Imagine This: Your maternal grandparents are sharecroppers and, at age thirteen, you get a job cleaning house for a white family after school to help with the family expenses. Dignity and diligence are important family values in your home, but how far can a young African American girl go in a world where racial discrimination is still such a predominant influence?
You’re born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, the second of four children. Your maternal grandparents are sharecroppers in Alabama, but your parents move north to Lorain, Ohio, to escape the racism of the South.
Your mother is a patient but determined woman. When an eviction notice is put on your house, she tears it off. And when there are maggots in the flour, she writes a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. Your father, a shipyard welder, is a hardworking man, but he distrusts all white men and does his best to keep white people out of his life.
As you grow older, you hear many family stories about discrimination and injustice, but there is one story in particular that leaves a lasting impression.
Your family tells how when you were two years old, they were unable to pay the monthly rent of four dollars, and their angry landlord tried to burn down the house with the family still inside. You will remember that story about hatred all your life and will later include it in your writing.
Your family is proud of their heritage, and storytelling is the main form of entertainment. This is where you hear the songs and tales of southern black folklore that you’ll later use in your writing. Even though your family is poor, your parents make the children feel very important, and your father teaches you to always have pride in your work.
You’re an excellent student and, when you graduate with honors in 1949 from Lorain High School, you become the first woman in your family to go to college. After enrolling at Howard University in Washington, D.C., you shorten your middle name Anthony to Toni, and from then on, everyone calls you Toni.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in English from Howard University in 1953 and a master’s degree in English from Cornell University in 1955, you teach for several years.
You marry in 1958, but it’s not a happy marriage and you join a writing group to ease your unhappiness. For one of your writing assignments, you write story about a little African American girl you remember from your childhood who had wanted blue eyes. You write about the whole issue of physical beauty and the pain that comes from wanting to be someone else.
In 1965 you accept an editorial job with the Random House publishing office in Syracuse, New York, and move there with your two sons. You continue to work on your story about the little black girl who wanted blue eyes and, recognizing your talent, an editor transfers you to its New York City office in 1968.
You become a senior editor—-the only black woman to hold such a position at that time. You rewrite your story as a novel and in 1970 it is published as The Bluest Eye. You publish your second novel, Sula, in 1973, a novel that examines the importance of friendships between black women.
Your Song of Solomon, a novel about a young black man discovering the richness of his ancestry, is published in 1977 and becomes a best-seller. Tar Baby (1981) remains on the New York Times best-seller list for four months and your novel Beloved (1987) wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. In 1993 you receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, the eighth woman and the first black woman to ever receive the award.
Although you’re one of literature’s greatest women, you never forget your students. Even on the day you receive the news about being awarded the Nobel Prize, you still return to teach your classes at Princeton University.
“I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing.”
Toni Morrison (1931- )
Excerpted from Dare to Dream!: 25 Extraordinary Lives by Sandra McLeod Humphrey
For More about Toni Morrison
Giving Back: Although America’s history of racism and slavery is central to Toni Morrison’s novels, her novels transcend these issues to envelop truths about the human condition and the problems we all face.
Did you know that when Toni Morrison entered first grade, she was the only black child in her class and the only child who could already read?
Something to Think about: Why do you think her teaching was as important to Toni Morrison as her writing?
Willoughby and I hope you enjoyed this week’s true story and will be back next week for another story to inspire you to DARE TO DREAM BIG!