Toni Morrison: Towering storyteller of Black experience
Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford, is one of the most celebrated authors in the world. She is the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize. Her works are noted for her examination of black experience within the black community.
Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, the United States, as the second of four children. She grew up in a semi-integrated area, where racial discrimination was a constant threat. When Morrison was two years old, the owner of her family’s apartment, set their home on fire while they were inside because they were unable to pay the rent.
Morrison grew up in a family that possessed an intense love and appreciation for black culture. Storytelling, songs, and folktales were a deeply formative part of her childhood. When she was 12 years old, she converted to Catholicism and was baptised under the name Anthony after Saint Anthony of Padua. She later went by the nickname ‘Toni’ after this saint.
After schooling, she attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1953. During her time at Howard University, she witnessed how racial hierarchy divided people of colour based on their skin tone. The community at Howard University helped her make connections with other writers, artists, and activists, who influenced her writing.
In 1965, Toni Morrison started working as a fiction editor at Random House where she continued to work for many years.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English, she attended Cornell University for her master’s degree. After completing the master’s degree, she started teaching at Texas Southern University, but returned to Howard University as a professor after two years. During her stint at Howard University, she met her future husband, Harold Morrison. The couple had two children, Harold and Slade. She also taught the young civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael at Howard.
In 1965, Toni Morrison started working as a fiction editor at Random House where she continued to work for many years. In 1984, she began teaching writing at the State University of New York in Albany, which she left in 1989 to join the faculty of Princeton University.
Morrison’s second novel, Sula, published in 1973, provides terse and vivid contrasts between two black women – one a rebel and the other a conformist – and tells their struggle to come to terms with one another and the community.
Morrison’s first book, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. According to Britannica, it is a novel of initiation about a victimised adolescent black girl who is obsessed with white standards of beauty and longs to have blue eyes. When Toni Morrison started writing, she was editing other writers’ work for Random House. She felt that there was a lack of novels which spoke to readers like herself.
Morrison’s second novel, Sula, published in 1973, provides terse and vivid contrasts between two black women – one a rebel and the other a conformist – and tells their struggle to come to terms with one another and the community. According to Women’s History, this theme is repeated in many of her later works. This novel explores the dynamics of friendship and the expectations for conformity within a society.
Her third novel, Song of Solomon, is told by the protagonist, a black male character named Milkman Dead who is in search of his identity. In this novel, Morrison uses magical realism by drawing on the African American myth of slaves escaping by flying away. She uses this as an image of Milkman’s discovery of his roots in a southern African American tradition. Morrison won the National Book Critics Circle Award for this novel.
In 1974, Toni Morrison published Beloved, which explores the terrible impact of slavery, its brutality and dehumanisation. It is the first novel in a trilogy chronicling Black American urban communities over the past 150 years. It is based on the true story of a runaway slave who kills her child at the moment of recapture to prevent her being repossessed by the slave-owner from whom she has escaped. The mother and those who live with her are haunted by the memory of the dead child. Many critics and scholars across the globe regard Beloved as Toni Morrison’s greatest achievement in literature.
According to The New York Times columnist Michiko Kakutani, Beloved “possesses the heightened power and resonance of myth – its characters, like those in an opera or Greek drama, seem larger than life and their actions, too, tend to strike us as enactments of ancient rituals and passions. To describe Beloved only in these terms, however, is to diminish its immediacy, for the novel also remains precisely grounded in American reality – the reality of black history as experienced in the wake of the civil war.”
Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988. According to The Guardian, this prize came after a letter signed by over 40 of America’s leading black writers and scholars decrying the lack of recognition for this outstanding novel. The film adaptation of this novel was released in 1998, starring Oprah Winfrey.
In 2003, Toni Morrison published Love, which has similarities with Song of Solomon. These novels record the historical and cultural changes affecting African Americans from the 1930s till the 1980s, before, during, and after the civil rights movement.
The central theme of Morrison’s novels is the black American experience in an unjust society, where her characters struggle to find themselves and their cultural identity. Her works published throughout the late 20th century serve as important contributions to the development of black feminist ideologies and black women’s literature. Much of her literary work has actively challenged the stereotypes that have been imposed on African American women throughout history. The characters in her novels are beautifully crafted in order to allow the readers to explore their journey intimately. The ways in which these characters are presented question the dominant perspective of history and representation in North America. For example, in the book Sula, Morrison uses her characterisations of Sula and Nel in order to examine the viability of African American stereotypes and offers enough proof as to why they must be challenged and dispelled.
Morrison’s work continues to influence writers and artists through her focus on African American life and her commentary on race relations.
Toni Morrison died on August 5, 2019.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
How would you describe the term “Black Feminism” to your students?
Can you think of how the works of Toni Morrison contributed to the development of Black Feminism?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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