TONI MORRISON Biography - Writers


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Toni Morrison, the first black woman to receive Nobel Prize in Literature, was               
born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, U.S.A. She was               
the second of four children of George Wofford, a shipyard welder and Ramah                   
Willis Wofford. Her parents moved to Ohio from the South to escape racism and to             
find better opportunities in the North. Her father was a hardworking and                     
dignified man. While the children were growing up, he worked three jobs at the               
same time for almost 17 years. He took a great deal of pride in the quality of               
his work, so that each time he welded a perfect seam he'd also weld his name                 
onto the side of the ship. He also made sure to be well-dressed, even during the             
Depression. Her mother was a church-going woman and she sang in the choir. At                 
home, Chloe heard many songs and tales of Southern black folklore. The Woffords               
were proud of their heritage.                                                                 
Lorain was a small industrial town populated with immigrant Europeans, Mexicans               
and Southern blacks who lived next to each other. Chloe attended an integrated               
school. In her first grade, she was the only black student in her class and the               
only one who could read. She was friends with many of her white schoolmates and               
did not encounter discrimination until she started dating. She hoped one day to               
become a dancer like her favorite ballerina, Maria Tallchief, and she also loved             
to read. Her early favorites were the Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoyevski,               
French author Gustave Flaubert and English novelist Jane Austen. She was an                   
excellent student and she graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949.             
Chloe Wofford then attended the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C.,           
where she majored in English with a minor in classics. Since many people couldn't             
pronounce her first name correctly, she changed it to Toni, a shortened version               
of her middle name. She joined a repertory company, the Howard University                     
Players, with whom she made several tours of the South. She saw firsthand the                 
life of the blacks there, the life her parents had escaped by moving north. Toni             
Wofford graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. She                 
then attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and received a master's                 
degree in 1955.                                                                               
After graduating, Toni was offered a job at Texas Southern University in Houston,             
where she taught introductory English. Unlike Howard University, where black                 
culture was neglected or minimized, at Texas Southern they "always had Negro                 
history week" and introduced to her the idea of black culture as a discipline                 
rather than just personal family reminiscences. In 1957 she returned to Howard               
University as a member of faculty. This was a time of civil rights movement and               
she met several people who were later active in the struggle. She met the poet               
Amiri Baraka (at that time called LeRoi Jones) and Andrew Young (who later                   
worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, and later still, became a mayor of Atlanta,               
Georgia). One of her students was Stokely Carmichael, who then became a leader               
of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Another of her students,             
Claude Brown, wrote Manchild in the Promised Land which was published in 1965                 
and became a classic of African-American literature.                                         
At Howard she met and fell in love with a young Jamaican architect, Harold                   
Morrison. They married in 1958 and their first son, Harold Ford, was born in                 
1961. Toni continued teaching while helping take care of her family. She also                 
joined a small writer's group as a temporary escape from an unhappy married life.             
She needed company of other people who appreciated literature as much as she did.             
Each member was required to bring a story or poem for discussion. One week,                   
having nothing to bring, she quickly wrote a story loosely based on a girl she               
knew in childhood who had prayed to God for blue eyes. The story was well-received           
by the group and then Toni put it away thinking she was done with it. Her                     
marriage deteriorated, and while pregnant with their second child she left her               
husband, left her job at the university, and took her son on a trip to Europe.               
Later, she divorced her husband and returned to her parents' house in Lorain                 
with her two sons.                                                                           
In the fall of 1964 Morrison obtained a job with a textbook subsidiary of Random             
House in Syracuse, New York as an associate editor. Her hope was to be                       
transferred soon to New York City. While working all day, her sons were taken                 
care of by the housekeeper and in the evening Morrison cooked dinner and played               
with the boys until their bedtime. When her sons were asleep, she started                     
writing. She dusted off the story she had written for the writer's group and                 
decided to make it into a novel. She drew on her memories from childhood and                 
expanded them with her imagination so that the characters developed a life of                 
their own. She found writing exciting and challenging. Other than parenting, she             
found everything else boring by comparison.                                                   
In 1967 she was transferred to New York and became a senior editor at Random                 
House. While editing books by prominent black Americans like Muhammad Ali,                   
Andrew Young and Angela Davis, she was busy sending her own novel to various                 
publishers. The Bluest Eye was eventually published in 1970 to much critical                 
acclaim, although it was not commercially successful. From 1971-1972 Morrison                 
was the associate professor of English at the State University of New York at                 
Purchase while she continued working at Random House. In addition, she soon                   
started writing her second novel where she focused on a friendship between two               
adult black women. Sula was published in 1973. It became an alternate selection               
by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Excerpts were published in the Redbook magazine               
and it was nominated for the 1975 National Book Award in fiction.                             
From 1976-1977, she was a visiting lecturer at Yale University in New Haven,                 
Connecticut. She was also writing her third novel. This time she focused on                   
strong black male characters. Her insight into male world came from watching her             
sons. Song of Solomon was published in 1977. It won the National Book Critic's               
Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award.               
Morrison was also appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on             
the Arts. In 1981 she published her fourth novel, Tar Baby, where for the first               
time she describes interaction between black and white characters. Her picture               
appeared on the cover of the March 30, 1981 issue of the Newsweek magazine.                   
In 1983, Morrison left her position at Random House, having worked there for                 
almost twenty years. In 1984 she was named the Albert Schweitzer Professor of                 
the Humanities at the State University of New York in Albany. While living in                 
Albany, she started writing her first play, Dreaming Emmett. It was based on the             
true story of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed by racist whites in 1955                   
after being accused of whistling at a white woman. The play premiered January 4,             
1986 at the Marketplace Theater in Albany. Morrison's next novel, Beloved, was               
influenced by a published story about a slave, Margaret Garner, who in 1851                   
escaped with her children to Ohio from her master in Kentucky. When she was                   
about to be re-captured, she tried to kill her children rather than return them               
to life of slavery. Only one of her children died and Margaret was imprisoned                 
for her deed. She refused to show remorse, saying she was "unwilling to have her             
children suffer as she had done." Beloved was published in 1987 and was a                     
bestseller. In 1988 it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction.                                   
In 1987, Toni Morrison was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council               
of Humanities at Princeton University. She became the first black woman writer               
to hold a named chair at an Ivy League University. While accepting, Morrison                 
said, "I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing." She taught creative                 
writing and also took part in the African-American studies, American studies and             
women's studies programs. She also started her next novel, Jazz, about life in               
the 1920's. The book was published in 1992. In 1993, Toni Morrison received the               
Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the eighth woman and the first black woman to             
do so.