Prolific American author Toni Morrison published 11 novels, 9 works of non-fiction, 5 children’s novels and received over 30 awards throughout the course of her career including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by Barack Obama, in 2012.
Born on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison became a Catholic at the age of 12 and took the baptismal name Anthony (after Saint Anthony), which led to her nickname, Toni. She attended Howard University for her undergraduate studies, earned a Master of Arts from Cornell University, and after teaching at Texas Southern and Howard Universities, became the first African American woman to serve as the senior editor at Random House in New York City.
Published in 1970 and set in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio, Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye centered on the story of a young African-American girl named Pecola growing up during the years following the Great Depression. Addressing the harsh consequences of racism in the United States, the publication of the work resulted in numerous attempts to ban the novel from schools and libraries. The novel received minimal critical attention when first published; however, it was placed on many university reading lists in black-studies departments, which promoted further recognition.
Published seven years later in 1977, Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon was met with widespread acclaim upon publication. Essentially Morrison’s breakthrough novel, the work earned her the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1978 and in 1993 was cited by the Swedish Academy in awarding Morrison the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first African-American to receive the prize. Like Morrison’s other works, the book challenged the question of African-American identity and explored the relationships between black and white Americans in a complex and extravagant manner.
Morrison’s fourth novel, which many consider her finest, Beloved was published in 1987 and won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year. Set in post-Civil War Ohio, the award-winning novel was inspired by the story of an African-American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky late January 1856 by fleeing to Ohio, a free state. The novel was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1998 starring Oprah Winfrey.
On May 29, 2012 President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Years earlier, in discussing Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father, Morrison referred to him as “a writer in my high esteem” and the book “quite extraordinary.” She praised “his ability to reflect on this extraordinary mesh of experiences that he has had, some familiar and some not, and to really meditate on that the way he does, and to set up scenes in narrative structure, dialogue, conversation—all of these things that you don’t often see, obviously, in the routine political memoir biography. It’s unique. It’s his. There are no other ones like that.”
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