Toni Morrison

ToniToni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931. She was the second of four children from an African-American working class family. Her parents were Ellah Ramah (Willis) and George Wofford. She was named Chloe Ardelia Wofford.  Her middle name honored her maternal grandmother, Ardelia Willis.

Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, was set in 1940s Lorain. That novel and her others, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, Love, Mercy and Home, have received extensive critical acclaim.

Morrison worked for twenty years as Senior Editor at Random House where she encouraged the works of many new African-American authors.

Morrison received degrees from Howard and Cornell Universities. She held teaching positions at Yale, Bard College, Rutgers University, and the State University of New York at Albany. In 1989 she was appointed Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.

On October 7, 1993, the Swedish Academy announced the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Morrison. The Academy cited Morrison as an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

On January 22, 1995, Morrison returned to the Lorain Public Library to join family and friends in attendance for the dedication of the Toni Morrison Reading Room. In her school days in Lorain she had worked as a library aide in the "old" Carnegie Library building located on 10th Street.

Chronology:

1931 - Chloe Ardelia Wofford was born at home on February 18 at 2245 Elyria Avenue, Lorain, Ohio. She was the second of four children of Ella Ramah (Willis) and George Wofford.

1943 - Converted to Catholicism and took the baptismal name of Anthony.

Late 1940s - Worked as student helper for Lorain Public Library located on 10th Street in Lorain.

1949 - Graduated with honors from Lorain High School.

1953 - Graduated with B.A. in English from Howard University. Came to be known as her nickname "Toni" during the years at Howard. She explained that most people could not correctly pronounce "Chloe".  She attended Cornell University for graduate work in English.

1955 - Received an M.A. in English from Cornell University for her thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

1955-1957 - Began her teaching career as Instructor in English at Texas Southern University.

1957-1964 - Returned to Howard University as Instructor in English.

1958-1964 - Married Harold Morrison, Jamaican architect. The couple lived in Washington and had two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin.

1964 - Marriage to Harold Morrison ended in divorce; returned to Lorain, Ohio.

1965-1967 - Moved to Syracuse, New York. Became senior editor for L. W. Singer Publishing Company, a textbook subsidiary of Random House.

1967 - Transferred to New York City, headquarters of Random House; and became a senior editor. Started writing her first novel.

1970 - Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published by Holt.

1971-1972 - Became Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York at Purchase.

1973 - Her second novel, Sula, was published by Knopf. She also edited Middleton Harris's The Black Book.

1975 - Sula was nominated for the National Book Award. Toni's father, George Wofford, died on September 9th.

1976-1977 - Served as a Visiting Lecturer at Yale University teaching courses on creative writing and Black authors.

1977 - Her third novel, Song of Solomon, was published by Knopf. Song of Solomon received the National Books Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award.

She was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Jimmy Carter.

Song of Solomon was the first novel by a Black author to be chosen as a main selection of the Book of the Month club since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940.

1978 - PBS television series, "Writers in America", devoted an entire segment to Toni Morrison.

1981 - Knopf published her fourth novel, Tar Baby.

Toni appeared on the cover of the March 30th issue of Newsweek magazine. She was the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of a national magazine since Zora Neale Hurston in 1943.

1982 - Toni Morrison was the honored guest speaker at the Lorain Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting and President's Ball on January 15th.

1984 - Left employment at Random House after twenty years.

1984-1989 - Was named the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at the State University of New York at Albany.

1985 - Received the New York State Governor's Award.

1986 - On January 4th, first play, Dreaming Emmett, premiered. It was a drama based on the life of Emmett Till, which was commissioned by the New York State Writers Institute of the State University of New York. Dreaming Emmett (unpublished) was performed at the Marketplace Capitol Repertory Theater of Albany. The play commemorated the first federal celebration of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and it received the New York State Governor's Art Award.

1986-1988 - Served as Visiting Lecturer at Bard College.

1987 - Knopf published her fifth novel, Beloved, which was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award. Beloved was the main selection of the Book of the Month Club. She served as Regent's Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, and Santagata Lecturer at Bowdoin College.

1988 - Forty-eight leading Black writers and critics wrote a protest letter to the New York Times when Beloved did not receive the National Book Award. Received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Beloved. Received the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Award from the National Organization for Women.

1989 - She became the first African-American woman to have an endowed chair at an Ivy League college when she was appointed the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. At Princeton she was a member of the program in Afro-American studies and the Creative Writing department; she served as the writer-in-residence in the humanities.

Won the Modern Language Association of America's Commonwealth Award in Literature.

1990 - Delivered a series of three lectures, part of the William E. Massey, Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University. Was awarded the Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore International Literary Prize.

