To perfectly encapsulate the greatness of an author like Toni Morrison is a challenge in itself. The impact she had — on the literary world, on Black literature and on the political and landscape across America — is almost unparalleled. We may never again have a literary giant like Toni Morrison, but that we had her is itself one of the biggest blessings of the literary world.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, to a Black working-class family in Lorain, Ohio. When she was around two years old, her family’s landlord set fire to their house while they were still inside because her parents couldn’t afford to pay rent, an incident Morrison acknowledged in several interviews to highlight her family’s strength and integrity in the face of adversity. At the age of 12, she converted to Catholicism and took the baptismal name Anthony, from which the nickname “Toni” came about.
Although no one in her family had a literary background, Morrison’s upbringing amidst telling African American folktales, ghost stories, and singing songs was an unbeknownst foundation to becoming a prolific writer who embodied a deep sense of heritage and a love for language.
Education and Early Career
Morrison’s higher education allowed her to segway into the expansive career she carved for herself. With a B.A. in English from Howard University and an M.A. in American Literature from Cornell University, she began teaching English at Texas Southern University, later returning to Howard in 1957.
While teaching at Howard, she met her then-husband Harold Morrison, whose surname she took upon marriage in 1958. She was pregnant with her second son when the couple divorced in 1964, after which she moved to Syracuse, New York to be an editor at Random House for their textbook division. Shortly after that, she became the first Black female senior editor of the fiction department at Random House.
It was in her capacity as an editor that she recognized and brought Black literature into the mainstream, ushering in the works of African-American writers and poets who went on to have great literary success. It was she who brought to publication the 1975 autobiography of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
One of her greatest contributions as an editor was for The Black Book, a compilation of photographs, essays, and documents of Black life in the United States from the time of slavery till 1920.
The beginning of her literary career
Morrison published her debut novel The Bluest Eye in 1970 at the age of 39, writing the book bit by bit every morning as she raised her two sons. Her second book Sula followed three years later and was nominated for the National Book Award. By the time she released her third novel, Song of Solomon, Morrison was a household name in America. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 1983, Morrison left the publishing industry to dedicate her time to writing and teaching English at two universities in New York. Her first play, Dreaming Emmet — a historical retelling of the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till in 1955 — was performed in 1986 at the State University of New York while she was teaching there.
Morrison’s most recognized work of literature, Beloved, was published in 1987. The book’s success was unparalleled, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among other prestigious awards. The book is based on the true story of enslaved African-American woman Margaret Garner and is the first in what is known as the Beloved Trilogy. Before the release of her third novel in the Trilogy, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, making history as the first Black woman to win the prize.
The book was adapted into a movie in 1988 by Oprah Winfrey but was poorly received at the box office. However, several of Morrison’s books were selected by Winfrey to read at her Book Club on her Oprah Winfrey Show, boosting her book sales tremendously. Morrison praised the club as a “reading revolution.”
Academic Honors and Accolades
Her impact on the literary landscape was widely honored over the years; she was a Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and received an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. She held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University from 1989 till 2006, and in 2017, Princeton dedicated Morrison Hall in her honor. Princeton has also commemorated a months-long exhibition as a tribute to Morrison, running from February 22 to June 4, 2023.
Morrison’s awards — a whopping 32 of them — have never defined her literary brilliance; they were merely a recognition of her unparalleled prose that became a realm of its own exclusive to the Black experience that almost died an untold death until she wrote it into present memory.
Controversies and book bans
The praise and distinctions for her work have been countered by equal measures of controversies and book bans over the years, particularly in high schools. Opponents consider it inappropriate for teenagers to be reading about “explicit content” such as rape, enslavement, and the unfiltered truth Morrison brought to light in all her books.
Toni Morrison has the solitary distinction of being a Black, female author whose work remains both timeless and will only become more relevant with time. The impact she had on the literary landscape, particularly for Black authors, lives on as an unparalleled, glorious legacy that will live on endlessly.
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