For Black History Month we are doing a reoccurring series featuring some of the most influential Black authors of the past decades. When we think about Black/African American literature, or literature in general really, we undoubtedly think about Toni Morrison. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison leaves a towering level of influence on writing and literature with exceptionally genius works like The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon. At times, for many of us who have read Morrison, there is a demarcation of time in which we call “before reading Morrison” and “after reading Morrison”—her clear and candid words will forever leave you changed.
The Beginnings of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio to a working-class family. She later changed her name to Anthony “Toni” when she converted to Catholicism at the age of 12. Growing up, Morrison’s environment always encouraged a rich appreciation for literature, which evidently impacted her life’s choices and nurtured her love for books and writing. Her parents instilled within her a love of language and taught her how language is derived through culture and context; African-American oral traditions (song and story-telling) and classics like Jane Austen were fundamental works in her life.
After graduating from Lorain High School, Morrison attended Howard University and graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English. An ambitious and intelligent academic, Morrison would later earn her M.A. from Cornell University in 1955. Shortly after getting her M.A., Morrison entered academia as an English professor. She taught at Texas Southern University in Houston from 1955 to 1957, and then at Howard University until 1964. In 1965, Morrison made a career change after her divorce, moving to Syracuse, New York with her two sons to become an editor at L. W. Singer, the textbook division of Random House. Soon after, Morrison became the first Black woman to hold a position as a senior editor in the fiction department of Random House where she created the most change.
Flipping the Discourse
Morrison’s experiences of living in Jim Crow America undeniably played a significant role in the books she wrote. The Black experience is the focus of all her novels—her intent was always writing for Black people and writing about the Black experience under the White gaze. In doing so, Black literature, with Morrison leading the charge, entered a new age.
Firstly, as an editor, Morrison made sure she did everything in her ability to bring forth and nurture Black creatives and voices within an industry that actively refuses to acknowledge their existence. She was involved with the publications of important autobiographies like Angela Davis’s Angela Davis: An Autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. Additionally, Morrison played a critical role in establishing Black literature and African-American writings as valuable literary accomplishments. With Morrison actively working to publish content by Black and African-American writers, she created a space and broke the barrier for Black literature to flourish and breathe that is still felt today.
It wasn’t until 1970 at the age of 39 that Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The book takes place in Lorain, Ohio in 1941 and follows the story of a young girl called Pecola Breedlove. Through Pecola, we see how an environment and community could tear a young girl to pieces; the way how Whiteness seeps into their lives is insidious and brings forth a discussion of internalized racism, Black girlhood, and the actions/inactions of religious and social communities. In addition to The Bluest Eye, Morrison continued to publish her books that would become central to Black literature like Sula in 1973, Song of Solomon in 1977, and Beloved in 1987.
A Legacy Unmatched
Morrison as an editor was a vital figure in bringing Black and African American literature into the mainstream. In an incredible documentary about her life and career, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, we get to see from her colleagues how much of a role she played in publishing books by Black people for Black people, a notion that almost seemed impossible at the time. What she accomplished as an editor would leave a legacy for Black and African-American writers within the publishing industry and impacted Black literature as a whole.
Her work as a writer is incomparable. What she accomplished as a writer and through her books changed the discourse on the Black experience and how it would be represented. Through her books, she challenges the White gaze and what exactly it means to survive in a world where you are oppositional to Whiteness—where you are seen as lesser and never afforded the meaning of value and respect. In her books, Morrison takes on this challenge and although her books are heart-wrenching to read, they are important to understanding the history and struggles of Black people. As always with Morrison’s books, underneath the tragedy and trauma, there is hope, endurance, and love that waits for us at the end because that’s what makes life interesting and all the more impactful.
And with this, I will leave you with a clip from the genius that is Toni Morrison:
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