1992 - Was commissioned by Carnegie Hall to write the lyrics for the operatic piece Honey and Rue. It was performed there in January.

Knopf published her sixth novel, Jazz.

She also published Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, an analysis of the African-American role in American literature, based on the William E. Massey, Sr. lecture series at Harvard. She wrote an introduction to Race-Ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, a book of essays on the Clarence Thomas hearings.

In the fall of 1992, she appeared on the New York Times Best-Seller List under both categories - Fiction for Jazz and Non-Fiction for Playing in the Dark.

1993 - On October 7, 1993, the Swedish Academy announced that she was the recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. She became the eighth woman and the first Black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature which included an award of $825,000. In December, her home in Grandview, New York, was damaged by fire; but her literary papers were saved. The Swedish Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Toni Morrison.

1994 - Toni's mother, Ella Ramah Wofford, died on February 17th.

1995 - Toni Morrison attended the dedication of the Lorain Public Library "Toni Morrison Reading Room" on January 22nd. Hundreds of people were present at the event as her hometown celebrated her accomplishments. The "Toni Morrison Collection" provided in this reading room included dozens of books written about her as well as copies of her literary works. Photographic and other displays included magazine and newspaper articles about her and the 1993 postage stamp issued by the Swedish Postal Service.

1995 - Toni Morrison collaborated with Max Roach and the Bill T. Jones Dance Company to produce, Degga, a work commissioned by Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun Festival.

1996 - Toni Morrison received the National Book Award for her Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

1998 - The motion picture, BELOVED, starring Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, was released on October 16th.

The Toni Morrison Society held its first Biennial Conference at Georgia State University in Atlanta in September. The theme of the Conference was "Toni Morrison and the American South".

Knopf published her seventh novel, Paradise.

1999 - The Program in African-American Studies at Princeton held a conference at Princeton University entitled "Envisioning Paradise: A Conference on Toni Morrison's Art and Imagination".

The Big Box, a picture book in rhyme by Toni and her son, Slade, was published. Toni was presented with the Woman of the Year Award by the Ladies Home Journal.

2000 - The Toni Morrison Society held its Second Biennial Conference at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio. Toni Morrison attended as an honored guest and viewed the locally-produced videorecording, "Toni Morrison and the Meanings of Home", about Lorain of the 1930's and 1940's.

2001 - The Toni Morrison Society hosted a celebration of Toni Morrison's 70th Birthday at the New York Public Library on February 17th.

2002 - April 5, 2002 Morrison's novel Sula was chosen as Oprah Winfrey's 46th and final book club selection.

Toni and her son, Slade, started a collaboration on a series of picture books, based on Aesop's Fables, called Who's Got Game. They also jointly wrote a picture book called The Book of Mean People.

2003 - The Toni Morrison Society held its Third Biennial Conference, "Toni Morrison and the Politics of Learning", at Howard University, Washington, D.C. from June 26-29. "The Ant or the Grasshopper" and "The Lion or the Mouse?", by Toni and Slade Morrison, was published.

Knopf published her eighth novel, Love. She was awarded the Ecole Normale Superieure, Docteures Honoris Causa, Paris France.

2004 - The Poppy or the Snake? was published in the Who's Got Game series. Houghton-Mifflin published Remember: The Journey To School Integration.

2005 - Toni Morrison was awarded the Coretta Scott King Book Award for Remember: The Journey to School Integration.

On May 7th the opera, Margaret Garner, for which Toni Morrison had written the libretto, had its world premier at the Detroit Opera House. Later that year the opera was presented in Cincinnati.

The Toni Morrison Society held its Fourth Biennial Conference, "Toni Morrison and Sites of Memory", at Northern Kentucky University in Cincinnati, Ohio from July 14-17. At this conference the Cincinnati Opera also presented the opera Margaret Garner.

2006 - A New York Times Book Review survey of writers and critics resulted in a vote that Toni Morrison's Beloved was the best work of American fiction published since 1980.

In October and November Lydia Diamond's adaptation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, directed by Hallie Gordon, was presented at theaters in Manhattan and Chicago.

On May 26 an invitation-only crowd of over 300 people attended a retirement tribute to Toni Morrison in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center located in the Time Warner Center in midtown Manhattan. Morrison worked at Princeton University for seventeen years. Among the people present to honor Toni Morrison were Princeton President Shirley Tilghman, Former President Bill Clinton, Phylicia Rashad, and Morgan Freeman.

From November 6 - 29 Toni Morrison served as Guest Curator of a multi-disciplinary program focused on the topic of displacement, immigration and exile. The exhibit and programs' series, held at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France was called "The Foreigner's Home".

At the Toni Morrison Society Scholars Roundtable program on November 17th, Toni Morrison read excerpts from her forthcoming novel, A Mercy.

