We asked our readers to write biography sketches of African American writers. These are their words. We encourage you to comment.
February 18, 1931
"Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise." Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.
So begins the lecture of Toni Morrison as one of the 1993 Nobel Laureates , she would go on to gain the distinction of becoming the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Morrison (Chloe Anthony Wofford) was born in Ohio in 1931, the second of four children to George Wofford, a shipyard welder and Ramah Willis Wofford. Always an avid reader, Morrison was influenced by southern folklore and the tales of the supernatural that were told regularly in her home. Early favorites included Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Jane Austen and Morrison would go on to graduate from high school with honors. She later attended Howard University in Washington D.C. where she recieved a bachelors in English, before moving on to Cornell university where she obtained her masters. It was while at Howard that Toni changed her name from Chloe as many couldn't pronounce it correctly. She rejects this name change in 1992, stating, "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. After Cornell ,Toni became an English teacher at Texas Southern. In 1957 she returned to Howard as a member of the faculty, where she became friendly with many that were active in the Civil Rights Movement.
She married Harold Morrison in 1958, and it was during this time that she began attending a writers group. One week she submitted a quickly written story about a little girl who prayed for blue eyes. The story was loosely based on a girl she had known in childhood and would become the basis for the novel that is titled The Bluest Eye. It was only after her divorce , while working for a subsidiary of Random House, that she took out the old story and worked on it at night while her children were sleeping. The Bluest Eye would be published in 1970 and was received with much critical acclaim, followed by Sula in 1973. It was after writing Song of Solomon in 1977 and Tar Baby in 1981, that she wrote her first play, "Dreaming Emmett." This was followed by the book that would win her the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, Beloved. Beloved was influenced by the published story about a slave who made her escape from her master in Kentucky, taking her children with her to Ohio. Before she could be recaptured , the escaped slave, Margaret Garner , tried to kill her children rather then let them be taken back. Margaret only succeeded in killing one of the children and was imprisoned. Margaret refused to show remorse for her actions, saying that she was unwilling to have her children suffer as she had.
Morrison has gone on to write several more books since then as well as some non-fiction and some chapter books based on Aesop's Fables.
Following is an excerpt of the remarks of Secretary-General Kofi Annan introducing Toni Morrison as the first lecturer in the Secretary-General’s Lecture series:
The speakers will be eminent individuals from a wide range of disciplines and regions. But I doubt if any will be more eminent than Toni Morrison. As you know, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A British general once said, on reading a beautiful poem the night before a decisive battle, that he “would rather have written this than beat the French tomorrow.
In slightly the same spirit I could say that, if there is one Nobel Prize that all other prize winners should envy, it is that Prize for Literature. Literature has the power to transform us in ways that politics never can. And few writers have demonstrated that power more magically than Toni Morrison, in her wonderful novels. She is, perhaps, the greatest living African American writer, but really she belongs not just to America, or to Africa, but to the world.
I can’t think of anyone more fitting to begin this series of lectures at the United Nations. I am deeply honored and grateful to her for coming. And I feel quite sure she is going to surprise us all.
Toni, the floor is yours.
submitted by Annette Bell