Hey there, I’m Yvonne Page Illustrates and this is Facts to Relax, the show where I research topics I find interesting and then share what I learn with you while we color a super-satisfying picture on the screen and relax together. Today’s episode is all about one of my favorite authors, Toni Morrison. I first read Beloved in a high school English class and after that I had to read every novel she’d written and continued reading every novel she wrote until her last one, God Help the Child, was published in 2014. I like to both read her books visually, underlining words and passages that are particularly beautiful, and also listen to the audiobooks read out loud in her own voice, since she always narrated them herself. As a wanna-be writer myself, I can appreciate not just her stories but her style as well. She wrote beautifully and lyrically about subjects so raw and painful and hard to stomach that reading her work can be a full-on roller coaster of emotions. Though I’ve read and listened to many interviews with her over the years and found her fascinating, I never did a full dive into who she was as a person before. But now that I have this channel, I knew wanted to take the time to learn more about Toni Morrison-a woman who managed to write 11 novels, 5 children’s books, 2 plays, a song, and an opera, all while raising two sons on her own and, for at least the beginning of her writing career, working another full time job. Oh, and did I mention that she was 39 when her first book was published? And she was still working on her next novel when she passed away nearly fifty years later, at the age of 88? Yes. All that. So yeah, let’s get started and learn everything we can about the late, great American writer, Toni Morrison.
Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio on February 18, 1931, with the birth name Chloe Anthony Wofford. Her parents were named Ramah and George Wofford and she was the second of four children: two boys and two girls. Her great-grandparents had been slaves before the Civil War and her grandparents were sharecroppers on a small Alabama farm. Her grandfather had inherited 88 acres of land from his Native American mother but was cheated out of it and after that, their family remained in debt and were very poor. A family story tells that at one point her grandfather went to Birmingham to try to make money for the family by playing the violin, which he was quite gifted at, but his wife soon sent him a letter saying that she and the kids would be moving to Akron, Ohio where she had relatives. “I cannot stay here. White boys are circling and we have to leave,” she wrote simply. She had no idea if he would get the letter or understand the meaning but she had to hope because her daughters were hitting their young adult years and she felt she had to protect them. Luckily, her husband got the letter and met them on the train. The family was reunited and able to move to Ohio where they hoped they’d face less racism and danger than in the deep South.
When Morrison was young, her family moved a lot because they often couldn’t afford rent. Her father worked as many as three jobs at a time throughout her childhood, in steel mills and shipyards. Her mother cooked and cleaned for other families to make ends meet. Though they were poor, their family was strong. Morrison grew up during the Great Depression, and at that time, poverty wasn’t a shameful thing- there was no pressure to “get ahead.” All people wanted, she said, was enough money to get food and pay their bills and for their family and community to be healthy.
Her father had such pride in his work that when he achieved a perfect seam in his welding, he would also weld his name into the side of the ship he was working on. He was a religious man and would brag about having read the bible five times. Morrison realized eventually the magnitude of this because when he was growing up, the bible was one of the few things he, as a Black person, would have had access to. He’d grown up in a time and place where Blacks weren’t allowed to read or be taught to read. Her mother Ramah, likewise, understood the power of reading. She belonged to a book club even though they could hardly afford the books and she taught her children to treasure reading as well. Her mother also loved music. She was in the church choir and all types of music would be playing in the Wofford household during Morrison’s childhood. Her mother was also unafraid to make her voice known and fought against injustices in her everyday life, writing letters to the president and staging her own small, private protests like sitting in the whites only section of movie theaters.
Morrison grew up in neighborhoods surrounded by both Blacks and Europeans, where Blacks were not social outcasts but that doesn’t mean she didn’t know about or experience racism. She knew from the stories her parents and grandparents told that racial injustices were part of life and history. Additionally, there were both religious and ethnic lines in the neighborhood she lived in that people knew not to cross without anyone having to say a word. And Morrison remembered having older white boys throw rocks and racial slurs at her and her friends when she was just a little girl. Her father hated white people based on the behaviors he’d witnessed in the past but her mother taught the children to judge each person individually.
When she was only three years old, Morrison’s sister taught her how to read and write. They’d practice by writing words on the sidewalk with stones. She learned early on what power words can have on people when their mother caught them writing a bad word on the sidewalk. When she entered first grade she was the only Black child in the class, but also, she was the only child in the class who could already read. Thus began a childhood full of books. She said she read everything in the library she could and studied the writing as well as enjoying the stories. She was fascinated by the ways different writers could tell similar stories completely differently through the use of language. Her parents and grandparents told them many stories, including ghost stories and traditional African-American folktales. She said in an article of Time Magazine in 1998 that “the world back then didn’t expect much from a little black girl, but my father and mother certainly did.”
