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Toni Morrison | Biography

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Early Life

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931, to George and Ramah Wofford. Her father had moved north from Georgia as part of the Great Migration (a mass migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West in the 20th century) and worked multiple jobs to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Morrison was the second of four children. When Morrison was young, a landlord tried to evict the family because they couldn't afford rent; he set fire to the house with the Woffords inside when they refused to leave. Morrison heard this story often in a household that emphasized black musical and storytelling culture, where everyone told stories, sang songs, and spoke of their dreams "with the same authority that they talked about what 'really happened.'" Morrison's novels, plays, and librettos (texts for musical theater) are rooted in this African American style of lyrical language used for storytelling, a "back-and-forth conversation between the storyteller and the audience." Like the narrator of The Bluest Eye, Morrison was nine years old in 1941, and she grew up during the Great Depression. Her household was also full of African American music like the blues songs the narrator refers to in the novel.

Morrison learned to read early and excelled in school, devouring novels and plays. Morrison was encouraged by her mother to read many classics of Western literature, which later influenced Morrison and her own writing. Although Morrison grew up in an integrated neighborhood, she worried that integration as a social practice to combat segregation would damage her sense of black community. 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.

Early Career

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 Anthony, the baptismal name she had chosen during her conversion to Catholicism when she was 12. After graduating from Howard, 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 that eventually developed into her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). 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 before moving to New York.

Positions, Awards, and Major Works

Morrison continued to publish novels that garnered positive attention from both critics and the public, including Sula (1973); Song of Solomon (1977), which won both the National Book Critics' Circle Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award; Beloved (1987), which won a Pulitzer Prize; Jazz (1992); Paradise (1998); Love (2003); A Mercy (2008); Home (2012); and God Help the Child (2015). Morrison has also written works of nonfiction, including the book of criticism Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) and Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004).

While writing, Morrison also worked for 18 years as an editor at a major American publisher. In 1989 she accepted a position as professor at Princeton University, where she taught for 17 years. One of the most decorated African American authors of all time, Morrison 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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