Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia ( Anthony) Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, where her parents, migrants from the South, had moved to, to escape the problems of southern racism.
Morrison is the second of four children, to, Ramah Willis and George Wofford, migrant sharecroppers on both sides, both of whom came from sharecropping families who had moved North in pursuit of better living conditions in the early 1900s. Her father’s family, in particular, had faced a great deal of discrimination. Due to these bitter memories and the racial troubles he endured during his childhood, he maintained a strong distrust of whites throughout his lifetime.
Morrison’s parents instilled in her the value of group loyalty, which they believed was essential to surviving the harsh realities of racial tension that was very prevalent during then.
As an African-American in a town of immigrants, Toni Morrison grew up with the notion that the only place she could turn to for aid and reassurance would be within her own community in Lorain, Ohio where, she had “an escape from stereotyped black settings — neither plantation nor ghetto”.
She grew up in a lively household surrounded by songs, fairy tales, ghost stories, myths, music, and the language of their African-American heritage. Amongst all those activities the most common in her family was storytelling with everyone actively participating. After the adults had shared their stories, the children told theirs.
In this way Morrison’s father, George Wofford, a welder by trade, told her numerous folktales of the black community thus transferring his African-American heritage to another generation. This method of storytelling later work its way into Morrison’s writings.
As Morrison grew up in a family that possessed an intense love of and appreciation for black culture with storytelling, songs, and folktales being a deeply formative part of her childhood, the importance of both listening to stories and creating them contributed to Morrison’s profound love of reading. Morrison’s parents encouraged her passion for reading, learning, and culture, as well as a confidence in her own abilities and attributes as a woman. They educated her before she was sent to school.
As an adolescent she became enthralled by classic literature, reading voraciously, the great European writers while being especially given to Jane Austen, Russian classics such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. But strangely, she was not exposed to African-American literature.
In an interview with Jean Strouse, Morrison described her childhood experiences with literature: “Those books were not written for a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio, but they were so magnificently done that I got them anyway — they spoke directly to me out of their own specificity.”
But inspite of this deficiency, Morrison was especially impressed by the ability of her favorite authors to identify with and present their own cultural roots.
Morrison graduated high school with honors in 1949 and went on to attend Howard University in Washington D.C., America’s most distinguished black college to study English. It was during her time here that she changed her name from ‘Chloe’ to ‘Toni’, (derived from her middle name, Anthony) so that her name would be easier to pronounce as people had found “Chloe” too difficult to pronounce.
She took classes from one of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke, who we would realise after reading all my series touched the lives and literary careers of so many other African American writers. But Morrison claims that much of the African American literature she encountered while there left her feeling bereft for it seemed to be written to someone other than herself or the black people she knew.
As a member of the Howard Repertory Theatre, Morrison was often part of their trips to perform which gave her the opportunity to observe the African-American experience in the South.
In 1953, she graduated from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Classics and went on to pursue graduate studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York where she wrote her thesis on “alienation and suicide in the works of William Faulkner and VirginiaWoolf” which demonstrated that both writers were as deeply concerned as Morrison would be with the interiority of their characters and with innovative approaches to the novel form.
This had much effect on her writing for as Morrison has said she tries,’to incorporate into the traditional genre of the novel, unorthodox novelistic characteristics of Black art…’ She admits that she doesn’t regard Black literature as simply books by Black people, or simply as literature written about Black people or simply as literature that uses a certain mode of language in which you sort of drop g’s. For as she claims she has found out that there is something very special and very identifiable about it. That she admits is: “my struggle to find that elusive but identifiable style in the books.”
She received her M.A. in 1955 and began her teaching career at Texas Southern University where she was engaged as an instructor in English and humanities. She returned to Howard in 1957 as an English instructor and began working on her own writing. Whilst there she became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.and met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect and fellow faculty member with whom she had two sons: Harold Ford and Slade Morrison. But the marriage soon started going to the rocks. During this period, she needed to be around people who appreciated literature as much as she did. Morrison therefore joined a small writer’s group as a temporary escape from an unhappy marriage.
For discussion, each member was required to bring a story or poem. After one week, Morrison had brought nothing so to save her face she quickly wrote a story based on a black girl she knew during her childhood who kept praying to God for blue eyes. Although her group enjoyed the story, Morrison put it away, thinking she was done with it.
Morrison thus began writing fiction as part of her obligation to sustain this informal discussion group of writers at Howard University. The story later evolved into her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). While writing this novel she was raising two children and teaching at Howard. Over that same period her marriage which had been deteriorating finally ended in divorce in 1964.
After her divorce, Morrison left Howard University and moved to Syracuse, New York, to work as a textbook editor at the headquarters of Random House where she began working as an associate editor and soon became a senior editor. At Random House, she played an important part in bringing African American literature into the mainstream. She edited books by such black authors as Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Gayl Jones, mentored these among many African-American women writers and compiled as well as anthologized the works and histories of African-Americans while continuing to teach at two branches of the State University of New York.
While working during the day, her housekeeper took care of her two sons. In the evening, Morrison cooked dinner and played with her sons until their bedtime, when she would start writing. She found writing exciting and challenging; and found everything else boring by comparison except for parenting. In an interview with Nellie McKay, when asked how she manages these responsibilities, she replied, “Well, I really only do two things… It only looks like many things. All of my work has to do with books. It’s all one thing. And the other thing that I do is to raise my children which, as you know, I can only do one minute at a time”.
Morrison began to develop the story. For several years, she tried to get the novel published, but after many rejections, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston accepted it for publication in 1970. With its publication, Morrison also established her new identity, “I am really Chloe Anthony Wofford. That’s who I am. I have been writing under this other person’s name. I write some things now as Chloe Wofford, private things. I regret having called myself Toni Morrison when I published my first novel, The Bluest Eye”.
Born and schooled in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Arthur Smith has taught English for over thirty years at various Educational Institutions. He is now a Senior Lecturer of English at Fourah Bay College where he has been lecturing for the past eight years.
Mr Smith’s writings have been in various media. He participated in a seminar on contemporary American Literature in the U.S. in 2006. His growing thoughts and reflections on this trip which took him to various US sights and sounds could be read at lisnews.org.
His other publications include: Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and ‘The Struggle of the Book’
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