Toni Morrison: Biographical Note
Note: the following biographical note was composed by Amardeep Singh. The goal is to synthesize extant biographical sources and information, and to attempt to interpret what we know about Morrison's life with an eye to Morrison's published fiction. As of September 2021, the focus below is on the first half of Morrison's career (up through around 1981); we hope to continue and complete the project soon.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931. Her parents were Ramah and George Wofford; her mother’s maiden name was Willis. Both of her parents had migrated to Ohio from the deep south; Ramah Willis was born in Greenville, Alabama, while George Wofford grew up in Cartersville, Georgia. Morrison was the second of four children; she had an older sister (Lois Brooks), and two younger brothers, Raymond Wofford and George Carl Wofford.
Morrison was raised in close proximity to her grandparents, John Solomon Willis and Ardelia Willis (on her mother’s side). After leaving Alabama, the Willises lived for a time in Kentucky, where John Solomon Willis is said to have worked in a coal mine (see McKay, 1983). This trajectory (Alabama --> Kentucky --> Ohio) resembles the trajectory of the Breedlove family in Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, though the resemblances between Morrison's family and the Breedloves stop there. Morrison is also said to have deeply admired her great-grandmother (about whom, more below).
At the time, Lorain, Ohio was a multicultural city with a large number of eastern European immigrants as well as a growing Black population. Morrison’s father found work in the thriving steel industry; for at least one of his jobs, he was employed as a skilled welder. Morrison’s mother mostly worked at home and was a member of the A.M.E. Church, a historically Black church. She also did part-time work at times to help her children financially when they were in college.
According Hilton Als ("Ghosts in the House"), the Woffords moved house at least six times while Morrison was a child. At times the family struggled to pay rent; Morrison has recounted that once, a landlord set their house on fire when they couldn't make the rent ($4 a month) (see Als).
Morrison (then Chloe Wofford) attended a Catholic school in Lorain, and briefly converted to Catholicism at the age of 12. It is then that she took the name “Anthony” (after St. Anthony), which would later be shortened to “Toni.” Morrison did not remain a practicing Catholic, though references to Catholicism do appear from time to time in Morrison’s fiction (see for instance the conflict in the Dead family that follows Ruth Foster Dead’s decision to take communion as a non-Catholic in Song of Solomon).
As we’ll discuss below, Chloe Anthony Wofford took on the last name Morrison when she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, in 1958. Though the couple divorced in 1964, she would be publicly known as an author by the last name Morrison throughout her life.
"Toni Morrison" vs. "Chloe Wofford": which name to use?
Morrison published all of her books as Toni Morrison, but she did not necessarily intend for this when she submitted the manuscript of her first book, The Bluest Eye, to Henry Holt in 1970. In an interview with the New York Times in 1994, Morrison described how the use of the name "Toni Morrison" was essentially an accident:
Q: It must have been fulfilling, in 1970, to see your name on the cover of "The Bluest Eye."
A: I was upset. They had the wrong name: Toni Morrison. My name is Chloe Wofford. Toni's a nickname.
Q: Didn't you know that your publisher, Holt, was going to use the name?
A: Well, I sort of knew it was going to happen. I was in a daze. I sent it in that way because the editor knew me as Toni Morrison.
Q: So you achieved fame misnamed?
A: Tell me about it! I write all the time about being misnamed. How you got your name is very special. My mother, my sister, all my family call me Chloe.
("Chloe Wofford Talks about Toni Morrison." New York Times, September 11, 1994. Link)
The idea that the name "Toni Morrison" might have been a mistake originally is an intriguing quandary. While it does not change how readers today will refer to the author, the confusion points to the challenges the author faced as she was first starting out in her career as a writer and public figure. Moreover, the foundational moment of misnaming resonates with the theme of misnaming and at times the trope of catachresis in many of Morrison's novels. The most obvious connection might be with Song of Solomon's Macon Dead (a foundational misnaming), Milkman Dead (an incident of unwanted community renaming), and Pilate Dead (accidental naming), but there are many other instances throughout Morrison's work.
Influence of Family
Morrison spoke about her parents and grandparents in many interviews over the years. Here is an anecdote she told to the Guardian in 2016 about an encounter with her great-grandmother:
She remembered a key episode from when she was only three years old, playing with her then four-year-old sister on the floor when her great-grandmother – an “almost mythological” person – came to visit. Her great-grandmother was very tall, straight-backed, and carried a cane that she probably didn’t need. “She came to the door, greeted my mother, and then she looked over at me and my sister and she said, ‘those children have been tampered with”, Morrison said.
Three-year-old Morrison didn’t understand what “tampered” meant then, but the judgment remained with her.
“My great-grandmother was pitch-black, the blackest woman I’d ever seen in my life and she said we’d been tampered with, by which she meant we were not pure and she was,” she added. “We were sullied inside.”
