Among book lovers, Toni Morrison was a living legend. Her style introduced elegance, empathy, and the legacy of an African American folklore to American fiction. She wrote stories for African American people, but her words captured the imagination of creatives, thinkers, and even politicians from all over.
How did a single working mother and descendant of sharecroppers transform her spare time into one of the great bibliographies of English literature? Uncover these 43 inspirational facts about Toni Morrison.
1. Humble Origins, Lofty Legacy
Toni Morrison was born as “Chloe Ardelia Wofford” to a working-class and Black family in Lorain, Ohio on February 18, 1931. Her father worked odd jobs, including welding, while her mother stayed at home with their four kids (Morrison was second-born) and served as a devoted member of their African Methodist Episcopal Church.
2. The Father of All Trauma
Morrison’s father, George Wofford, witnessed the lynching of his neighbors when he was just 15 years old. Soon after, Wofford moved from Georgia to Ohio in hopes of escaping the violent racism of the deep south. To quote Morrison, “He never told us that he’d seen bodies. But he had seen them. And that was too traumatic, I think, for him.”
3. One of a Kind
Growing up, Morrison was the only black child in her class. According to her, she was also the only child who could read.
4. “A” for Effort
While attending school, Morrison was an eager student who graduated with honors. During her studies, the young girl even studied Latin.
5. Teeny Tiny Toni
Morrison’s nickname (and eventual pen name) “Toni” is rooted in her pre-adolescent conversion to Roman Catholicism. Upon joining her new faith, she took on the baptismal name of “Anthony,” after the Saint Anthony. For the record, Saint Anthony most often refers to Saint Anthony of Padua, patron saint of lost things.
6. Read to Remember Who You Are
It probably surprises nobody to learn that Morrison was a voracious childhood reader. Her favorite authors were Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen. However, Morrison’s parents were also adamant that she be educated with a strong sense of her African-American heritage, and exposed her to traditional African-American folktales, songs, and even ghost stories.
7. Let’s Go Clubbing
Morrison held an impressive extracurricular record at Lorain High School. She served on the debate team, the yearbook committee, and even the drama club.
8. A Town Divided
Morrison did not encounter racially segregated buses and restaurants until 1949, when she was a college student at Howard University in Washington, DC.
9. Class Is in Session
In addition to being an author, Morrison was also an accomplished academic. She graduated from Howard University with a BA in English in 1953 before going on to earn her master’s degree from Cornell University in 1955. She would move on to teach at countless universities, most notably Yale, Bard College, Rutgers, and her alma mater of Howard.
10. Let Me Sleep on These Figures
Morrison described her family as “intimate with the supernatural.” Her grandmother owned a “dream book,” wherein she would attempt to crack the symbolic codes of her dreams for winning numbers.
11. Can’t Say Toni Is Tongue-Tied
An issue of pronunciation led to Morrison taking on her Catholic name full-time. As she attended Howard University, people struggled to pronounce her birth name of “Chloe.” Well, “Toni” was adopted and it clearly stuck.
12. Turn to Chapter 1…
Morrison began her publishing career behind the page…but not in fiction. Starting in 1965, she worked as an editor for L.W. Singer, the textbook department of the famed Random House.
13. From Homework to Home-Reading
In 1967, Toni Morrison became Random House’s first-ever black female senior editor of their fiction department. She had worked for two years previously in the textbook division.
14. When Blue Strikes Gold
Morrison first began writing her fiction at Howard University, where she attended informal groups of writers and poets who gathered to discuss their work. One of her short stories followed a black girl who ached to have blue eyes. This was eventually reworked into her stunning first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970).
15. The Voice for Voices
As a senior editor at Random House, Toni Morrison was a driving force behind the rise of mid-20th-century Black literature. One of her first projects was the collection Contemporary African Literature (1972). She was also instrumental in the discovery and popularity of African-American writers like Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones.
16. Your Syllabus Paid for This Meal
Morrison didn’t publish her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), until she was 39 years old. And it was not initially a financial success. However, this changed when City University of New York put the book on the reading list for its brand-new Black Studies department. Other schools soon followed the example, putting Morrison’s work on the map and—perhaps just as importantly—upping her sales.
17. An Honor Just to Eventually Win
Morrison’s second novel, Sula (1973), earned the author her first National Book Award nomination. Her third, Song of Solomon (1977), went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award. She was clearly on a roll.
18. Took You Long Enough
Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon, was also the main selection in the Book of the Month Club to be authored by a Black writer since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1940. For the record, this was in 1977…
19. Her or Nothing
In 1988, 48 black critics, including Maya Angelou, protested Morrison’s loss of the National Book Award for her near-universally acclaimed novel Beloved in a statement to The New York Times. It was quickly amended: just two months after the statement, Morrison’s novel about the infant ghosts of slavery won her the Pulitzer Prize.
20. Who Needs the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
In 1993, Morrison was awarded the legendary Nobel Prize in Literature. This was in the middle of publishing her “Beloved” trilogy, consisting of Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise.
21. A Nobel Path
She was actually the first Black woman—from any country—to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
22. The Face of Success
In 1998, Morrison became only the second female writer of fiction to ever appear on the cover of Time magazine. She was also just the second black writer of fiction period to land the cover of the long-running publication.
