Toni Morrison, Novelist


In 1992, Toni Morrisons novel Jazz joined novels by two other African-American women novelists, Alice Walker and Terry McMillan, on the New York Times “Best Sellers” list. Never before had three African-American authors been on the Times list concurrently. This was one of several firsts for the 1978 Cleveland Arts Prize recipient, who in 1993 was also the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature and the first American woman to win the award since 1938.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (for Beloved, in 1988), Toni Morrison is also the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award (1977), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1977), the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award (1987–88), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1988), the Modern Language Association of America Commonwealth Award in Literature (1989), the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (1996), and the National Humanities Medal (2000).

Like a hometown quick to claim its own, Americans black and white, rich and poor, male and female, presidents, and common men and women all clamor to claim Toni Morrison. But Morrison’s rise to greatness did not happen overnight. The Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931. A native daughter of Lorain, Ohio, she graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949. In 1953 she received a B.A. in English from Howard University, where she changed her name to Toni—an abbreviation of her middle name. Two years later, she earned an M.A. from Cornell University. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, and several years later joined a small writers’ group for which she wrote a short story about a girl who prayed to God for blue eyes. That story she later developed into her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970).

For much of the 1960s and ’70s, Morrison balanced a writing career with parenting (she is the mother of two boys) and extensive careers in publishing and academe. In 1989, when she accepted the Robert Goheen Professorship, becoming the first black woman to hold a chair at an Ivy League university, she said, “I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing.”

Since then, she’s taught creative writing and participated in the African-American Studies, American Studies, and Women’s Studies programs at Princeton. Prior to her appointment at Princeton, Morrison held teaching positions at Texas Southern University, Howard University, Yale and the State University of New York at Purchase. Simultaneously, she pursued a career as an editor at Random House between 1965 and 1983.

The balance she strikes between writing and ordinary living helps create the genius that is Morrison: part ivory tower intellectual, part commonsensical everyday folks. Both dispositions make regular appearances in her work. The Bluest Eye, for example, was certainly influenced by the black-consciousness-charged civil rights and Black Power movements of the late 1960s. Yet, after going out of print in the 1970s the book made a major reappearance in the ’80s, says Morrison, thanks to the demand by women’s studies groups who were intrigued by the young girl’s coming-of-age story.

In 1998, Morrison’s Beloved was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Influenced by a true story, Beloved is about an enslaved woman who escapes with her children to Ohio. When re-captured, she tries to kill her children rather than have them return to slavery. Although it’s a story about America and slavery, Morrison directs our attention to the individuals caught up in the historical drama. “The book was not about the institutionsSlavery with a capital S,” she told Time magazine in an interview in 1989. “It was about these anonymous people called slaves. What they do to keep on, how they make a life, what they're willing to risk, however long it lasts, in order to relate to one anotherthat was incredible to me.”

It's been said that everyone has at least one book in them. By 2002 Morrison had given us seven great novels, two books of essays, an unpublished playwith the promise of more to come. Her novels are must reading at colleges and universities worldwide, and her work challenges each of us to remember the too-often-forgotten little people.

—Bakari Kitwana


A Season of Storms Remembered

I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summerits dust and lowering skies. It remains for me a season of storms. The parched days and sticky nights are undistinguished in my mind, but the storms, the violent sudden storms, both frightened and quenched me. But my memory is uncertain; I recall a summer storm in the town where we lived and imagine a summer my mother knew in 1929. There was a tornado that year, she said, that blew away half of south Lorain. I mix her summer with my own. Biting the strawberry, thinking of storms, I see her. A slim young girl in a pink crepe dress. One hand is on her hip; the other lolls about her thighwaiting. The wind swoops her up, high above the houses, but she is still standing, hand on hip. Smiling. The anticipation and promise in her lolling hand are not altered by the holocaust. In the summer tornado of 1929, my mother’s hand is unextinguished. She is strong, smiling, and relaxed while the world falls down about her. So much for memory. Public fact becomes private reality, and the seasons of a Midwestern town become the Moirai of our small lives.

The Bluest Eye: a Novel (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970)


Elegance When All Around Was Shabby

Down on his knees, Richard Misner was angry at his anger, and at his mishandling of it. Used to obstacles, adept at disagreement, he could not reconcile the level of his present fury with what seemed to be its source. He loved God so much it hurt, although that same love sometimes made him laugh out loud. And he deeply respected his colleagues. For centuries they had held on. Preaching, shouting, dancing, singing, absorbing, arguing, counseling, pleading, commanding. Their passion burned or smoldered like lava over a land that had waged war against them and their flock without surcease. A lily-livered war without honor as either its point or reward; an unprincipled war that thrived as much on the victor's cowardice as on his mendacity. On stage and in print he and his brethren had been the heart of comedy, the chosen backs for parody’s knife. They were cursed by death row inmates, derided by pimps. Begrudged even miserly collection plates. Yet through all of that, if the Spirit seemed to be slipping away they had held on to it with their teeth if they had to, grabbed it in their fists if need be. They took it to buildings ready to be condemned, to churches from which white congregations had fled, to quilt tents, to ravines and logs in clearings. Whispered it in cabins lit by moonlight lest the Law see. Prayed for it behind trees and in sod houses, their voices undaunted by roaring winds. From Abyssinian to storefronts, from Pilgrim Baptist to abandoned movie houses; in polished shoes, worn boots, beat-up cars and Lincoln Continentals, well fed or malnourished, they let in the light, flickering low or blazing like a comet, pierce the darkness of days. They wiped white folks’ spit from the faces of black children, hid strangers from posses and police, relayed life-preserving information faster than the newspaper and better than the radio. At sickbeds they looked death in the eye and mouth. They pressed the heads of weeping mothers to their shoulders before conducting their life-gouged daughters to the cemetery. They wept for chain gangs, reasoned with magistrates. Made whole congregations scream. In ecstasy. In belief. That death was life, don’t you know, and every life, don’t you know, was holy, don’t you know, in His eyesight. Rocked as they were by the sight of evil, its snout was familiar to them. Real wonder, however, lay in the amazing shapes and substances God’s grace took: gospel in times of persecution; the exquisite wins of people forbidden to compete; the upright righteousness of those who let no boot hold them downpeople who made Job’s patience look like restlessness. Elegance when all around was shabby.

Paradise (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)


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