“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” —Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was an American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor who wrote multiple novels, children’s books, short stories, plays, and essays that would change the literary world forever. But who was Toni Morrison? Here are facts about Morrison that will show you (or remind you) just how significant this author and her work is.
1. Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford
Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, to parents Ramah and George Wofford. Both Ramah and George were from the south, but they moved to Ohio to start their family because of better jobs and to escape the violence against African Americans living in the south. Chloe Ardelia Wofford was their second child out of a total of four children.
Here’s a strange (but true) fact about Morrison’s early life that illustrates the family’s financial struggles and the violence they tried so hard to escape: When Morrison was only two years old, her home was set on fire by the owner of the apartment building. He was angry that the Woffords had not paid their rent.
Later in life, Morrison would credit her family and her upbringing for having a major influence on her writing style. Morrison has said that when she was growing up, her family was “intimate with the supernatural,” often using visions and signs to predict the future. Storytelling was also an important tradition in Morrison’s family, and Morrison has said she sees herself as carrying on that tradition through her writing.
Morrison also read a lot as a child. Some of the authors that were most influential to her at a young age: Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Gustave Flaubert.
2. Morrison changed her name from Chloe to Toni when she went to college
As Toni Morrison entered young adulthood, she found that a lot of people were having trouble pronouncing the name “Chloe,” so she changed her name to Toni, having taken the name Anthony when she became a Roman Catholic at the age of 12. She would later confess that she came to regret the name change. In an interview in 1992, Morrison said, “I am really Chloe Anthony Wofford.”
In 1949, Morrison started her undergrad degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Unsurprisingly, she studied English. While at Howard, she was also a member of the Howard University Players, a theater company that performed plays focusing on the lives of African American people.
Morrison received her BA in English from Howard in 1953, and then she went on to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She received her Master’s Degree from Cornell in 1955.
3. Before she was a celebrated novelist, Toni Morrison was college professor and an editor
Upon graduating Cornell, Toni Morrison began teaching English at Texas Southern University, but she later returned to Howard University as a professor. And it was there that Morrison taught Stokely Carmichael, a young civil rights activist. Howard University is also where she met her husband Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect.
Toni and Harold Morrison married in 1958 and divorced a short time later in 1964. Her husband moved back to Jamaica. Toni Morrison moved with their two sons, Harold and Slade, to Syracuse, New York. While Morrison has never explicitly explained the reasons for the divorce, she has hinted in interviews that Harold Morrison was interested in having a wife who was more subservient.
In Syracuse, Morrison took a job as an editor for a textbook publisher. And from there, she got her job working for Random House in New York. As an editor at Random House, she promoted the works of Black authors, including Angela Davis and Muhammed Ali.
4. Toni Morrison was 39 years old when she published her first book
Morrison began working on her first novel in 1961 as part of a writer’s group at Howard University. However, the novel The Bluest Eye would not be published until 1970, when Morrison was 39 years old.
On the experience of writing this first novel, Morrison has said, “When I wrote The Bluest Eye, I came at it not as a writer but as a reader. And such a story didn’t exist. Every little homely Black girl was a joke or didn’t exist in literature. And I was eager to read a story where racism really hurt and can destroy you.”
Morrison’s The Bluest Eye tells the story of a young African American girl named Pecola who imagines her life would be less difficult if she could only have blue eyes. Upon its release, the book received positive reviews, including one from The New York Times. And the novel has since been included on many university reading lists.
According to the American Library Association, The Bluest Eye is also one of the most frequently banned books, due to: “offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, [and] violence.” Still, The Bluest Eye is beloved by many, and remains one of Morrison’s most accessible works.
5. Morrison’s second novel Sula was nominated for the National Book Award
Sula, Toni Morrison’s second novel, came out three years after The Bluest Eye in 1973. While The Bluest Eye received excellent reviews, Sula was the first of Morrison’s novels to receive major accolades. Most notably, Sula was nominated for the National Book Award in 1975. The novel is about two Black women who grew up together in the city of Medallion, Ohio. As they grow into adults, their paths diverge, and ultimately they must come back together to confront issues of their past and present.
6. Toni Morrison’s 1988 novel Beloved won a Pulitzer Prize
Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved is considered by many to be her true masterpiece. The novel follows Sethe, a woman who was formally enslaved. She’s haunted, quite literally, by the decisions she had to make when escaping slavery. This heartbreaking novel of survival, love, and the supernatural won many awards, including the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
7. Morrison founded The Princeton Atelier in 1994
While continuing to write, Morrison also took a job as a professor at Princeton University in 1989. Here, Morrison established The Princeton Atelier in 1994. According to the Princeton website, The Princeton Atelier: “is a unique academic program that brings together professional artists from different disciplines to create new work in the context of a semester-long course. A painter might team with a composer, a choreographer might join with an electrical engineer, a company of theater artists might engage with environmental scientists, or a poet might connect with a videographer. Princeton students have an unrivaled opportunity to be directly involved in these collaborations, either as participants or in ‘parallel play.’”
Morrison has explained, “There is a powerful impetus to stretch and freshen one’s work by collaborating with artists in genres other than one’s own.” Her purpose behind creating The Princeton Atelier was to foster this artistic collaboration in young creators.
Morrison taught at Princeton University for 17 years, and she used her influence at the university to expand its creative and performing arts programs, as well as the university’s commitments to African American studies.
8. Toni Morrison was the first African American woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature
In 1993, Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature, in recognition of everything the author has contributed to literature. She was the first African American woman to ever receive this prize. The committee praised Morrison’s work for its “visionary force and poetic import, giv[ing] life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Morrison’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize has become an acclaimed work of literature in and of itself. This is where Morrison spoke the now-famous words, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
You can listen to Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize speech in its entirety here.
9. Toni Morrison won the Presidential Medal of Freedom
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Toni Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. The award is given to 13 individuals “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” (according to the The White House Office of the Press Secretary).
President Barack Obama was an admirer of Toni Morrison as a person and as a writer. Upon the author’s death in 2019, Obama tweeted:
“Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.”
10. Toni Morrison’s legacy will live on
Toni Morrison died in New York City on August 5, 2019, from complications related to pneumonia. She was 88 years old. A memorial tribute was held for Morrison on November 21, 2019, featuring guests such as Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Michael Ondaatje, David Remnick, Fran Lebowitz, Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Murray, and Edwidge Danticat.
Toni Morrison’s words, heart, and mind have touched so many people. The literary world would certainly be a different place without her. In an interview, Oprah Winfrey told Toni Morrison there never would have been an Oprah’s Book Club without Toni Morrison as an author. For thoughts from authors about Toni Morrison, read these tributes at The Guardian. Or this tribute from The New Yorker.
In 2019, Morrison’s hometown Lorain, Ohio, designated February 18, the day of her birthday, as Toni Morrison Day. Additional legislation was passed in 2020 to make Toni Morrison Day a statewide holiday.
If you want to learn more about this incredible author, watch the documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which features interviews with Morrison, Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sanchez, and Walter Mosley.
Looking for even more Toni Morrison? Check out this list of Toni Morrison books, especially if you’re new to the author and are looking for where to start.
If you’ve read all the Toni Morrison and are looking for more books like Morrison’s, try these authors like Toni Morrison. Or try these books like Beloved. Or why not try Toni Morrison’s very own recommendations with these must-read authors, according to Toni Morrison?