In the Limelight

Toni Morrison was a novelist, essayist, and editor, who became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1993. Born on February 18, 1931, Morrison later graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English and went on to earn a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner’s Treatment of the Alienated. Morrison went on to teach English at Texas Southern University two years, then at Howard for seven years. After working as an editor for L.W. Singer, Morrison transferred to Random House where she became their first black woman senior editor in the fiction department. 

During her time at Random House, Morrison played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream. She worked on the groundbreaking Contemporary African Literature, that included work by Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Athol Fugard. She was instrumental in fostering a new generation of African-American authors, such as Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, and Henry Dumas. After joining an informal group of writers at Howard, Morrison penned her first novel, The Bluest Eye, when she was 39. This book brought her to the attention of the acclaimed editor Robert Gottlieb, who would go on to edit most of Morrison’s novels. 

Her second novel Sula was nominated for the National Book Award, as her third novel Song of Solomon brought her national acclaim. This latter title was the first novel by a black writer to be chosen for the Book of the Month Club since 1940 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Barnard College also awarded Morrison its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction, in 1979. While teaching at two branches of the State University of New York and at Rutgers University, Morrison wrote her first play Dreaming Emmett in 1955. This play is a historical retelling of the life of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy beaten to death in 1955 by a group of white men. 

Her most celebrated novel, Beloved was inspired by the true story of enslaved African-American woman, Margaret Garner. Beloved remained a bestseller for 25 weeks, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Shortly thereafter, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her citation reads: Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” After the release of her third Beloved trilogy, Morrison became the second female writer of fiction and second black writer of fiction to appear on the cover of Time magazine. 

Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demme later produced a movie adaptation of Beloved, starring Winfrey, Danny Glover, and Thandie Newton. Over six years on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey selected four of Morrison’s novels for her Book Club, giving the titles a bigger sales boost than they got from her Nobel Prize win. In her later career, Morrison wrote the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner, penned the children’s book Remembers to mark the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, and held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University until her retirement. President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and she also received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

Morrison was the author of 11 novels as well as children’s books and essay collection and was one of the rare African-American authors whose books were both critical and commercial successes. She is survived by her son Harold Ford Morrison and three grandchildren. Her other son, Slade, with whom she collaborated on many children’s books, passed away in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.