Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison, died yesterday at Montefiore Medical Center in New York following an undisclosed illness. She was 88.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, February 18, 1931, Morrison made history, becoming the first black woman to win both a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer Prize for her fictional works. She published a dozen books, among them: Beloved,Sula, The Bluest Eye and Jazz—classics in English departments around the world.
Morrison was raised in a steel town just outside of Cleveland. Her dad was a welder and her mother was a domestic worker who sang in the church choir and she was the second of four children. Morrison often spoke of the dignity instilled in her by her parents, who encouraged her love of reading. They taught her that she and her siblings had no limits despite the racial disparity in America. In this interview with Charlie Rose, Morrison spoke about racism and how she was raised to see it.
Morrison received her bachelor’s in 1953 from Howard University and got her master’s from Cornell University in 1955. She taught for two years at Texas Southern University, before heading back to her alma mater, Howard, to teach from 1957-1964. Morrison became a fiction editor at Random House, where she worked for a number of years.
Her writing career began while at Howard University. It was there where she formed the story of The Bluest Eye, about a black girl who desperately wished she had blue eyes. Morrison finished the novel, getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to write. A single mom, that was her quiet before her two children awoke. The book was published in 1970. She was 39, and still working at Random House. Morrison’s second book, Sula, was nominated for The National Book Award and Song of Solomon, published in 1977, won the The National Book Critics Award.
In 1988, Beloved was published. It was a hit among black authors, but snubbed by the National Book Awards and the National Critics Circle, prompting a backlash by black writers, among them Maya Angelou. They published this statement in the New York Times: “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve.”
Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a couple of months after that.
Morrison said she was inspired by the writings of Maya Angelou.
“Maya Angelou helped me without her knowing it,” she told The Associated Press in a 1998 interview. “When she was writing her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was an editor at Random House. She was having such a good time, and she never said, ‘Who me? My little book?”
In 1993, Morrison became the first woman from The Global Majority to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
“Winning the (Nobel) prize was fabulous,” said in an interview with AP. “Nobody was going to take that and make it into something else. I felt representational. I felt American. I felt Ohioan. I felt blacker than ever. I felt more woman than ever. I felt all of that, and put all of that together and went out and had a good time.”
In 2019, The Toni Morrison documentary, The Pieces I Am, was released.