America’s First Lady of Literature
I24 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims… (Beloved, Page 1)
Margaret Garner, a runaway slave, killed her two-year-old daughter in 1856 to spare her a life of slavery. She slashed her infant daughter’s throat rather than see her child in chains. Before she could do the same to the rest of her children and herself, slave catchers pried the knife from her fingers. Based on this grisly true story of the horrors of slavery, Beloved, published in 1987, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was later made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey, Thandie Newton and Danny Glover.
The success of the novel took its owner’s popularity to greater heights—Toni Morrison. Noted for her detailed inspectionof the terrible experience, particularly the women within the black community, this African American received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She was in fact, the first African American woman to win such award making her the first lady of literature.
Toni Morrison was born as Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931, and was the second of four children born to Ramah and George Wofford. She grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s, a time of severe economic hardship in a family who has an intense appreciation of the black culture despite being brought up in an American community. Her family was part of the great wave of migration in the early 1900s. Her grandparents had lost their land like many other black people in that part of the history. They were sharecroppers, that meant they paid the rent for their land with some of the crops they produce, and they were never able to get out of debt even then. Growing up during the Great Depression, Morrison witnessed not just the struggle of her own family for survival but also that of her own people. Her father supported the family by working three jobs for seventeen years. However, despite their dire situation her family didn’t stop to provide her education. Morrison was, in fact, the first woman in her family to attend college who got a degree at Howard University and then on to Cornell, where she completed a Masters in Literature. With this self-assurance, she split with her husband. Pregnant with her second child, she worked as an editor at Random House to earn a living.
Aside from being one of the most cherished names in the publishing house, Morrison was also most recognized in her teaching career. She was appointed to the Robert F. Goheen Professor at Princeton University spring 1989— a post she held until 2006, was the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at the State University of New York at Albany in 1984 as appointed by The New York State Board of Regents, the Obert C. Tanner Lecturer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and the Jeannette K. Watson Distinguished Professor at Syracuse University in 1988. She delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Massey Lectures at Harvard University in 1990 and was held the International Cordorcet Chair at the Ecole Normale Superieure and College de France in 1994. She has also held teaching posts in prestigious universities like Yale, Bard College, and Rutgers.
“What becomes known as history, is not all there is to know.”
Morrison began writing books she wanted to read but didn’t exist, particularly the ones concerning history and politics. “What becomes known as history, is not all there is to know,” she said. Though her writings are not autobiographical, she alludes to her past. Her debut novel of 1970, The Bluest Eye addressed the pernicious phenomenon of racial self-loathing through the lives of the members of a poor black family in 1940s Ohio. Song of Solomon, her 1977 novel, like many of her other works, received extensive critical acclaim. It received a National Books Critic Award in 1978, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s popular book club, and was cited by the Swedish Academy in awarding Morrison the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.
In addition to The Bluest Eye, Beloved and Song of Solomon, Morrison wrote 7 other novels including; Sula (1974), Tar Baby (1981), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), and God Help the Child (2015). All these works noticeably explore both the need for and the impossibility of real community and the bonds that both unite and divide African-American women.
Unlike other writers who abhor terms like “black writer,” Morrison has always welcomed labels. She’s writing for the black people. So, there is nothing wrong to be called one. In fact, she only writes for them which is not something she should apologize for.
About the issue of feminism, surprisingly, Morrison does not identify her works as feminist despite being typically concentrated on black women. In a 1998 interview, “Why distance oneself from feminism?” she replied:
“In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can’t take positions that are closed. Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book— leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity.”( Jaffrey, Zia, “The Salon Interview with Toni Morrison.” February 2,
She went on to say,
“I don’t subscribe to patriarchy, and I don’t think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it’s a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.”
In 2012, she responded to a question about the difference between black and white feminists in the 1970s.
“Womanists is what black feminists used to call themselves,” she explained. “They were not the same thing. And also the relationship with men. Historically, black women have always sheltered their men because they were out there, and they were the ones that were most likely to be killed.” (Bollen, Christopher “Toni Morrison”. Interview. May 7, 2012).
In addition to her film, Imagine – Toni Morrison Remembers, directed by Jill Nicholls and shown on BBC1 television on July 15, 2015, was the The Foreigner’s Home, a documentary film in 2016 about Morrison’s intellectual and artistic vision which begun in 2014.
Morrison has been championed in popular spheres such as Oprah’s Book Club, while at the same time attracting a vast following of scholars, who are drawn to the pertinence of her political engagement. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. Turning 86 this February, Toni Morrison perhaps is the most celebrated contemporary American woman novelist we have so far.