to become the first African-American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1993.

Toni Morrison receiving her Nobel Prize
The most recent novel, which Ms. Morrison has written, is a mercy, published in 2008. Click here to watch a New York Times interview with her, discussing the novel.

She has tantalized the minds of millions over several decades. I certainly feel more enriched from hearing Toni Morrison’s voice through her words leaping from the pages.

Sources: About.com, Wikipedia, Ohio History Central, Google Images

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