Morrison’s first job was an after-school job cleaning house for a white family when she was thirteen but a few years later she got a job as a pusher in the library, restocking books on shelves. The problem she had was that she was very slow at the job because she’d stop and read the books instead of quickly putting them all back like she was supposed to. Perhaps because of this she got promoted to the catalog department where she worked until she went away to college.
Speaking of college, attending it was a big deal. Though her mother had graduated from high school, her father had not and the only relative at all who’d attended any college, was her uncle. Morrison’s sister got married right out of high school and her family expected her to settle down too: get married, have children, and find work like her sister had. She wanted to go to college instead and so that’s what she did. Her mother wanted her to go to Oberlin which was very close to their home but Morrison wanted to get far away so she applied and was accepted into Howard University in Washington, DC. Her father got a second job and her mother took work as a lady’s room attendant to pay her tuition. She was an English major but preferred the drama department and joined the University’s drama group called the “Howard Players” because they read things differently, looking for the feeling and emotion in the words in a way they didn’t in English classes.
Morrison described herself as “loose” in college, and said didn’t regret it at all. This is also when she started to go by the nickname “Toni,” which was short for her middle name “Anthony,” rather than by Chloe since it was easier for people to pronounce and remember. She was a good baker, and made the best carrot cake. Boys would pay her $25 for her cakes, she said. They’d tell her “Toni, no matter what you do in life, you’ll be the girl who bakes me cakes.” I wonder if any of those boys looked back on that and ate their words decades later.
After graduating from Howard in 1953, Morrison went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to get a masters degree in English. She wrote her thesis on William Faulkner and Viriginia Woolf and graduated in 1955.
Morrison’s initial career goal was to be a teacher. After graduating from Cornell, she taught at Texas Southern University and then at her alma mater, Howard University. When she taught a creative writing course she encouraged the students to write what they didn’t know rather than what they did. She insisted that they invent people and lives completely unknown to them. This was the opposite of conventional creative writing advice but when she reflected back she said she was quite happy with the stories they were able to come up with.
While teaching at Howard, Morrison began writing herself, joining a group of ten black writers who met monthly to share and critique their writing. It was through her participation in this group that Morrison first wrote a short story about a Black girl who wished she had blue eyes, which would later become her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The story was inspired by a conversation with a friend she’d had when she was little who stopped believing in God because after two years of praying for blue eyes, she still hadn’t gotten them. The pain and rawness of a little Black girl thinking that if she only had some sort of characteristic of the white world she’d be okay, stayed with Morrison throughout her life and writing.
It would be a while longer before she actually published any books, however, but it was during this time while teaching at Howard that she met her husband, Harold Morrison. He was an architect and they married in 1958. Though the couple divorced a few years later in 1964, they first had two sons, Ford and Slate, who Morrison was fully devoted to.
After her divorce, Morrison and her sons moved back in with her mother but it wasn’t for too long. She saw an advertisement for a job in Syracuse, New York as an executive editor of textbooks at Box Z New York Review of Books. She and her sister borrowed her father’s car and drove to Syracuse so she could interview and she got the job. She and her sons moved to Syracuse and she worked there until the company was bought by Random House. Morrison moved to NYC and continued working with Random House. She used her power as an editor to help publish works by black writers, including Angela Davis and Muhammed Ali. Not only that but she fought to be treated as an equal to the white men working with her. She insisted on being paid fairly for her work and didn’t back down when challenged as she may have been expected to, as a Black woman.
While working as an editor, she also taught African American literature and creative writing at the State University of New York and served in several visiting professor roles at Yale University and Bard College during the 1970s.
At the same time, Morrison began her writing career. Since she was working full-time and raising her sons she had to find bits of time to write wherever she could, even if it meant plotting out stories in her head while stuck in traffic, mowing the lawn, or gardening. She also found that if she tried to work in a room away from her young sons, they would interrupt her frequently but that if she worked in the same room they were playing in, they didn’t bother her as much, so she wrote in places they could be together and learned to tune out the noises around her.
The Bluest Eye was published, after numerous rejections, by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in 1970 when Morrison was 39 years old. The first edition had between 12-15 hundred copies printed which was a pretty decent run for an unknown, Black female author at the time. However, there was one issue. Morrison meant for The Bluest Eye to be published under her given name, Chloe Wofford, but she had submitted it under her nickname and then had forgotten to correct the publisher before publication and the rest is history. She became Toni Morrison.
The Bluest Eye had grown from the short story she’d written for her critique group, but the book meant even more to her than honoring her childhood friend’s pain. She said that in almost every book she read about young Black girls, they were treated as props and jokes. She wanted to read a book that was respectful to Black girls and set them center stage, so she wrote that book. Blackness and particularly Black female friendships were often overriding themes of her work over the course of her career.
The Bluest Eye was reviewed by the New York Times and they called her a “writer of considerable power and tenderness” but other than that, the book didn’t make a huge splash.
