Women who paved the way: Toni Morrison


Courtesy of Angela Radulescu on Creative Commons

Toni Morrison published many pieces of literature with most of them focused on the Black experience.

Emily Dvareckas, Photo Editor

In light of Women’s History Month, The Hawks’ Herald is featuring important women from throughout history. The fourth week of March highlights women who have paved the way in literature.

Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford on Feb. 18, 1931, grew up in a racially integrated neighborhood in Ohio. When she was in first grade, she was the only Black student in the class but she was not treated as an outsider. She was also the only student in her class that was able to read; she grew up as an avid reader with a love and appreciation for literature.

When Morrison was 12 years old, she converted to Catholicism and became baptized under the name Anthony. She would later go by the name Toni as a homage to the Catholic Saint whose name she shared. After graduating from high school with high honors in 1949, Morrison moved to Washington, D.C. to attend the historically Black college, Howard University.

At the university, she joined the Howard University Players, the school’s theatrical group. With this group, she traveled around the South and saw a new view of racial inequalities and discrimination. She graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a degree in English.

Morrison then went to Cornell University and received her master’s degree in English. From there, she moved to Texas and began teaching at Texas Southern University before returning to Howard University to teach in 1957. She taught at Howard for seven years. During that time, she met her husband, Harold Morrison.

The couple had their first child in 1961 and after he was born, Toni began attending a writing group that met on the Howard University campus. This is where she began to write her first novel which started as a short story. In 1963, Toni Morrison returned to her family home in Ohio after leaving her husband who decided to move back to his home in Jamaica.

She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to the couple’s second child in 1964. In 1965, Morrison and her two sons moved to Syracuse, New York, where she began working as a senior editor at Random House Publishing. After two years, she moved to New York City to work in a new branch of the company. She began editing pieces of fiction, mostly by Black authors.

In 1970, Toni Morrison published her first book “The Bluest Eyes,” which was not received well. Her second book “Sula” was published in 1973 and received a nomination for the American Book Award. Her third novel “Songs of Solomon” was released in 1977. By this time, Morrison was a well-known author.

The novel was featured in the Book of the Month Club and received the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1980, Morrison was appointed to the National Council on the Arts. The following year, she released “Tar Baby,” which received mixed reviews. By this time, Morrison had left the publishing company in order to become a full-time writer. Toni Morrison’s biggest success came in 1987 with the release of her novel “Beloved.”

The novel stayed on the Bestseller List for 25 weeks and won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1988. This was followed by Morrison receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, becoming the first Black woman to win the prestigious award. In 1989, Morrison began teaching at Princeton University and started a workshop dedicated to helping students create original work in different art fields in 1994.

In 1996, she was chosen to give the Jefferson Lecture by the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as being honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

In 2000, the Library of Congress named Toni Morrison a Living Legend and in 2005, she received an honorary doctorate degree in Letters from Oxford University. She was given the opportunity to be a guest curator for the Louvre in Paris in 2006. Morrison retired from Princeton in 2006 and continued to write.

Her 2008 novel “A Mercy” was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times. Morrison had also started writing children’s books in 1999 with her son Slade. The two of them published several books until Slade’s death at the age of 45 in 2010. In 2012, Toni published the last book she and her son were working on.

In that same year, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama. Four years later, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. Her last published piece was a nonfiction collection called “The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, Meditations.”

Toni Morrison passed away on Aug. 15, 2019. Across her impressive collection of more than 35 pieces, including her novels, children’s books, poetry and more, she explored the lives and experiences of Black characters throughout history. Between 1975 and 2020, Morrison received 44 awards and was inducted into the Women’s History Museum in 2020.

Between 1988 and 2013, she received seven honorary doctorate degrees from schools such as the University of Geneva, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and others. She leaves a lasting legacy with her wide array of literary works.