Toni Morrison Unisex T-Shirt
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The Life of Toni Morrison documentary (2015)
Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019), known as Toni Morrison, was an American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987); she gained worldwide recognition when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. In 1955, she earned a master’s degree in American Literature from Cornell University. In 1957 she returned to Howard University, was married, and had two children before divorcing in 1964. In the late 1960s, she became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City. In the 1970s and 1980s, she developed her own reputation as an author, and her perhaps most celebrated work, Beloved, was made into a 1998 film. Her works are praised for addressing the harsh consequences of racism in the United States.
In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Also that year, she was honored with the National Book Foundation‘s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. In 2020, Morrison was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Toni Morrison interview on “Love” (2003)
Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, to Ramah (née Willis) and George Wofford. She was the second of four children from a working-class, black family. Her mother was born in Greenville, Alabama, and moved north with her family as a child. Her father grew up in Cartersville, Georgia. When Wofford was about 15, a group of white people lynched two black businessmen who lived on his street. Morrison later said: “He never told us that he’d seen bodies. But he had seen them. And that was too traumatic, I think, for him.” Soon after the lynching, George Wofford moved to the racially integrated town of Lorain, Ohio, in the hope of escaping racism and securing gainful employment in Ohio’s burgeoning industrial economy. He worked odd jobs and as a welder for U.S. Steel. Ramah Wofford was a homemaker and a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Traumatized by his experiences of racism, in a 2015 interview Morrison said her father hated whites so much he would not let them in the house.
When Morrison was about two years old, her family’s landlord set fire to the house in which they lived, while they were home, because her parents couldn’t afford to pay rent. Her family responded to what she called this “bizarre form of evil” by laughing at the landlord rather than falling into despair. Morrison later said her family’s response demonstrated how to keep your integrity and claim your own life in the face of acts of such “monumental crudeness.”
Morrison’s parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African-American folktales, ghost stories, and singing songs. Morrison also read frequently as a child; among her favorite authors were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. She became a Catholic at the age of 12 and took the baptismal name Anthony (after Anthony of Padua), which led to her nickname, Toni. Attending Lorain High School, she was on the debate team, the yearbook staff, and in the drama club.
Adulthood and editing career: 1949–1975
In 1949, she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., seeking the company of fellow black intellectuals. It was while at Howard that she encountered racially segregated restaurants and buses for the first time. She graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English and went on to earn a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. Her master’s thesis was titled “Virginia Woolf‘s and William Faulkner‘s treatment of the alienated.” She taught English, first at Texas Southern University in Houston from 1955 to 1957, and then at Howard University for the next seven years. While teaching at Howard, she met Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, whom she married in 1958. Their first son was born in 1961 and she was pregnant with their second son when she and Harold divorced in 1964.
After her divorce and the birth of her son Slade in 1965, Morrison began working as an editor for L. W. Singer, a textbook division of publisher Random House, in Syracuse, New York. Two years later, she transferred to Random House in New York City, where she became their first black woman senior editor in the fiction department.
In that capacity, Morrison played a vital role in bringing Black literature into the mainstream. One of the first books she worked on was the groundbreaking Contemporary African Literature (1972), a collection that included work by Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and South African playwright Athol Fugard. She fostered a new generation of Afro-American writers, including poet and novelist Toni Cade Bambara, radical activist Angela Davis, Black Panther Huey Newton and novelist Gayl Jones, whose writing Morrison discovered. She also brought to publication the 1975 autobiography of the outspoken boxing champion Muhammad Ali, The Greatest: My Own Story. In addition, she published and promoted the work of Henry Dumas, a little-known novelist and poet who in 1968 had been shot to death by a transit officer in the New York City Subway.
Among other books that Morrison developed and edited is The Black Book (1974), an anthology of photographs, illustrations, essays, and documents of black life in the United States from the time of slavery to the 1920s. Random House had been uncertain about the project but its publication met with a good reception. Alvin Beam reviewed the anthology for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, writing: “Editors, like novelists, have brain children—books they think up and bring to life without putting their own names on the title page. Mrs. Morrison has one of these in the stores now, and magazines and newsletters in the publishing trade are ecstatic, saying it will go like hotcakes.”
First writings and teaching, 1970–1986
Morrison had begun writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University who met to discuss their work. She attended one meeting with a short story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. Morrison later developed the story as her first novel, The Bluest Eye, getting up every morning at 4 am to write, while raising two children on her own.