After the Bluest Eye, Morrison didn’t intend to write another book. She didn’t think of herself as a novelist at that point but eventually the idea for a new character started to develop in her mind-a woman who did what she wanted and was seen as scandalous because of it. Sula was born but it took her two and a half years to finish writing it.
In 1973 she published Sula. The book was an exploration of good and evil and of friendship. Morrison said that Sula was her best character but that she’d had a hard time making her up because she’d never known anyone quite like her and trying to depict her without making her repulsive or wholly unattractive to readers was a challenge. She also made an effort in this book and all of her books to not pass judgement on the characters no matter how bad they were, just to tell their stories, and sometimes she received criticism for this.
Though neither The Bluest Eye nor Sula were widely read at the time of their publications, she did begin being sought after for her opinions on Black life and books. In 1971-72 she reviewed twenty-eight books for the New York Times and began to gain national recognition.
After Sula, Morrison took some time off from writing to focus on her editing career. She was dedicated to helping more African American writers get published and help tell the stories and histories of everyday Black Americans. She worked on a collection called “The Black Book,” which was a scrapbook of sorts, covering over 300 years of African-American history, including newspaper clippings, song lyrics, photographs, excerpts from slave narratives, and more.
In 1977, Song of Solomon was published, a story that had two men, Milkman and Guitar, as the main characters, rather than women. Though she found it difficult to write from the male point of view, her father had recently died and she felt his voice coming through when she wrote it. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, and was picked to be a Book-of-the-Month selection. A year after its publication, with 570,000 copies in print, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the National Council of the Arts and she was elected to be a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The commercial success of the book may have been, in part at least, due to the fact that it centered around a male protagonist, and was lacking some of the more disturbing themes that her first two books had included.
When Song of Solomon was published, even before it became a success, Morrison resigned from her editing position to focus on her writing. She knew it wasn’t the safest option but she wanted to commit herself to writing. “I didn’t want to be safe. I’ve never wanted only to be safe,” she said, though she did continue to do some part-time editing in order to continue helping more Black authors to be published. For the first time she said she felt a level of happiness and freedom she’d never felt before.
Finally being able to devote herself full-time to writing didn’t change Morrison’s working habits. An early riser, as early as 4:30 a.m. she would work for 3-4 hours every morning, a habit that began when she had small children. Back then she knew that if she woke up early she could get some writing done before they woke up. Even after they grew up, she continued the habit. She said she didn’t like to write after lunch or in the evening. The only time she felt good at it was in the mornings.
In 1981 Morrison published Tar Baby and was subsequently selected for the cover of Newsweek magazine, becoming the first Black woman to appear on the cover of a national magazine since Zora Neale Hurston in 1943.
Between Tar Baby and her next book, Morrison wrote a play commissioned by the New York State Writers Institute at SUNY-Albany in honor of the first national observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Day called “Dreaming Emmett” that was loosely based on the true story of Emmett Till. It received good reviews and the New York State Governor’s Art Award but by then she was already hard at work on her next novel.
Now if you’re here watching this documentary, it may be because you’ve read Beloved or at least watched the movie rendition. Beloved quickly became Morrison’s best known and most-acclaimed work. Published in 1987, it was based on a true story Morrison had come across in research for another book, about a runaway slave named Margaret Garner, who killed her baby after being captured with her four children. Morrison did extensive research on the history of slavery and made a point not to sugarcoat the horrors of it or the residue it left on people who’d experienced it. She dedicated her book to “Sixty Million and more,” a nod to the number of black Africans who never even survived the trip to slavery after their capture. She said she felt that there should be a memorial for slaves, much in the same way there are monuments dedicated to confederate heroes. She made her book that monument. Not only was the book about enslaved people but centered around an enslaved woman in particular, which is an often overlooked narrative when writing about slavery. Beloved was on the best-seller list for 25 weeks and schools across the country began adding it to their curriculums. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and in 1998, Beloved was made into a movie, starring and co-produced by Oprah.
Beloved, Morrison decided, would be a part of a three book series that focused on black life between the 1800s and the present. The second novel in the series, Jazz, took place in 1926 Harlem, and the third, Paradise, took place in 1970s Oklahoma.
None of Morrison’s subsequent work received as much praise or publicity as Beloved, but that’s okay because at that point she was already regarded as a great American novelist. Of course, that doesn’t mean she didn’t receive her share of criticism. In fact, she received quite a bit, and often it came from white people who didn’t appreciate suddenly not being the center of the narrative.
