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Toni Morrison | Biography

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Toni Morrison, christened Chloe Wofford, was born February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, to George and Ramah Wofford. George worked as a welder and also held several other jobs to support the family while Ramah was a homemaker who provided nurturing support for her children. Morrison was the second of four children. At age 12 Morrison converted to Roman Catholicism and chose the baptismal name Anthony.

Morrison grew up in an integrated neighborhood. In fact, she did not have much of a sense of racial segregation until she was in high school. In addition Morrison was raised in a community in which people often looked out for one another. Because of this experience, she learned the importance of community in shaping a person's identity.

Morrison's parents emphasized black culture, which included folk stories, songs, dances, and music. During many evenings the children would gather around and listen to their parents spin tales about ghosts, dead relatives, and dreams. In this way Morrison learned about her family history, connecting with a great-grandmother who was part Native American. Morrison was encouraged by her mother to read many classics of Western literature, including works by Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. She marveled at how these writers could convey a specific culture in detail and still speak to a person who has no direct connection to that culture, which later influenced Morrison and her own writing.

In 1950 Morrison enrolled at Howard University, where she majored in English. While in college she changed her name to Toni, a shortened version of her baptismal name. After graduating, Morrison earned a master's degree in English at Cornell University in 1955. Two years later she returned to Howard University, where she taught English. There she joined a writer's group, which encouraged Morrison to write fiction. Soon she began a short story, which eventually developed into her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Also while teaching at Howard University, Morrison married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison, and had two sons with him. Eventually she divorced Harold and moved in with her family.

In 1968 Morrison became an editor of fiction for Random House in New York City. Two years later Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published. A story about an African American girl who wants to have blue eyes, the novel received favorable reviews but did not sell well. Morrison followed this work with Sula (1973), a novel about two women who were friends since childhood. Morrison's third novel, Song of Solomon, came out in 1977.

Song of Solomon is a coming-of-age story about an African American man named Milkman Dead and his transformative journey toward finding his identity. This work differed from Morrison's previous novels in several ways. First, Song of Solomon has a male protagonist instead of a female protagonist. Because of this shift Morrison soon realized she needed a different style of language to effectively convey the story. Morrison stated, "I needed something that suggested dominion—a different kind of drive." Also with this novel Morrison found she was delving into a deeper consciousness. Before Song of Solomon, the author viewed writing a novel as a matter of conscious discipline that did not involve mysterious concepts, such as muse or voice. However, as Morrison began to write Song of Solomon she realized she was tapping into an unexplainable muse or inspiration, namely the voice of her deceased father.

Many influences on Morrison's life are evident in Song of Solomon. The novel is set in an unnamed industrial Midwestern city on Lake Superior. Morrison grew up in an industrial Midwestern city on Lake Erie. The novel describes a strong African American community, which resembles the community Morrison experienced in her childhood. In fact, one of the obstacles that hinders Milkman from finding his identity is his separation from this community. Milkman discovers his ancestors were part Native American and his great-grandfather was named Solomon. Morrison has Native American ancestry, and her grandfather had the middle name Solomon. In addition Morrison infuses Song of Solomon with elements of her rich cultural heritage that she learned about as a child, including folktales and songs.

In general, critics took Song of Solomon more seriously than Morrison's first two novels. While The Bluest Eye and Sula received standard book reviews, Song of Solomon also garnered scholarly critiques. Some of these critics lauded Song of Solomon as a great novel of epic proportions. There was, however, a group of critics who saw the novel in a negative light, including some African American critics who claimed Morrison had misrepresented black life in America.

After Song of Solomon Morrison continued to write novels, including Beloved (1987), which won a Pulitzer Prize; Jazz (1992); and Paradise (1998). Morrison has also written works of nonfiction, including the book of criticism Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). In 1989 she accepted a position as professor at Princeton University. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, becoming the first African American woman to win this honor. In 2012 she received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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