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Black History

Toni Morrison: 1st Black American Awarded Nobel Prize In Literature

By Jaelyn Scott
Spring Intern
New Journal and Guide

Chloe Anthony Wofford, also known as Toni Morrison, was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Born as the second child of four, she lived in an area that was semi-integrated, that did not remove racial discrimination as a threat to Black families in that area. In fact, at the age of two, the owner of her apartment building set their home on fire with everyone inside all because they could afford to pay rent.

Despite everything, their family still valued Black Culture and what it has to offer, especially when it came to storytelling, songs, and folktales. As she attended school, she started to put more focus into her studies, becoming an avid reader as well. Outside of school, she decided to convert to Catholicism at the age of 12, getting baptized under the name Anthony after Saint Anthony of Padua. She later shortened it to Toni.

After graduating high school, she moved to Washington D.C. in 1949 to attend Howard University. While she attended Howard, she was also part of their theatrical group, the Howard University Players. It was in this group that she was able to witness firsthand racial segregation in a new light as they toured the segregated South, witnessing the rampant colorism and racial discrimination that occurred there.

During this time, she was also allowed to connect with people who would later inspire some of her future work, meeting writers, artists, and activists.

After graduating from Howard in 1953, she decided to get her master’s degree at Cornell University in 1955. Afterward, Morrison would begin her teaching career, teaching at Texas Southern University for two years before she decided to return to Howard and teach there. She taught at Howard for seven years, from 1957 to 1964. During this time, she met her husband, Harold Morrison, and the couple would later have two sons, Harold Jr. and Slade.

After leaving Howard, she and her family moved to Syracuse, New York where she got a job at Random House Publishing Company. She first worked in the textbook division, but within two years she would transfer to the New York City division and become a fiction editor, editing books that were written by African-American authors. Despite working in a publishing company, she would not publish her first book until 1970, at the age of 39.

The Bluest Eyes was one of the first books that she published, followed by Sula three years later in 1973, and Song of Solomon in 1977. By this time, she has started earning awards for her work and became a household name, being nominated for a National Book award and winning a National Book Critics Circle award. She decided to become a full-time writer, and in 1987 she wrote Beloved, which became a best seller for 25 weeks, and earned her a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

All of her works focused on different topics and aspects of racial discrimination, exposing the issues that took place in America, especially the segregated South. And with those stories, she became the first African-American to earn a Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1993. She would later also be honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contributions to American Letters, and years later she would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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In 1984, Morrison would resume teaching writing at the State University of New York, later teaching at Princeton University for their creative writing program until she retired in 2006, earning an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford. She passed away on August 5, 2019, in New York City, New York due to complications from pneumonia.

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