Some critics have viewed Morrison’s commercial success as heavily indebted to “the Oprah Effect.” Over a period of several years, talk-show magnate Oprah Winfrey selected four of Morrison’s novels for her famous Book Club. Just for the record, Morrison’s book sales got a bigger boost after Oprah’s endorsements than from her Nobel Prize win!
24. Sing Me a Song
Morrison’s mother was a constant singer, which has caused scholars to connect her to the character of “Sing” in Song of Solomon.
25. First Time for Everything, Thank Goodness
Morrison endorsed Barack Obama for the 2008 US Presidential election. Upon his victory, the writer said she truly felt like an American for one of the first times in her life.
26. Wise Words That Could’ve Been Used
A Toni Morrison quote is featured on the wall of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the “National Lynching Memorial.” The quote is one of the first things visitors see after they walk through the section of the memorial dedicated to individual victims of white mobs. The quote implores black people to “love their heart” despite the violence against them.
27. Vintage Morrison
Morrison completed her master’s thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. It was formally titled “Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s Treatment of the Alienated,” and it can still be requested for reading at the Cornell University library. Maybe it’s time to take an archival trip to Cornell?
28. Sisterhood of the Traveling Legends
Believe it or not, Morrison was a dyed-in-the-wool sorority girl. While teaching at Howard University, she won membership to their Alpha Kappa sorority association. Other notable and famous members of this prestigious, established sorority include Alicia Keys, Wanda Sykes, Star Jones, and even Maya Angelou (though in different chapters).
29. Must-See TV
Toni Morrison didn’t own a television until she was a college student. She eventually caught onto the TV craze, however, and was an avid fan of Law & Order as well as The Walking Dead.
30. Worse Than the Real Thing
Though Morrison came around on television, she couldn’t stand the Real Housewives reality series and franchise, even comparing the show to a car crash: “Do you really think that your life is bigger, deeper, more profound because your life is on television?” the writer once sniped at the popular show. “And they do.”
31. A Depressing Path to a Bright Future
Morrison came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Over the course of her young life, her father worked three jobs to support their family.
32. Heavy Medal
In 2012, Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-US President Barack Obama..
33. Sing Me a Sad Song
In 2005, Morrison took her writing skills from the page to the stage. She composed the English libretto for Margaret Garner, an opera about the real-life case of the titular runaway slave who is charged with killing her children rather than letting them return to enslavement. The history was also the basis of Morrison’s famous novel, Beloved.
34. No One Likes a Narcissist
Don’t ask the legendary author about autobiography. Morrison was open about having no impulse to write her own memoir, as well as her deep suspicions about the triteness of self-writing in general. To quote the writer’s famous advice to her creative writing students: “I don’t want to hear about your little life, OK?”
35. What’s So Funny About Fire?
When Morrison was just two years old, her family’s landlord burned their house down. Why? Her parents were unable to pay the rent. Instead of raging or falling into despair, Morrison’s father simply laughed at what she described as this “bizarre form of evil.” Morrison would hold this tragic incident as an exemplar on how to uphold one’s integrity in the face of “monumental crudeness.”
Worst of all, the family was inside the house at the time of the incident.
36. The Burn(ed) Book
In an ironic twist, Toni Morrison’s house also burned down the very same year that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Tragically, it was a Christmas Day fire, and her home was almost completely wrecked after a fireplace ember jumped out and wreaked havoc. Somehow, though, a few of her manuscripts miraculously survived.
37. A Single Woman
Morrison met her husband while teaching at Howard University. Said hubby, Harold Morrison, was a young and ambitious Jamaican architect who was also teaching at the institution with Toni. The couple wed in 1958 and had two sons, but they sadly divorced in 1964. Obviously, she kept that soon-to-be iconic last name…
38. Leave Something Behind?
When Morrison and her husband divorced in 1964, she was still pregnant with their second son, Slade. Her husband had decided to return to his native Jamaica not long after a summer of traveling in Europe with their family.
39. The Best Use of a Breakfast Break
Though Morrison showed an immense talent for writing, that didn’t mean that it came easy for her. She wrote The Bluest Eye, her first novel, by getting up every morning at 4 am to write when she could. She had to make her time count as the sole parent to her two sons and a full-time editor of other people’s books.
40. Made in Memoriam
Tragedy interrupted Morrison’s life in the 2010s. While working on the novel that would be Home (2012), her younger son Slade died of cancer. Morrison ceased work on the book until she considered, “He would be really put out if he thought that he had caused me to stop. ‘Please, Mom, I’m dead, could you keep going…?’”
Home follows a Korean War veteran who wants to save his sister from a white doctor’s experiments. The book was eventually dedicated to her son.
41. The End of an Era
Morrison passed away in New York City on August 5, 2019. She had been suffering from a brief illness and died from pneumonia-related complications. She was 88 years old.
42. A Legend Remembered
The outpouring of grief after Morrison’s death was heartbreaking, and very befitting the literary legend. Barack Obama expressed his condolences, and Oprah Winfrey wrote, “She was our conscience. Our seer. Our truth-teller.” Even Beyonce herself posted a tribute on her website, a quote from Song of Solomon that read: “‘If you surrender to the air, you can ride it.’ Rest in paradise.”