World Changer of the Month — December 2021: Toni Morrison
Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Chloe Anthony (“Toni”) Wofford Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. She was the second of four children of working-class parents, George Wofford, a shipyard welder, and his wife, the former Ella Ramah Wofford, née Willis. When Morrison was two years old her family’s home was set on fire by their landlord while she and her family were in it. “People set our house on fire to evict us,” Morrison later told an interviewer. Morrison went on to state that her father refused to be intimidated by racially motivated hostility.
Morrison’s parents encouraged her early interest in literature, which encompassed Austen, Flaubert and Tolstoy. Her father instilled in her a sense of heritage and language by sharing with her traditional African-American folktales, ghost stories, and anecdotes he had heard growing up in the south. This nurtured Morrison’s interest in narrative and the African-American folklore tradition.
Morrison graduated with honors from high school and studied humanities at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1955, she earned an MA in English at Cornell University. Thereafter, she taught at Texas Southern University in Houston, and then Howard University. In 1964, after a divorce, Morrison left her position as a professor and moved to New York with her two young sons to join Random House as an editor in the fiction department. She would go on to become the first Black woman senior editor at Random House, a position she held for 20 years. One of her achievements there was, in her own words, developing “a canon of black work” in the fiction genre. In that capacity, Morrison played a vital role in bringing Black literature into the mainstream.
Eventually, Morrison began writing and publishing fiction pieces of her own. She authored 11 novels, as well as children’s books and essay collections. Her best-known works are the novels The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987) and the nonfiction volumes Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) and Remember (2004).
In 1989, following the success of Beloved, Morrison was appointed professor of humanities at Princeton University. She also served as a visiting professor at Yale University and Bard College.
In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first African American woman to be selected for this distinction, and the first Black woman of any nationality to win a Nobel Prize in any category.
A quotation from Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech provides an appropriate epitaph: “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
To read more about Ms. Morrison’s tremendous life and legacy, please visit: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/06/toni-morrison-obituary, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/books/toni-morrison-dead.html, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toni_Morrison. Footage of Ms. Morrison can be viewed at: https://nyti.ms/2lwJZ5a.