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Toni Morrison was born Chloe
Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931,
in Lorain, Ohio. As a child, Morrison was an avid reader and excellent
student. She studied English and classics at Howard University and
completed a master’s program in literature at Cornell University. When
several of her classmates at Howard had difficulty pronouncing her
first name, Morrison changed it to Toni (a derivative of her middle
name). At Cornell, Morrison studied the work of William Faulkner
and Virginia Woolf, and their experimental, stream-of-consciousness
narratives, told from multiple perspectives, would have a great
effect on her fiction. In 1958, Morrison married
Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica. The couple had two sons
but divorced in 1964. Morrison held a series
of teaching jobs at universities around the United States, but she
eventually moved to New York City. There she would wake up early
in the morning to write, before heading to work as an editor at
Random House, where she specialized in acquiring and editing black
In 1970, Morrison published her
first novel, The Bluest Eye. She followed this
work with Sula (1974), which
received a nomination for a National Book Award, and Song
of Solomon (1977), which won a National
Books Critics Circle Award. After Morrison published Tar
Baby in 1981, she began working
on Beloved, the novel that would not only earn
her a Pulitzer Price in 1988 but would also ensure
Morrison a place in the pantheon of American literature. Jonathan
Demme directed a movie version of Beloved in 1998,
starring Oprah Winfrey. Morrison’s recent work includes the novels Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998),
and Love (2003); Playing
in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992),
a collection of lectures she gave at Harvard University; and a series
of children’s books written with her son Slade based on Aesop’s
Fables. In 1993, she became the first African
American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Today Morrison is the
Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton
In the foreword to Tar Baby, Morrison
recalls the importance of storytelling in her childhood. She grew
up listening to the adults in her family entertain one another with
tales, and early on she developed the desire to spin yarns as well.
Morrison ultimately dedicated Tar Baby to the many
women at whose feet she first learned both to listen and to tell
stories, including her mother and grandmothers. The novel itself
reinterprets a folktale that probably originated in Ghana but which
became uniquely American through retellings on Southern plantations:
Br’er Fox attempts to trick his arch enemy, Br’er Rabbit, by placing
a sticky doll made from tar in its path (the Tar Baby). After Br’er
Rabbit gets stuck to the doll, he tricks Br’er Fox into helping
him escape. Some critics have argued that Br’er Rabbit represents
a black slave who tricks or outwits his white master.
Like Morrison’s other novels, Tar Baby deals
with aspects of a distinctly African American experience. Part of
Morrison’s overarching goal, as both an editor at Random House and
as a writer, has been to put into print voices that have historically
been left out of the literary canon—namely, the voices of women
and minorities. She writes in the black vernacular, borrowing phrases
and figures of speech unique to the community in which she was raised.
In talking about her novels, Morrison has said, “When I write, I
don't translate for white readers. . . . If I’m specific, and I
don’t overexplain, then anyone can overhear me.” Her work takes
themes and cadences from the blues, jazz, gospel, and spirituals
to explore such issues as the legacy of slavery, attempts to create
an African American culture separate from white culture, and the
ongoing struggle to gain equality.
The civil rights and black power movements influenced
Morrison’s work. In the 1950s and 1960s,
the civil rights movement sought to end segregation and the systemized
violence against African Americans as well as increase their economic
opportunities. Some people found the movement’s nonviolent tactics
too passive, and others argued that the civil rights movement emphasized
integration and assimilation at the expense of a distinct black
identity. Around 1966, these critics began
to coalesce into the black power movement, which emphasized racial
pride, developed such slogans as “Black Is Beautiful,” and argued
that blacks had to meet violence with violence. Tar Baby touches
on the movements’ differing agendas through its two main characters.
With the help of patron Valerian Street, Jadine Childs has assimilated
into the white world as an educated fashion model. Son, in contrast,
was raised in an all-black community in rural Florida. Much of the
novel’s dramatic tension stems from the power struggles between
these two vastly different characters.
Morrison’s interest in popular culture and politics is
evident in her creation of an active workshop at Princeton University,
the Princeton Atelier, which fosters collaborations across the arts,
and her involvement with Oprah’s Book Club. Her diverse accomplishments
have secured her an enduring place in literary history.