The U.S. Senate passed a resolution on Oct. 31 honoring the late Toni Morrison — renowned author, Nobel laureate, and the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emerita, at the University.
The resolution recognizes Morrison as “a writer of the stature of other great literary figures of the United States, such as — (i) Nathaniel Hawthorne; (ii) Ralph Waldo Emerson; (iii) Herman Melville; (iv) Walt Whitman; (v) Mark Twain; and (vi) William Faulkner.”
The resolution was proposed by Ohio senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman.
"Toni Morrison’s body of work changed America,” Brown said in a statement forwarded to The Daily Princetonian. “She illustrated palpable narrations of the depth and meaning of the lived experiences of the oppressed.”
According to Morrison’s son, Ford, the senators sent him a two-page draft of the resolution. He and his mother’s assistants sent back 13 pages.
“We worked on that resolution honoring my mother for over a week,” wrote Ford in an email to the ‘Prince.’
Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. She obtained her bachelors’ degree from Howard University and studied at Cornell University for her Masters’ degree. After teaching at Texas Southern University, Morrison became a faculty member at Howard University. She also became part of a group of writers who had monthly lunches, during which they read their work. At first, Morrison read pieces she had written as an undergraduate.
“They wouldn't let you continue to come if you were just reading old stuff,” Morrison said in a 2017 interview with National Public Radio. “So I had to think up something new if I was going to continue to have this really good food and really good company … So I started writing....”
In 1968, she joined Random House, Inc., where she became the first female African-American senior editor in the publishing company’s history. During her time at Random House, she published books by boxer Muhammad Ali, and activists Huey Newton and Angela Davis.
“Angela stayed with us after she got out of jail, and she lived with us while she finished her book,” Ford said to the ‘Prince’ in a phone interview. “Angela said, ‘No one writes an autobiography at 28,’ but she didn’t know at the time she needed to write that autobiography at the time, according to my mother. So she convinced [Davis] to do it.”
In 1970, Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye,“ was published by Holt, Rhinehart and Winston. After three more of her books were published (“Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” and “Tar Baby”), she left Random House in 1983 to pursue writing full-time.
At that time, Morrison was a single mother who was sending both of her children to private school.
“When I was 13 or 14, [she told me] that she was going to stop being an editor and start writing [and] I thought, ‘So she won’t have a job anymore,’” Ford said. "But it turned out okay.”
In 1987, Morrison published “Beloved” — widely considered her masterpiece. The novel went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
“‘Beloved’ is a work of assured, immense distinction, destined to become an American classic,” the Pulitzer Prize jurors wrote in an evaluative report.
In 1989, Morrison became the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at the University, where she taught African American Studies and Creative Writing.
A statement by Morrison in 2012 said, “Teaching is the second-best thing to writing for me.”
Teaching did not slow Morrison’s momentum when it came to obtaining accolades. She became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, for work that “delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race,” according to the Nobel Prize committee’s statement on her work.
According to Ford, Morrison’s work changed the language of politics and race.
“As far as her changing the dynamics of the language, she brought in a different perspective based not on victimhood[,] but on humanity,” Ford said. “She did have an idea about why race as an abstract construct really doesn’t exist. That was the first time I’d understood that, and I think other people are starting to understand that as well.”
Morrison learned that she had won the Nobel Prize when she was teaching a class.
“Others might have dropped the class and gone straight to meeting the press. She taught her class and had the press wait. That says it all!” wrote Professor Paul Muldoon in an email to the ‘Prince.’
Around this time, Morrison spearheaded the University’s Atelier program. At first, she had difficulty finding funding, according to Ford, but she was able to raise money from private donors.
She created the Atelier because she believed that artists tended to create in multiple forms of media, and she wanted to give students the chance to experiment with new genres, according to Muldoon.
Morrison’s career at the University and her work on the Atelier helped lay the foundation for the Lewis Arts program, inaugurated in 2007, according to the Lewis Center for the Arts website.
Although Morrison retired in 2002, she remained involved with the University until her death.
“Toni Morrison is my favorite writer, who was one of my very best teachers, and I feel so indescribably lucky to have had the opportunity to study under her,” wrote Elena Sheppard ’09 in an email to the ‘Prince.’
Morrison also taught her son lessons, such as not being sidetracked by notions of race and to focus on the work he was doing.
“The work is the most important thing. You only have a short time between the time you’re born and the time you die, and the question is what are you gonna do in the meantime?” Ford said. “And if you want to lament over the past or previous situations, that’s good for context, but it doesn’t really help what you’re doing at the moment.”
According to the Senate resolution, Morrison’s career spanned more than five decades, during which she penned 11 novels in total. She died on Aug. 5, 2019, at the age of 88.