Reading this, one can’t help but think of figures like Pilate Dead in Song of Solomon, and also consider the role color and complexion plays within the Black families described in Morrison’s fiction.
In another interview, Morrison said this about her great-grandmother:
I remember my great-grandmother, too. Her husband died before I was born, but I remember that when my great-grandmother walked into a room her grandsons and her nephews stood up. The women in my family were very articulate. Of course my great-grandmother could not read, but she was a midwife, and people from all over the state came to her for advice and for her to deliver babies. They came for other kinds of medical care too. (Interview with Nellie McKay, 1983. Source)
Morrison has also spoken about the powerful influence of her mother on her fiction. Among other things, Morrison’s mother was a gifted singer, as this passage in Wagner-Martin’s book describes:
The Wofford household was also filled with music. Her grandfather played the violin by ear; her mother played the piano for silent movie houses (Con I, 283). Her mother also sang – sometimes for hours on end – moving from classical songs to jazz to spirituals to blues. (She sang regularly in the choir at the Greater St. Matthew A.M. E. Church’ Con II, 210.) Chloe’s family wanted her to take piano lessons but doing so confused her and made her feel “deficient” (and much less talented than her other family members) (Bigsby 262–4). So pervasive was her mother’s singing that Morrison later compared the presence of song to meditation: “The singing and dancing that I remembered was not limited to entertainment; it was a kind of meditation. I know that it’s true in my own family because I came from people who sang all the time. It was a kind of talking to oneself musically.” Morrison thought that her mother’s constant singing, and the choices of the songs she chose, was “a kind of probing into something and then working it out, in addition to whatever release it provided. It had a great deal to do, actually, with my feeling that writing for me is an enormous act of discovery ... It’s a way of sustained problematizing for me, writing novels.” (Con II, 136–37). (Source)
The importance of singing and musicality can be seen in many novels by Morrison, including the relationship between Claudia and Frieda MacTeer and their mother in The Bluest Eye, but also in novels like Jazz. We also see it in the dynamics of the Stearborn family in Morrison’s last novel, God Help the Child.
Morrison also spoke affirmatively of her father's influence in her life. Here, for instance, is an account she gave to Hilton Als in 2003:
Morrison describes her father as a perfectionist, someone who was proud of his work. “I remember my daddy taking me aside—this was when he worked as a welder—and telling me that he welded a perfect seam that day, and that after welding the perfect seam he put his initials on it,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Daddy, no one will ever see that.’ Sheets and sheets of siding would go over that, you know? And he said, ‘Yes, but I’ll know it’s there.’ ” (Als, 2003)
While many of the families in Morrison's fiction involve broken homes and absent fathers, it's clear that Morrison's father was an active and supportive presence in her life as well as the lives of her sister and two brothers.
Influence of Family: Racialized violence
Morrison’s father George Wofford was shaped by racialized violence -- Morrison has commented that when her father was fifteen in Georgia, he saw the bodies of two Black businessmen in the town who had been lynched. So he and his family moved north to get away from not just southern segregation and sharecropping but the racialized violence that often enforced it. Throughout his life, Morrison has described that her father remained deeply suspicious of white people and fiercely protective of the integrity of her family. Incidents of racialized violence triggering displacement are frequent in Morrison’s fiction; a story somewhat similar to the event her father witnessed can be found in Morrison’s novel Home.
On her mother’s side, Morrison has described an event where a family member who owned property was shot and forcibly dispossessed of that land in Alabama. Something a little bit similar happens to Macon Dead’s own father on his farm in Song of Solomon -- though here, the farm is transplanted to western Pennsylvania.
Morrison was recognized as an apt and talented student from an early age. As Linda Wagner-Martin writes:
Morrison remembers that when she began school at five, she was one of the few children who could already read. In sixth grade, she was chosen to read to “the partially sighted” (Con II, 132). One of her middle-school teachers sent home a note to her mother which said, “You and your husband would be remiss in your duties if you do not see to it that this child goes to college” (Als 68). (cited in Wagner-Martin)
Her parents took heed of the encouragement, and ended up sending Morrison to Howard University (from which Morrison graduated in 1953) and then Cornell University (where she graduated with an M.A. in English in 1955).
It was not easy financially for Morrison’s parents to send Morrison and her sister to college. As mentioned above, Morrison’s father George Wofford was a union worker who worked in steel plants in Ohio. During the period when she was at college, he worked two jobs to pay her and her sister’s tuition. Her mother also worked during that time as a bathroom assistant in a department store, and sent her daughter everything she made in tips.
