Toni Morrison, Novelist
1978 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
In 1992, Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz joined novels by two other African-American women novelists, Alice Walker and Terry McMillan, on the New York Times “Best Sellers” list. Never before had three African-American authors been on the Times list concurrently. This was one of several firsts for the 1978 Cleveland Arts Prize recipient, who in 1993 was also the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature and the first American woman to win the award since 1938.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (for Beloved, in 1988), Toni Morrison is also the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award (1977), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1977), the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award (1987–88), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1988), the Modern Language Association of America Commonwealth Award in Literature (1989), the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (1996), and the National Humanities Medal (2000).
Like a hometown quick to claim its own, Americans black and white, rich and poor, male and female, presidents, and common men and women all clamor to claim Toni Morrison. But Morrison’s rise to greatness did not happen overnight. The Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931. A native daughter of Lorain, Ohio, she graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949. In 1953 she received a B.A. in English from Howard University, where she changed her name to Toni—an abbreviation of her middle name. Two years later, she earned an M.A. from Cornell University. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, and several years later joined a small writers’ group for which she wrote a short story about a girl who prayed to God for blue eyes. That story she later developed into her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970).
For much of the 1960s and ’70s, Morrison balanced a writing career with parenting (she is the mother of two boys) and extensive careers in publishing and academe. In 1989, when she accepted the Robert Goheen Professorship, becoming the first black woman to hold a chair at an Ivy League university, she said, “I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing.”
Since then, she’s taught creative writing and participated in the African-American Studies, American Studies, and Women’s Studies programs at Princeton. Prior to her appointment at Princeton, Morrison held teaching positions at Texas Southern University, Howard University, Yale and the State University of New York at Purchase. Simultaneously, she pursued a career as an editor at Random House between 1965 and 1983.
The balance she strikes between writing and ordinary living helps create the genius that is Morrison: part ivory tower intellectual, part commonsensical everyday folks. Both dispositions make regular appearances in her work. The Bluest Eye, for example, was certainly influenced by the black-consciousness-charged civil rights and Black Power movements of the late 1960s. Yet, after going out of print in the 1970s the book made a major reappearance in the ’80s, says Morrison, thanks to the demand by women’s studies groups who were intrigued by the young girl’s coming-of-age story.
In 1998, Morrison’s Beloved was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Influenced by a true story, Beloved is about an enslaved woman who escapes with her children to Ohio. When re-captured, she tries to kill her children rather than have them return to slavery. Although it’s a story about America and slavery, Morrison directs our attention to the individuals caught up in the historical drama. “The book was not about the institutions—Slavery with a capital S,” she told Time magazine in an interview in 1989. “It was about these anonymous people called slaves. What they do to keep on, how they make a life, what they're willing to risk, however long it lasts, in order to relate to one another—that was incredible to me.”
It's been said that everyone has at least one book in them. By 2002 Morrison had given us seven great novels, two books of essays, an unpublished play—with the promise of more to come. Her novels are must reading at colleges and universities worldwide, and her work challenges each of us to remember the too-often-forgotten little people.
I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer—its dust and lowering skies. It remains for me a season of storms. The parched days and sticky nights are undistinguished in my mind, but the storms, the violent sudden storms, both frightened and quenched me. But my memory is uncertain; I recall a summer storm in the town where we lived and imagine a summer my mother knew in 1929. There was a tornado that year, she said, that blew away half of south Lorain. I mix her summer with my own. Biting the strawberry, thinking of storms, I see her. A slim young girl in a pink crepe dress. One hand is on her hip; the other lolls about her thigh—waiting. The wind swoops her up, high above the houses, but she is still standing, hand on hip. Smiling. The anticipation and promise in her lolling hand are not altered by the holocaust. In the summer tornado of 1929, my mother’s hand is unextinguished. She is strong, smiling, and relaxed while the world falls down about her. So much for memory. Public fact becomes private reality, and the seasons of a Midwestern town become the Moirai of our small lives.
—The Bluest Eye: a Novel (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970)
Cleveland Arts Prize
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