2007 - On May 5th Toni Morrison received the African Voices Magazine's 2007 Ellie Charles Artists Award. In June Morrison was honored as the 2007 Harvard University Radcliffe Institute Medalist. The award is given annually to an individual whose life and work has had a significant impact on society.

The opera, Margaret Garner, opened at the New York City Opera in September. In October, as part of Banned Books Week, the American Library Association announced that novels by Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye and Beloved) were among the "10 Most Challenged Books of 2006".

On October 7 the Lorain (OH) City School System dedicated the new Toni Morrison Elementary School on West 40th Street.

2008 – Published two books, What Moves at the Margin: Selected Non-fiction and A Mercy.

The Toni Morrison Society held its Fifth Biennial Conference at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, from July 24 - 27. The first "Bench by the Road" was dedicated at Sullivan's Island.

2009 - Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, was listed by the Daily Telegraph (UK) as one of the 100 Novels Everyone Should Read. Beloved was called a "selection of the essential fiction library ". The Telegraph described Beloved as "Brutal, haunting, jazz-inflected journey down the darkest narrative rivers of American slavery. "

On April 23 Toni Morrison appeared at the Oberlin College Finney Chapel. Morrison spoke as one of the College's Convocation Series speakers. While in Oberlin, Morrison dedicated a "Bench by the Road" as a memorial to the Underground Railroad and Oberlin's connection to anti-slavery protests in the 1800s.

The May publication, by Harper Books, of Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word by Toni Morrison, was announced. PEN is an international association of writers who place themselves at the forefront of the struggle to oppose censorship.

A "Bench by the Road" was dedicated at Hattiesburg, Mississipi on October 3.

2010 - In November the Toni Morrison Society biennial conference was hosted in France by the Universite de Paris 8 - Saint Denis. A "Bench by the Road" was dedicated on November 6 in Paris.

2011 - On Friday, February 18, 2011, the Toni Morrison Society hosted a celebration in honor of Toni Morrison's 80th Birthday in the James Madison Hall of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Michel Martin, host of NPR's "Tell Me More with Michel Martin," was mistress of ceremonies for the evening. Nearly two hundred people attended the birthday celebration. A special tribute from President and Mrs. Obama in honor of Ms. Morrison's 80th Birthday was read to the gathering.

On May 15th Toni Morrison spoke at Commencement ceremonies at Rutgers University.

A "Bench by the Road" was dedicated in Concord, Massachusetts on May 21st.

On September 21st the Toni Morrison Society dedicated a "Bench by the Road" at the Lisner Auditorium on the campus of the George Washington University in Washington, D. C. The Bench, donated by Scott and Evelyn Schreiber, was placed in recognition of the end of racial discrimination at the auditorium, which denied the admissions of African-Americans in its audience.

On September 23rd she was honored with the National Book Festival's Creative Achievement Award.

On October 13th, Toni Morrison's play, Desdemona, opened for its first performance in Nanterres, France. The play was directed by Peter Sellars with music written by Rokia Traore. Desdemona portrayed the title character from Shakespeare's play, Othello, speaking to the audience from the grave to tell her story from her perspective.

2012 - Home, Toni Morrison's newest novel, was published on May 8th.

A "Bench by the Road" was placed in the Memorial Garden of the First Congregational Church UCC in Atlanta, Georgia on May 27th.

In a ceremony held at the White House, President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to Toni Morrison on May 29th.

On June 5 Toni Morrison, E. L. Doctorow and Joyce Carol Oates were inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Other members of the New York State Writers Hall of Fame include John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

2013 - Friday, March 22 - Toni Morrison delivered the Sol Feinstone Lecture to 1,600 cadets at the West Point United States Military Academy.

2014 - Was a guest speaker at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts in Wales (U.K.)

Bibliography:

Novels, Drama, Non-Fiction and Librettos by Toni Morrison

  • Tar Baby (1981)
  • The Bluest Eye: a novel (1970) 
  • Sula (1974)
  • Song of Solomon (1977)
  • Beloved: a novel (1987) 
  • Jazz (1992)
  • Race-Ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (1992)
  • Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)
  • Lecture and speech of acceptance upon the award of the Nobel Prize For Literature. Delivered in Stockholm on the seventh of December, nineteen hundred and ninety-three. (1993)
  • Paradise (1998)
  • The Big Box (1999)
  • Book of Mean People (2002)
  • The Ant or the Grasshopper (2003)
  • The Lion or the Mouse (2003)
  • Love: A Novel (2003)
  • Poppy and the Snake (2004)
  • Remember: The Journey to School Integration. (2004)
  • What Moves at the Margin: Selected Non-fiction (2008)
  • A Mercy (2008)
  • Margaret Garner (2008)
  • Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word (2009)
  • Peeny Butter Fudge (2009)
  • Little Cloud and Lady Wind (2010)
  • Desdemona (2011)
  • Home (2012)
  • Please Louise (2014)
  • God Bless the Child (2014)

More Information:

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993

Toni Morrison - Random House Website

The Toni Morrison Society

Conversation: Toni Morrison - This link to the PBS website provides both a  transcript of the March 9, 1998, interview with Toni Morrison conducted by Elizabeth Farnsworth on the PBS NEWSHOUR and a link to a sound file of the interview.