Here is a passage from an interview where Morrison talks about how her working class background stayed with her despite her elite education:
“Being one of ‘them’ [the poor, the disadvantaged] for the first twenty years of my life, I’m very, very conscious of all – not upward mobility, but gestures of separation in terms of class” (Con II, 133). Years later, speaking at an international library congress in New York, Morrison admitted to then facing the life that was starting to unroll before her if she had not gone to college: “Had I lived the life that the state planned for me from the beginning, I would have lived and died in somebody else’s kitchen, or somebody else’s land, and never written a word. That knowledge is bone deep, and it informs everything I do” (Sanna 22). [Cited in Wagner-Martin, 2]
Though Morrison is one of Howard University’s most illustrious alumna, and she had a longstanding relationship with the university, she has at times expressed some ambivalence about the way class and colorism operated at the university in the early 1950s. Some of this ambivalence is summarized in the following passage from Tessa Roynon’s Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison:
When Morrison went to Howard University in 1949, she was the first member of her family to attend college. She majored in English and minored in Classics, studying with veteran intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance era such as Alain Locke and Sterling Brown. The Classics Department at this time was under the chairmanship of Frank Snowden Jr., whose lifelong scholarly interest was the role of Africans in ancient Greece and Rome. Morrison has, however, frequently remarked on her surprise at and discomfort with the conservative social and racial atmosphere she encountered at Howard. It was “middle class” and “upwardly mobile,” she observed in 1985; when she asked to write a paper on “Black Characters in Shakespeare,” the English Department were “very alarmed (TG 174–5),” and there was a pervasive culture of categorizing students according to the lightness or darkness of their skin. A highlight of her undergraduate years, on the other hand, was her involvement with the theater group, the Howard Players. Touring the Deep South with that group was one of the defining experiences of her life.(Roynon, 4)
Two things seem especially important here. One is the question of Morrison’s engagement with hugely influential figures in African American literary history like Alain Locke and Sterling Brown; further research might be done to explore the parameters of her relationship with these important figures. Other intriguing details include Morrison’s minoring in classics (many scholars have noted the overtures to ancient Greece in some of Morrison’s writings; see for instance, Tessa Roynon's book Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition ), as well as her involvement in the theater (Morrison wrote three plays over the course of her career, including one adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello; see our overviews of Morrison's Desdemona and Margaret Garner here).
Morrison also gave an account of her distaste for certain aspects of the social hierarchy at Howard University to Hilton Als:
In Washington in the late forties, the buses were still segregated and the black high schools were divided by skin tone, as in the Deep South. The system was replicated at Howard. “On campus itself, the students were very much involved in that ranking, and your skin gave you access to certain things,” Morrison said. “There was something called ‘the paper-bag test’—darker than the paper bag put you in one category, similar to the bag put you in another, and lighter was yet another and the most privileged category. I thought them to be idiotic preferences.” (Als, 2003)
Despite her frustrations with Howard University’s social and intellectual scene, Morrison nevertheless returned to the university as a faculty member in 1957, and taught there for several years before moving back to Ohio in 1964.
Education: Influence of the Anglo-American Tradition
Morrison was a voracious reader, and engaged what we would today understand as the American literary Canon from an early age. It's not clear whether her early encounters with Jane Austen or Theodore Dreiser greatly impacted her, but her comments in 2003 about her middle school encounter with Huckleberry Finn are worth considering:
As a child, Morrison read virtually everything, from drawing-room comedies to Theodore Dreiser, from Jane Austen to Richard Wright. She was compiling, in her head, a reading list to mine for inspiration. At Hawthorne Junior High School, she read “Huckleberry Finn” for the second time. “Fear and alarm are what I remember most about my first encounter” with it, she wrote several years ago. “My second reading of it, under the supervision of an English teacher in junior high school, was no less uncomfortable—rather more. It provoked a feeling I can only describe now as muffled rage, as though appreciation of the work required my complicity in and sanction of something shaming. Yet the satisfactions were great: riveting episodes of light, of cunning; the convincing commentary on adult behavior, watchful and insouciant; the authority of a child’s voice in language cut for its renegade tongue and sharp intelligence. Nevertheless, for the second time, curling through the pleasure, clouding the narrative reward, was my original alarm, coupled now with a profoundly distasteful complicity.” (Als, 2003)
Morrison’s marriage and children
After graduating from Cornell with an M.A. in 1955, Morrison took a position teaching at Texas Southern University for two years; she has said little about this time. She then accepted a position teaching at her alma mater, Howard University. It is at this time that Morrison met and married Harold Morrison (1958). They had two children together, Harold Ford Morrison and Slade Morrison, but by 1964 the marriage had ended, and Morrison decided to leave Washington, DC for Ohio and later Syracuse.