“One day she will have to face up to the real responsibilities and write about the real confrontation to black people,” one critic wrote. Others claimed what was lacking was the focus on white people and their stories and that she could be a magnificent writer if she just changed up her subject matter to include them. “As if the lives of black people have no depth or meaning without the white gaze.” Morrison once said. This view inspired her to make sure her writing never focused on the white gaze in any of her books. Her stories told of a Black world in which white people simply never played the leading role. She didn’t say in her writing whether the white world was wrong or not, just made it a peripheral part if she addressed it at all, unimportant in the scheme of her stories. She claimed she wasn’t trying to speak for Black people, rather to Black people, writing stories for her community rather than about her community for white people. By doing this, she had to eliminate the white gaze and then she became free to write about anything. Not only did she write about Black people for Black people, she also was careful to use quote-on-quote “black language,” respecting Black American culture, and giving it a voice.
Writing was a process for Morrison to get to know and understand characters that had popped up in her mind. This was a big part of writing stories to her and she’d often have little voices here and there telling her which way to take a plot. After she finished writing the Bluest Eye, she reported having a feeling of sadness for a time, which she finally realized was her missing the characters. Besides writing rich character narratives, Morrison felt that literature should involve reader participation, much in the way oral storytelling involves the audience. It should be no surprise then that if reading one of her books you find yourself going back, rereading sections, and trying to unravel new mysteries in doing so. She said that her writing afforded her the opportunity to find coherence in the world and sort out the past, both her own and the collective past of Black people in America.
Besides not focusing on the white world, Morrison’s books were also unafraid of touching on taboo subjects. The Bluest Eyes has been banned from many classrooms due to its matter-of-fact descriptions of rape and incest. That wasn’t her only book to be banned however. Beloved and Song of Soloman have been removed from certain school curriculums and Morrison said that she kept a letter from the Texas Bureau of Corrections framed in her bathroom because in it they told her they were banning her book “Paradise” from the prison because it might incite a riot and she thought “how powerful is that?!” She took great pride in that ban.
Even with the criticism, Morrison is notably one of the greatest writers of the 21st century, and not just in the United States. The Toni Morrison Society, an international literary society, part of the American Literature Association, was founded in 1983 for the purpose of scholarly research of Morrison’s work. Her writing speaks to people from around the world and has been translated into many languages. Part of this is because she wrote about the joys and tragedies of people living everyday lives- Black people, poor people, women, etc. In all, she covered four centuries of history in her various books and was able to step into those times and places and reimagine them by putting together fragments of narratives that have been widely overlooked by other writers.
Four of Morrison’s books have been in Oprah’s book club with Oprah being quoted as saying “Toni Morrison’s work is for all of us. Her words, her language is a friend to our minds…it comforts you and consoles you and allows you to understand that pain is okay. She reaches into the depths of pain and shows us through pain all the myriad ways we can come to love…she’s teaching us all the time. There is not a sentence that is not filled with depth of meaning and knowledge and information.” Having Oprah praise your writing can be a huge boost for authors but that’s, of course, just a drop in the bucket of praise for her books. Morrison won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction and was a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Black American to win in the area of literature. As the Nobel Prize website says “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993 was awarded to Toni Morrison “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Additionally, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012. At the ceremony he said “I remember reading Song of Solomon when I was a kid and not just trying to figure out how to write but also how to be and how to think. Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt.”
In addition to writing, Morrison began teaching at Princeton University in 1989 until she retired in 2006, as the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities and served as a member of the editorial advisory board of “The Nation” a magazine started by Northern abolitionists in 1865. Along with writing, Morrison’s biggest hobby was gardening. She enjoyed writing so much that she once was quoted as saying that “My work is my fun. It’s what I would do if I had everything I wanted.”
Unfortunately, her life wasn’t free from tragedy. In 2010, Morrison’s son Slade died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 45. In the middle of writing her book ‘Home,’ she was so grieved that she was unable to write. Eventually she continued on and finished the book in 2012, dedicating it to him. Morrison was quoted as saying in a 2015 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air “The writing is – I’m free from pain. It’s where nobody tells me what to do; it’s where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing.”
Morrison died on August 5, 2019 from complications of pneumonia at the age of 88. Her memory lives on through her books, interviews, and the countless number of people she touched through her writing.
As we come now to the end of this episode of Facts to Relax, I invite you to share in the comments below which is your favorite Toni Morrison book. Mine is the often overlooked “Love,” which is the story of two young best friends who are torn apart through the actions of the adults in their lives and the consequences that shape them still, decades later.
I hope you enjoyed this relaxing biography of Toni Morrison and if so, please hit the like button below so me, and Youtube, know it. I invite you to come back soon and join me in learning even more interesting facts while we chill out and color together again. Bye.
❁❁ SOURCES & RESOURCES ❁❁
- Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Documentary) Find it free on Hulu with a subscription or buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2X3cqhV
- Notable Black American Women https://amzn.to/37lwJJk (Look for used!!!)
- Toni Morrison: A Biography of a Nobel Prize-Winning Writer by Barbara Kramer https://time.com/5630489/toni-morrison-dies/
- The Toni Morrison Society: https://www.tonimorrisonsociety.org/