Chloe Wofford (1931- ), better known as Toni Morrison, is an American author famous for writing “Beloved” (1987), “The Bluest Eye” (1970), “Song of Solomon” (1977), “Paradise” (1998) and other novels. She turns 83 today.
In 1993 she became the first (and so far only) Black American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 2006 the New York Times said “Beloved” was the greatest novel of the past 25 years. Some say “Jazz” (1992) is almost as good!
In 1998 Oprah made “Beloved” into a film and starred in it. She picked four of Morrison’s books for her book club (1996-2010):
- October 1996: Song of Solomon
- January 1998: Paradise
- April 2000: The Bluest Eye
- April 2002: Sula
On this blog, “Song of Solomon” and “Jazz” made the list of the 20 books to take to a desert island.
Morrison, a welder’s daughter, grew up in Lorain, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie west of Cleveland. Lorain is the town where “The Bluest Eye” takes place. She loved to read. She loved Tolstoy and Austen. Her father told her black folktales. She became Catholic at 12, taking the baptismal name of Anthony, which in time became Toni.
At high school she was good at Latin. At Howard University she got a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Classics. She went to Cornell to get her master’s degree, where she studied the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
In 1955 she went to Houston to teach at Texas Southern University. In 1957 she returned to Howard, this time to teach. Among her students were Stokely Carmichael and Claude Brown. At Howard she met Howard Morrison, a Jamaican architect. They married and had two sons.
In 1963 she joined writers groups at Howard and “dashed off” what would become “The Bluest Eye”. Soon after, she left Howard, divorced her husband and moved to New York, where she became a book editor, a writer and a single mother. By not going to parties she found time for all three.
As an editor at Random House she worked with the likes of Angela Davis (on her autobiography), Muhammad Ali and Toni Cade Bambara. She edited “The Black Book” (1974), a classic book of black history. As editor she helped to bring black literature into mainstream American culture.
In 1983 she left Random House and went on to teach at the State University of New York (SUNY) and, later, Princeton.
From reading African authors, like Bessie Head and Chinua Achebe, Morrison learned that she could write about black people for black people, that she did not have to concern herself with the white gaze. They showed her how. If whites liked her books, great. If they did not, so what? She never gave up her day job, so she never became dependent on the white demographic buying her books.
That allowed her to write about stuff white people did not care about, like black self-hatred (“The Bluest Eye”) and the psychology of slavery (“Beloved”). It allowed real, fleshed-out black characters to take centre stage.
– Abagond, 2014.
- Reading The Bluest Eye
- Angela Davis: An Autobiography
- Toni Morrison on the white gaze
- Chinua Achebe
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