Profile of Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Winning Novelist

Biography and Bibliography

Toni Morrison, 1979
Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931, to August 5, 2019) was an American novelist, editor, and educator whose novels focused on the experience of black Americans, particularly emphasizing black women's experience in an unjust society and the search for cultural identity. In her writing, she artfully used fantasy and mythical elements along with realistic depictions of racial, gender and class conflict. In 1993, she became the first African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Fast Facts: Toni Morrison

  • Known For: American novelist, editor, and educator
  • Also Known As: Chloe Anthony Wofford (given name at birth)
  • Born: February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio
  • Died: August 5, 2019 in The Bronx, New York City (pneumonia)
  • Parents: Ramah and George Wofford
  • Education: Howard University (BA), Cornell University (MA)
  • Noted Works: The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise
  • Key Awards: Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1987), Nobel Prize in Literature (1993), Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012)
  • Spouse: Harold Morrison
  • Children: sons Harold Ford Morrison, Slade Morrison
  • Notable Quote: “If you’re going to hold someone down you’re going to have to hold on by the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression.”

Along with the Nobel Prize, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for her 1987 novel Beloved, and in 1996, she was selected for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. On May 29, 2012, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Early Life, Education, and Teaching Career

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931, to Ramah and George Wofford. Growing up during the economic hardship of the Great Depression, Morrison’s father, a former sharecropper, worked at three jobs to support the family. It was from her family that Morrison inherited her deep appreciation for all aspects of black culture.

Morrison earned Bachelor of Arts degrees from Howard University in 1952 and a Master's degree from Cornell University in 1955. After college, she changed her first name to Toni and taught at Texas Southern University until 1957. From 1957 to 1964, she taught at Howard University, where she married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison. Before divorcing in 1964, the couple had two sons together, Harold Ford Morrison and Slade Morrison. Among her students at Howard were future Civil Rights Movement leader Stokely Carmichael and Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land.

In 1965, Toni Morrison went to work as an editor at book publisher Random House, becoming the first black woman senior editor in the fiction department in 1967. After returning to teaching at State University of New York at Albany from 1984 to 1989, she taught at Princeton University until she retired in 2006.

Writing Career

While working as a senior editor at Random House, Morrison also started sending her own manuscripts to publishers. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970 when Morrison was 39. Bluest Eye told the story of a victimized young black girl whose obsession with her idea of white beauty drove her longing for blue eyes. Her second novel, Sula, depicting the friendship between two black women, was published in 1973, while she was teaching at State University of New York.

While teaching at Yale in 1977, Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon, was published. The book gained critical and popular acclaim, winning the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Her next novel, Tar Baby, exploring the conflicts of race, class, and sex, was published in 1981 and led to her being accepted as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Morrison’s first play, Dreaming Emmett, about the 1955 lynching of black teenager Emmett Till, premiered in 1986.

The Beloved Trilogy

Published in 1987, Morrison’s most celebrated novel, Beloved, was inspired by the life story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved African American woman. Remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for 25 weeks, Beloved won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1998, Beloved was made into a feature film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. 

The second book in what Morrison called her “Beloved trilogy,” Jazz, came out in 1992. Written in a style imitating the rhythms of jazz music, Jazz depicts a love triangle during New York City’s Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920s. Critical acclaim from Jazz resulted in Morrison becoming the first African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Published in 1997, the third book of Morrison’s Beloved trilogy, Paradise, focuses on the citizens of a fictional all-black town.

In suggesting that Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise should be read together as a trilogy, Morrison explained, “The conceptual connection is the search for the beloved—the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you.”

In her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Morrison explained the source of her inspiration to depict the black experience by telling the story of an old, blind, black woman who is confronted by a group of black teenagers who ask her, “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? … Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story.”

Final Years and the Writing of 'Home'

In her later life, Morrison wrote children’s books with her younger son, Slade Morrison, a painter and a musician. When Slade died of pancreatic cancer in December 2010, one of Morrison’s final novels, Home, was half-completed. She said at the time, “I stopped writing until I began to think, he would be really put out if he thought that he had caused me to stop. ‘Please, Mom, I'm dead, could you keep going . . . ?’”

Morrison did “keep on going” and finished Home, dedicating it to Slade. Published in 2012, Home tells the story of a black Korean War veteran living in the segregated United States of the 1950s, who fights to save his sister from brutal medical experiments performed on her by a racist white doctor.

In a 2008 interview with NPR’s Michel Martin, Morrison addressed the future of racism: “Racism will disappear when [it is] no longer profitable and no longer psychologically useful. When that happens, it’ll be gone.”

Today, Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio, is the home of the Toni Morrison Society, an international literary society dedicated to teaching, reading, and researching the works of Toni Morrison.

Toni Morrison died at age 88 from complications of pneumonia at the Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx, New York City, on August 5, 2019.

Updated by Robert Longley

Sources and Further Reference