The Bluest Eye was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1970, when Morrison was aged 39. It was favorably reviewed in The New York Times by John Leonard, who praised Morrison’s writing style as being “a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry … But The Bluest Eye is also history, sociology, folklore, nightmare and music.” The novel did not sell well at first, but the City University of New York put The Bluest Eye on its reading list for its new Black studies department, as did other colleges, which boosted sales. The book also brought Morrison to the attention of the acclaimed editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf, an imprint of the publisher Random House. Gottlieb later edited most of Morrison’s novels.
In 1975, Morrison’s second novel Sula (1973), about a friendship between two black women, was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, from birth to adulthood, as he discovers his heritage through the magic of the Black experience. This novel brought her national acclaim, being a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, the first novel by a black writer to be so chosen since Richard Wright‘s Native Son in 1940. Song of Solomon also won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Morrison gave her next novel, Tar Baby (1981), a contemporary setting. In it, a looks-obsessed fashion model, Jadine, falls in love with Son, a penniless drifter who feels at ease with being black.
In 1983, Morrison left publishing to devote more time to writing, while living in a converted boathouse on the Hudson River in Nyack, New York. She taught English at two branches of the State University of New York (SUNY) and at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. In 1984, she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University at Albany, SUNY.
Morrison’s first play, Dreaming Emmett, is about the 1955 murder by white men of black teenager Emmett Till. The play was performed in 1986 at the State University of New York at Albany, where she was teaching at the time. Morrison was also a visiting professor at Bard College from 1986 to 1988.
The Beloved Trilogy and the Nobel Prize: 1987–1998
In 1987, Morrison published her most celebrated novel, Beloved. It was inspired by the true story of an enslaved African-American woman, Margaret Garner, whose story Morrison had discovered when compiling The Black Book. Garner had escaped slavery but was pursued by slave hunters. Facing a return to slavery, Garner killed her two-year-old daughter but was captured before she could kill herself. Morrison’s novel imagines the dead baby returning as a ghost, Beloved, to haunt her mother and family.
Beloved was a critical success and a bestseller for 25 weeks. The New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that the scene of the mother killing her baby is “so brutal and disturbing that it appears to warp time before and after into a single unwavering line of fate.” Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote in a review for The New York Times, “Ms. Morrison’s versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest.”
Not all critics praised Beloved, however. African-American conservative social critic Stanley Crouch, for instance, complained in his review in The New Republic that the novel “reads largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of the miniseries,” and that Morrison “perpetually interrupts her narrative with maudlin ideological commercials.”
Despite overall high acclaim, Beloved failed to win the prestigious National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Forty-eight black critics and writers, among them Maya Angelou, protested the omission in a statement that The New York Times published on January 24, 1988. “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve,” they wrote. Two months later, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It also won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Beloved is the first of three novels about love and African-American history, sometimes called the Beloved Trilogy. Morrison said that they are intended to be read together, explaining, “The conceptual connection is the search for the beloved – the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you.” The second novel in the trilogy, Jazz, came out in 1992. Told in language that imitates the rhythms of jazz music, the novel is about a love triangle during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. That year she also published her first book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), an examination of the African-American presence in white American literature. (In 2016, Time magazine noted that Playing in the Dark was among Morrison’s most-assigned texts on U.S. college campuses, together with several of her novels and her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture.)
Before the third novel of the Beloved Trilogy was published, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. The citation praised her as an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She was the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize. In her acceptance speech, Morrison said: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
In her Nobel lecture, Morrison talked about the power of storytelling. To make her point, she told a story. She spoke about a blind, old, black woman who is approached by a group of young people. They demand of her, “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? … Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story.”
In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for “distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” Morrison’s lecture, entitled “The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations,” began with the aphorism: “Time, it seems, has no future.” She cautioned against the misuse of history to diminish expectations of the future. Morrison was also honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which is awarded to a writer “who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work.”
The third novel of her Beloved Trilogy, Paradise, about citizens of an all-black town, came out in 1997. The following year, Morrison was on the cover of Time magazine, making her only the second female writer of fiction and second black writer of fiction to appear on what was perhaps the most significant U.S. magazine cover of the era.
Toni Morrison Lecture, Chicago, 1991
Toni Morrison on language, evil and ‘the white gaze’
Toni Morrison interview (1998) – The Best Documentary Ever
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