Conversation: Toni Morrison - This link to the PBS website provides a transcript of the May 29, 2012 interview with Toni Morrison conducted by Judy Woodruff.  A 10-minute video showing the interview is also available.

Audio Interview with Toni Morrison - Toni Morrison talks about her early career, why every writer needs an editor, why she cannot write in anger, and the tracking of a contemporary theme in her novel, Beloved, in this 1987 interview with Don Swaim.

Margaret Garner: the Opera - Visit the New York City Opera’s website to view a YouTube interview with Toni Morrison and composer, Richard Danielpour. The opera is based on the true events that inspired Morrison’s novel, Beloved.

Toni Morrison has a Facebook page.  This site is maintained by the author's publisher Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage Books.

A New Toni Morrison Novel Will Arrive in April (2015). Article from Slate online.

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The Toni Morrison Room at the Lorain Public Library was dedicated on January 22, 1995.  The event was videotaped; a DVD copy of the video (Toni Morrison Room Dedication)  is available and can be borrowed from the Lorain Public Library collection.

The poet, Sonia Sanchez, joined family and friends of Toni Morrison that day to celebrate the occasion. Sonia wrote a special poem in Toni's honor and read it that day.

Toni Morrison addressed the gathering with these words:

“I think that it's proper that I should say thank you. And I didn't want to say much more because it was important to me that everything that happened this afternoon be focused on the consequence of this event - which was the Reading Room. I am grateful to Sonia for coming with me and for delivering this revised, and I say improved, poem. She's in a class by herself.


I also want to thank Tiara for your work, your efforts and your compliment to me. And if I've been in any way useful to your imagination I'm grateful for that too.

I'm happy that so many members of my family are here and who inconvenienced themselves in order to come. And I want to thank all of you because of your enthusiasm and the commitment with which so many of you undertook to complete this project, which is very dear to me. In talking about a number of things that might have been done in order to signal an accomplishment of a native citizen of this town, this felt fine to me. It felt so much better than all of the other possibilities for a number of reasons.

One - not this building - but the Lorain Public Library was so important in my life. And the reason it was important was not only because much of the time I worked there and made a little change. But basically because it was the place I spent long, long hours reading and it was a place where a group of women were very careful with avid reading children.

I had a letter just before I came, yesterday actually, from Marion King, for whom my sister worked for so many years; Mrs. Books as her assistant at the Lorain Public Library. She was describing to me that it was not really fun to be 92. And that she could not - she could go back and forth to her meals on a cane - but she really could not come. And Jean Lawless and Miss Ambrose and a number of people who were as important as the faculty. They selected books, they talked about books, they taught us love and they liked it, they loved it when we would read. They were not hostile. So it was personally important to me.

And, also I know that the obligations of more and more libraries are outreach programs and so on. And I wanted there to be one place where, if you happened to be in the neighborhood, you could come in and sit down on what I hoped would be some comfortable chairs, in a quiet room and just spend 45 minutes or an hour or two with a book. Not for entertainment, not even for rest, because the point is that in them lies real knowledge - real knowledge.

At any rate, I can't wait. They wouldn't let me see it unless I actually went to the process of the formalities of cutting the ribbon.

But, again, I'm grateful to my family, to my friends, to my colleagues, co-writers, but especially my strongest feeling is for the citizens of this town.

One more thing, I have to tell you. I was three months in Paris and Italy this fall. And I ended up in Milan with somebody, who works for the consulate there or something, who said he was also from Lorain. And I said, "Where did you go to school?" And he said, "St. Mary's."

There were two high schools when I was there. I want to tell you that he and I had a lot of trouble - a lot of trouble - trying to explain to these Europeans what this town was like. They could not believe that there was any socializing between the races. They couldn't believe that. That you could live in a neighborhood where next door to you were all these kinds of people. They couldn't believe the languages that were spoken in this town. They couldn't believe it all, they kept saying. I said, "That's nice for you to be here, because you know I really have never been able successfully to describe what that experience was like."

So, when I came into this room and looked around, I thought, "Now this is what I need. I need a picture to take with me so that when I go to these outposts of civilization I can describe to them what this community looks like.

Thank you."