In a New York Times Review of Books poll from 2006, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was voted the greatest American novel of the past quarter-century. The banner photo above the article features Morrison’s face surrounded by other great novelists — all white men. Scrolling through the list of nominated novels, a reader finds a steady stream of white men … and one white woman: Marilynne Robinson.
Morrison wrote some of America’s best novels — The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Jazz to name a few — that describe in poetic detail the Black American experience. Her speaking voice, like her voice on the page, tells stories of horrors and pain, malice and slights, and bears witness to the beauty of the human spirit in the vise-like grip of adversity. And she found astronomical success in a literary world that routinely overlooks and devalues Black culture.
Toni was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio on February 18, 1931, during the height of the Great Depression. Lorain was a steel town on the shores of Lake Erie, west of the Cleveland suburbs. Chloe was the second oldest of four children and her father, George, worked as a welder for U.S. Steel.
George Wofford had moved to the racially integrated city of Lorain after witnessing a lynching in his hometown of Cartersville, Georgia. Lynching — a home-grown form of American terrorism against Black people — killed thousands of Black Americans in the years after the Civil War, and led to six million Black Americans fleeing to the North between 1910 and 1970.
Morrison later credited her innate self-confidence to growing up in an integrated community. She said she did not fully understand the embedded caste system of race in America until she moved to the East Coast — and even then, her spirit rose above it, finding it laughable and ridiculous.
The young author left for Howard University (the nation’s premier historically Black university) in 1949 to pursue a degree in English. In 1953, after she graduated, she went to Cornell for a master’s degree. She began a career in education to support herself, teaching in Houston for a few years, before returning to teach at Howard for the next seven years.
Throughout her academic career, Morrison wrote novels, working on developing her own voice as a powerful writer even as she taught others to use their own.
In 1965, in the wake of her divorce and birth of her second son, Morrison began working as an editor at Random House in their textbook division in Syracuse in upstate New York. Two years later, she transferred to their New York City office and became the first Black female senior editor in the fiction department.
Morrison woke up at 4 a.m. each morning to write as she raised her two children as a single, divorced mother.
Morrison as a writer
In 1983, Morrison left her job as an editor (where she had edited seminal books by Black authors like Lucille Clifton and Angela Davis) to pursue writing full-time. Taking this leap caused her great anxiety, and led her to reflect on the experience of Black women and the forces impinging on their freedom.
Thus, explained Morrison, Beloved was born: the novel, based on the true story of Margaret Garner, was published in 1987 and told of a mother who kills her own children rather than let them be returned to their owners. Despite massive critical acclaim, it was snubbed for the National Book Award — nearly 50 Black writers sent a letter of protest to the New York Times. That year, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1993, Morrison became the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize for literature. “I believe one of the principal ways we acquire, hold information is via narrative,” Morrison said. So naturally, in her acceptance speech, she told a story. In her soothing, powerful voice, Morrison wove a spell-binding story about the power of language, and the responsibility of writers and readers to keep it alive.
“We die. That may be the meaning of life,” she said. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Morrison as a prophet
Morrison’s family was spiritual, and one branch of her family was Catholic — including, Morrison said in a 2015 interview, one of her cousins whom she was close to. When Morrison was 12, she was baptized Catholic. She took the baptismal name Anthony, which became Toni, her pen name.
“At an early age, I moved into this other religion and was perfectly content with its aesthetics. I grew up a little older and began to take it seriously and then took it seriously for years and years and years,” said Morrison in 2015.
Morrison said that her faith always inspired the spirituality of her novels and her understanding of storytelling. In a conversation with Cornel West, she spoke about viewing The Passion of the Christ as a story of a Black man suffering: “I was looking at it like a lynching. This is an innocent and betrayed man who’s being lynched. I didn’t want to look away. I wanted to endure it.”
America is a country of two stories — we have a segregated history, where the victories of white folks are too often bought with the suffering of Black folks. It’s a story of cruelty for no reason, and, as Morrison pointed out, discrimination on the basis of race, which has no scientific reality.
“Devoutly, she has conjured up alternatives to such a destiny: political and skin-close means to a transcendent self-respect,” wrote her colleagues in 1988. “Today, all the literate world knows Toni Morrison.”
From 1989 to her retirement in 2006, Morrison held a chair of the humanities at Princeton University. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Rutgers University in 2011.
Morrison, who died in 2019 at 88, was often described as laughing. She said one of her duties to her sons was to have a sense of humor. Even though her stories delved into the deep pains and struggles of Black Americans, she never lost her humor as a storyteller, and her joy as a lover of words.
Toni Morrison’s stories are tales from the margins — they carry the voices of people edged out of power or glossed over by the establishment. Morrison said she wrote in the poetry of Black storytelling: she wrote about the Black experience, from her own particularly Black experience — and the world was welcome to sit, stay awhile, and listen.