Morrison has rarely spoken about her marriage to Harold Morrison, or addressed the causes for its failure, so we will have little to say about it here. It is known that her sons continued to have a relationship with their father, and frequently visited him in Jamaica after he elected to return there permanently in the 1960s. It's also known that one of Morrison's sons, Harold Ford Morrison, followed in his father's footsteps and became an architect himself. Slade Ford Morrison was a musician and painter who co-authored a series of children's books with Toni Morrison. Sadly, Slade Morrison died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.
That said, her life experience as a single mother and as the primary breadwinner in her household from 1964 onwards clearly has an impact on the representation of gender dynamics and family structure in her fiction going forward. We see the struggles of single mothers in many places in her fiction, including with Eva Peace and Hannah Peace in Sula, with Pilate Dead and Reba Dead in Song Of Solomon, and with Sethe in Beloved. In Morrison's fiction, it could be argued that the brokenness of her families is often the result of the damage done to Black families by the violence of slavery and the ongoing legacy of white supremacy after legal slavery ended in 1865. Was any of that a factor in Morrison's own experience? That remains unclear.
Work in Publishing; the Beginnings of The Bluest Eye
Morrison's career in publishing is extremely impressive; she worked with a large number of writers, including several emerging Black writers who were her peers. She edited Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Leon Forrest, Lucile Clifton, June Jordan, Angela Davis, and numerous others. She also worked with African authors, editing important collections, including a 1972 collection called Contemporary African Literature, which contained writing by Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Leopold Senghor, and Athol Fugard.
Another important book Morrison was involved in editing was an anthology called The Black Book (1974), a kind of pastiche version of African American history with numerous primary accounts and illustrations. One of the primary texts Morrison came across while working on The Black Book was the story of Margaret Garner, which would later provide the inspiration for Beloved.
While rising up the ranks at Random House and raising two children as a single mother, Morrison was also at this time beginning to work on The Bluest Eye. This began as a short story written for a writing group at Howard in 1963,
In 1963 she joined a writing group at Howard, for which she began work on a short story that was to become the foundation of The Bluest Eye. Other members of the group included the writer Claude Brown (still a student at that time), the playwright and director Owen Dodson, and the painter Charles Sebree, whom Morrison remembers telling her, after reading her story, “You are a writer” (GiA 69). (Roynon, 5)
Morrison would make further progress on The Bluest Eye during the years she lived in Syracuse (1965-1968). However, she struggled to find a publisher for the book, and it was rejected from several publishing houses before being accepted by Holt, Reinhart, and Winston in 1970. The book had a modest initial print run (2000 copies) and a provocative cover that featured only the opening paragraphs of the novel on the front cover and a striking image of the author on the back.
Morrison expressed some disappointment with how the book was initially received. In the Afterword she wrote for the 1993 edition of the novel, Morrison noted that “the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread." (Read more about the Critical Reception of The Bluest Eye here.)
Tessa Roynon describes the novel's subsequent career aptly as follows:
Speaking in Charleston in 2008 she said that in the late 1960s the novel was rejected twelve times before being accepted by a press. It is now, however, widely taught (often causing controversy) in schools and colleges across the world. Critics are in agreement about the depth and the sophistication of this short work and have explored many themes there is no space to expand on here, such as the resonances of World War II, the meaning of “home” in African-American experience, the ease with which a community scapegoats vulnerable individuals, or the strategic engagement with the classical myths of Demeter and Persephone, and of Tereus and Procne. Perhaps the greatest tribute to this novel, however, occurred in 2006. In Austria, in November of that year, the city of Vienna elected to distribute 100,000 free copies of The Bluest Eye (Sehr Blauen Augen) in its annual “One Town, One Book” event. (Roynon, 22)
Though its initial reception may have been modest, The Bluest Eye has gone on to become a major text and a touchstone for African American literature. According to Hilton Als, in 2000, when Oprah chose it as a selection for her Book Club, 800,000 copies of the book were sold.
Career as an Educator
Alongside working in publishing and emerging as an author in her own right in the 1970s, Morrison had a long and distinguished career as an educator, teaching conventional literature classes and creative writing workshops at an impressive array of universities. As mentioned above, she started her career teaching at Texas Southern University (1955-1957), and Howard University (1957-1964). She also briefly taught at SUNY Purchase while also working full-time for Random House in 1971-1972. She also taught briefly at Rutgers University and Yale University during the 1970s.
In 1984, Morrison was appointed to the Albert Schweitzer Chair of English literature at SUNY-Albany; it was at Albany that she wrote her play Dreaming Emmett, inspired by the the story of Emmett Till. The play was briefly performed at the local theater in Albany before Morrison made the decision to destroy the typescripts for the play. Morrison also briefly taught at Bard College as a visiting faculty member between 1986 and 1988. She remained on the faculty at SUNY-Albany until 1989, when she was appointed as the Robert Goheen Chair at Princeton University. She remained on the faculty at Princeton until 2006, though she did not teach many regular courses there after 2000.
[TO BE CONTINUED]