Toni Morrison Biography

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. She was a Nobel Prize-winning novelist most famous for her exploration of the Black experience, particularly the Black female experience. She grew up in the Midwest and developed a deep love of storytelling and folklore from a young age. She credited her family and upbringing for her love and appreciation of Black culture. She received her undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1953 and her master’s degree from Cornell University in 1955, completing a thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Afterward, she taught at Texas Southern University and then at Howard, in Washington, D.C., where she met Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica. They were married from 1958 to 1964, and the couple had two sons. Afer the couple split up and the birth of her second son, Morrison moved to New York and became an editor at Random House, specializing in Black fiction. During this difficult and somewhat lonely time, she began working on her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970.

Morrison is known for her deft examination of the Black experience. She often covered themes of injustice, oppression, racism, and identity with her captivating, poetic prose. Morrison’s body of work is extensive, including ten novels, seven works of nonfiction, two plays, and three children’s stories. The Bluest Eye was followed by Sula in 1973, which secured her a nomination for the National Book Award. In 1977, Morrison won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book Song of Solomon. Her most well-known and perhaps best work, Beloved, appeared in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. That novel, considered by many to be her best, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. In 1993. She then became the first African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, which was the same year that Beloved was adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Other works by Morrison include Tar Baby (1981), her only short story, “Recitatif” (1983), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998).

Morrison was the chair of the Humanities Department at Princeton University from 1989 until her retirement in 2006. She was a gifted essayist and sought-after speaker. Among her many accolades, Morrison was granted an honorary degree from Oxford University in 2005, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012. Morrison passed away in 2019 due to complications from pneumonia in New York City at the age of 88.

Background on The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye contains a number of autobiographical elements. It is set in the town where Morrison grew up, and it is told from the point of view of a nine-year-old, the age Morrison would have been the year the novel takes place (1941). Like the MacTeer family, Morrison’s family struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Morrison grew up listening to her mother singing and her grandfather playing the violin, just as Claudia does. In the novel’s afterword, Morrison explains that the story developed out of a conversation she had had in elementary school with a little girl, who longed for blue eyes. She was still thinking about this conversation in the 1960s, when the Black is Beautiful movement was working to reclaim Black-American beauty, and she began her first novel.

While its historical context is clear, the literary context of The Bluest Eye is more complex. Faulkner and Woolf, whose work Morrison knew well, influenced her style. She uses the modernist techniques of stream-of-consciousness, multiple perspectives, and deliberate fragmentation. But Morrison understands her work more fundamentally as part of a black cultural tradition and strives to create a distinctively black literature. Her prose is infused with black musical traditions such as the spirituals, gospel, jazz and the blues. She writes in a black vernacular, full of turns of phrase and figures of speech unique to the community in which she grew up, with the hope that if she is true to her own particular experience, it will be universally meaningful. In this way, she attempts to create what she calls a “race-specific yet race-free prose.”

In the afterword to The Bluest Eye, Morrison explains her goal in writing the novel. She wants to make a statement about the damage that internalized racism can do to the most vulnerable member of a community—a young girl. At the same time, she does not want to dehumanize the people who wound this girl, because that would simply repeat their mistake. Also, she wants to protect this girl from “the weight of the novel’s inquiry,” and thus decides to tell the story from multiple perspectives. In this way, as she puts it, she “shape[s] a silence while breaking it,” keeping the girl’s dignity intact.