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The first African-American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Toni Morrison is an important figure in literary debates concerning how and why one writes about a specific racial or cultural group. By the middle of the twentieth century, civil rights demonstrations and discussions about racial injustice began to shape literary and academic debates. Writers began to feel that marginalized groups, whether women, Black individuals, or Hispanics, were not finding their voice in an artistic world erected and maintained by white males. As a key player in the creation of a Black literary aesthetic, Morrison has sought, over the course of her literary career, to create an alternative to dominant assumptions about how we read and write about a people. As a member of an oppressed social group and as a woman, Morrison is interested in what it means to be subordinated and made invisible. Her writing is embraced by feminist critics who regard her prose style as distinctively female and who see her work as a continuation of Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness narration.
Morrison was born in the small steel-mill town of Lorain, Ohio on February 18th, 1931. The second of four children, Morrison was christened "Chloe Anthony Wofford" but changed her name to "Toni" when she was an undergraduate at university. Her home state of Ohio reflects Morrison's own interest in the hybrid African-American experience as it combines the northern industrial feel of its big cities with a southern atmosphere and rural history. Morrison's family history also mirrors her interest in that her grandparents had migrated to Ohio from the Deep South. Through them, Morrison became familiar with southern Black lore.
Morrison received her BA in English from Howard University and went on to get her master's in English at Texas Southern University. Returning to teach at Howard University, Morrison married a Jamaican architect with whom she had two sons. The couple divorced in the mid-sixties and Morrison began a publishing career with Random House, eventually becoming one of their senior editors. She began writing a short story in the late sixties that she was encouraged to expand into a novel. This first novel was called The Bluest Eye and was published in 1970. Since then Morrison has come out with a new novel every couple of years, following The Bluest Eye with Sula (1977), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987) and finally Jazz, published in 1992. In the late eighties Morrison began teaching at Princeton University where she continues to write cultural and literary criticism. Her best-known critical piece, entitled, "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination," appeared in 1992. Her one play, Dreaming Emmett, tells the true story of a fourteen-year old Black boy who is murdered for allegedly whistling after a white woman. Like her other works, Jazz draws from a specific historical moment, the Harlem Renaissance, and seeks to embody, both in its form and in its themes, the culture and feeling of the era. While Morrison objects to the term "magic realism" when applied to her work, novels such as Jazz reflect a distinctive mix of fantasy and reality and a blurring of internal and external worlds. While Morrison has worked towards creating alternative models for African-American fiction she has courted controversy among scholars and readers who object to her endeavors to re-tell a cultural legacy.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Jazz!