Books

30 facts you might not know about the acclaimed Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison died on Aug. 5, 2019. To commemorate the anniversary of her death, here are some surprising and interesting facts about the celebrated American author.
Toni Morrison was an American novelist. (AFP/Getty Images)

Toni Morrison died on Aug. 5, 2019. Known for powerful works like Beloved and Song of Solomon, the American writer and novelist wrote with an unbridled commitment to centring the lives of Black people, often writing with the intent to create the stories she wished to read. 

The late Toni Morrison was a literary force whose writing and ideas continue to influence today's generation of diverse authors. To commemorate the anniversary of her death, check out these 30 facts you might not know about the celebrated American writer, novelist and thinker.

1. The second of four children, Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio on Feb. 18, 1931. 

(Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images; Fact: CBC)

3. Morrison's paternal and maternal grandparents were from the American South but left for Ohio to escape sharecropping and racial violence. Her father was a welder, and her mother was a domestic worker.

4. She studied literature at Howard University and completed her masters at Cornell University.

5. In college, she was a homecoming queen, an actress and the dean of pledges for Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

6. Before she was a celebrated novelist, Morrison was an editor at Random House Books — the first female Black American editor in company history — from 1967 to 1983.

Graphic that reads Fact#7: She published her debut book, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 at the age of 39.
(Vintage; Fact: New Yorker)

8. Morrison began writing The Bluest Eye in 1965. In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel for CBC's Writers and Company in 1992, she said she wrote it because "I simply never read a book in which a young Black girl was centre stage, where the book was about her and she wasn't a backdrop or somebody's notion of comedy." She said it took a long time to write it "mostly because I wasn't thinking about publishing. I sort of wanted to read it once I got through." 

LISTEN | Toni Morrison on Writers and Company:

The Nobel Prize-winning American author is being celebrated around the world following her death on Aug. 5th, 2019, at age 88.

9. According to the American Library Association, The Bluest Eye is one of the most frequently banned books, due to its depiction of sexual violence and other forms of violence.   

10. Morrison was a single mother to two boys. 

11. While she worked as an editor at Random House, she edited American political activist Angela Davis' 1974 biography. In fact, Davis credits Morrison with persuading her to write the autobiography after Morrison contacted her. 

12. In 1978, Morrison won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her novel, Song of Solomon. By some accounts, winning this award garnered Morrison national attention for the first time. 

Graphic with text that reads, "Fact#13: Morrison fifth novel, Beloved, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The novel is loosely based on the life and legal case of the slave Margaret Garner, about whom Morrison later wrote the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner.
(Knopf; Fact: The New York Times)

14. It took Oprah Winfrey eleven years to adapt Morrison's book, Beloved, into a film. Winfrey's adaptation is the only major film adaptation of one of Morrison's books. 

15. According to a 1998 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in order to get a hold of the author, Oprah Winfrey called the local fire department in Morrison's town and told them to "call Toni and tell her Oprah called." Morrison called Winfrey back that evening. 

16. She was a professor at Harvard, Yale and, until her 75th birthday, Princeton.

17. Morrison founded the Princeton Atelier, an academic program at Princeton that encourages artists from different disciplines to collaborate and create new work together. For example, a painter might collaborate with a composer or an electrical engineer might team up with a choreographer. 

18. In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Morrison said she writes, in part, because she doesn't much like herself when she's not writing. She said she preferred her mind when it was chewing on a story. Wachtel spoke with Morrison three times: in 1992, 2003 and 2012.

Graphic with text that reads, "Fact #19: When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, she became the first Black woman and the first Black American to win."
(Fact: Bloomberg; Brad Barket/Getty Images)

20. The Toni Morrison Society was founded in 1993. The society is dedicated to supporting the teaching, reading, and critical examination of Toni Morrison's works.

Listen | Canadian writers talk about Toni Morrison:

Toni Morrison's literary and academic career was honoured with a Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her writing explored, celebrated, questioned and critiqued the space of black lives in America, up until her death on Monday at the age of 88. Today on Front Burner, we speak with Halifax's former poet laureate El Jones and former poet laureate of Canada George Elliott Clarke about the importance of her work, both as a source of art, and form of activism.

21. Morrison is famous for her commitment to writing for the Black reader, rather than writing experiences about Black characters through what she called the "white gaze."

22. In an IDEAS interview with Marilyn Powell in 2002, she reflected on having an "enriching storytelling family" where they told stories and jokes often and where she was encouraged to tell stories in her own words. 

23. In that interview, Morrison said she never had "any inferiority complexes at all, about race or anything." She credited her matriarchal lineage and her school smarts as significant sources of confidence.

24. Morrison also told Powell, "I trust the reader. I think readers have been so mishandled. In either schools or the public world, they've almost forgotten how much they know. Readers know a lot but they don't trust what they know because they think there is an A+ or a test somewhere. They've forgotten how to just go in it." 

25. She wrote several children's books with her son, Slade Morrison, including Peeny Butter Fudge, Please, Louise and Little Cloud and Little Wind. 

26. When her son, Slade, passed away in 2010, Morrison dedicated her book, Home, to him. 

Graphic with text that reads, "Fact #27: In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama awarded Toni Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is the highest civilian honour in the United Stated.
(Fact: obamawhitehouse.archives.gov, Alex Wong/Getty Images)

28. In total, she published 11 novels, two plays, and a number of children's books and nonfiction works. 

29. Morrison died on Aug. 5, 2019. She was 88. 

30. In a tweet honouring the writer, U.S. President Barack Obama wrote, "Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while."

WATCH | Toni Morrison on The National:

Nobel laureate and novelist Toni Morrison has died at 88

3 years ago
Duration 1:59
Morrison was a pioneer and reigning giant of modern literature whose imaginative power in Beloved, Song of Solomon and other works transformed American letters by dramatizing the pursuit of freedom within the boundaries of race.

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