Toni Morrison, the first black woman to receive Nobel Prize in Literature, was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, U.S.A. She was the second of four children of George Wofford, a shipyard welder and Ramah Willis Wofford. Her parents moved to Ohio from the South to escape racism and to find better opportunities in the North. Her father was a hardworking and dignified man. While the children were growing up, he worked three jobs at the same time for almost 17 years. Her mother was a church-going woman and she sang in the choir. At home, Chloe heard many songs and tales of Southern black folklore. The Woffords were proud of their heritage.
Chloe attended an integrated school. In her first grade, she was the only black student in her class and the only one who could read. She was friends with many of her white schoolmates and did not encounter discrimination until she started dating. She hoped one day to become a dancer like her favorite ballerina, Maria Tallchief, and she also loved to read. Her early favorites were the Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, French author Gustave Flaubert and English novelist Jane Austen. She was an excellent student and she graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949.
Chloe Wofford then attended the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in English with a minor in classics. Since many people couldn’t pronounce her first name correctly, she changed it to Toni, a shortened version of her middle name. She joined a repertory company, the Howard University Players, with whom she made several tours of the South. She saw firsthand the life of the blacks there, the life her parents had escaped by moving north. Toni Wofford graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. She then attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and received a master’s degree in 1955.
At Howard she met and fell in love with a young Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison. They married in 1958 and their first son, Harold Ford, was born in 1961. Toni continued teaching while helping take care of her family. She also joined a small writer’s group as a temporary escape from an unhappy married life. Each member of this group was required to bring a story or poem for discussion. One week, having nothing to bring, she quickly wrote a story loosely based on a girl she knew in childhood who had prayed to God for blue eyes. The story was well received by the group and then Toni put it away thinking she was done with it. Her marriage deteriorated, and while pregnant with their second child she left her husband, left her job at the university, and took her son on a trip to Europe. Later, she divorced her husband and returned to her parents’ house in Lorain with her two sons.
In the fall of 1964 Morrison obtained a job with a textbook subsidiary of Random House in Syracuse, New York as an associate editor. Her hope was to be transferred soon to New York City. While working all day, the housekeeper took care of her sons and in the evening Morrison cooked dinner and played with the boys until their bedtime. When her sons were asleep, she started writing. She dusted off the story she had written for the writer’s group and decided to make it into a novel. She drew on her memories from childhood and expanded them with her imagination so that the characters developed a life of their own. She found writing exciting and challenging. Other than parenting, she found everything else boring by comparison.
In 1967 she was transferred to New York and became a senior editor at Random House. The Bluest Eye was eventually published in 1970 to much critical acclaim, although it was not commercially successful. From 1971-1972 Morrison was the associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Purchase while she continued working at Random House. In addition, she soon started writing her second novel where she focused on a friendship between two adult black women. Sula was published in 1973.
Song of Solomon, her third novel, was published in 1977. In 1981 she published her fourth novel, Tar Baby, where for the first time she describes interaction between black and white characters.
In 1983, Morrison left her position at Random House, having worked there for almost twenty years. Morrison’s next novel, Beloved, was influenced by a published story about a slave, Margaret Garner, who in 1851 escaped with her children to Ohio from her master in Kentucky. When she was about to be re-captured, she tried to kill her children rather than return them to life of slavery. Only one of her children died and Margaret was imprisoned for her deed. She refused to show remorse, saying she was “unwilling to have her children suffer as she had done.” Beloved was published in 1987 and was a bestseller. In 1988 it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In 1987, Toni Morrison was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University. She became the first black woman writer to hold a named chair at an Ivy League University. While accepting, Morrison said, “I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing.” She taught creative writing and also took part in the African-American studies, American studies and women’s studies programs. She also started her next novel, Jazz, about life in the 1920’s. The book was published in 1992. In 1993, Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the eighth woman and the first black woman to do so.
Beloved, her first novel, is set in Ohio during 1873, several years after the Civil War. The book centers on characters that struggle fruitlessly to keep their painful recollections of the past at bay. The whole story revolves around issues of race, gender, family relationships and the supernatural, covering two generations and three decades up to the 19th century. Beloved describes the horrendous consequences of an escape from slavery for Sethe, her children and Paul D. The narrative begins 18 years after Sethe’s break for freedom. It gradually persuades the reader to accept the haunting of 124 Bluestone Road by a 2 year old child, killed by her mother Sethe.
The novel is divided into three parts. Each part opens with statements as to indicate the progress of the haunting–from the poltergeist to the materialized spirit to the final freeing of both the spirit and Sethe; Part I: “124 WAS SPITEFUL” (Page 1); Part II: ” 124 WAS LOUD”(Page 169); Part III: “124 WAS QUIET” (Page 239).
The narrative jumps from one setting to another, from the past to the present. However, the complex chronology is necessary to understand the psychological and emotional state of all the participants in the story. Events that occurred prior and during the 18 years of Sethe’s freedom are slowly revealed and pieced together throughout the novel. Ever so painfully, Sethe is in need of rebuilding her identity and remembering the past and her origins. The author moves around the characters allowing each participant in the story a turn–Baby Suggs, Paul D, Stamp Paid, Denver, Sethe and Beloved–to convey their perceptions of events to the reader. These various voices act as witnesses to Sethe’s experiences and showing how black women had no control over their husbands, children or own bodies.
Racial issues are one of the main issues in Beloved. The story revolves around the life of a former slave and her attempts to get on with her life as best as she can, considering what the white slave owners have put her through. The cruelties of the slaves by the slave owners in this story are probably conservative compared to what really occurred in many cases. This novel is about emotions and perceptions of African-Americans and of the burden of sorrow that they have inherited from being deprived of their homeland and treated like animals. Sethe’s mother threw away the children of the abusers, exercising the choice to kill as her daughter will do herself later. One did it for hate and the other one for love, but for both mother and daughter the choice to kill was the ultimate act of protection.
Gender issues are also dominant in the story. Three of the four main characters are female, and it not only tells the story of an ex-slave but of a woman’s life. Slavery is the cause of Sethe being in the situation she is. The bulk of the story deals with the relationship between a single mother (Sethe), her daughter (Denver) and a female stranger (Beloved). Sethe’s relationship to Paul D is a source of contrast on the three women. Sethe and Paul D could symbolize the joint potential of a people united no longer held apart from slavery and a possible solution to heal everyone’s pain. The freedom to love one another.
The story revolves around the scars and the psychological state of African-Americans during and after slavery. Beloved materializes when Seth’s plantation past re-emerges with a visit from a fellow ex-slave, Paul D. He offers her love and the possibility of a new life. This triggers Beloved incarnation who is extremely jealous to be recognized as the proof of her mother’s deed. The signs indicating that the young woman was Seth’s child materializing in flesh and blood were many, such as her name ‘Beloved’ and her weak neck: “Her neck, its circumference no wider than a parlor-service saucer, kept bending and her chin brushed the bit of lace edging her dress” (Page 50). The sudden emergency Sethe experienced as she noticed Beloved, remind the reader of Sethe giving birth. Beloved’s struggle to reclaim connection with her mother, could symbolize their struggle for freedom by reclaiming their past. In order to never forget their enslaved history and confrontation could be the catalyst to growth.
Although this novel is full of symbolism and metaphors, the ghost of Sethe’s dead baby could reflect the author’s beliefs in the paranormal. Anyone who enters the house on Bluestone Road actually witnesses the presence of this ghost which may symbolize slavery’s “rememories” that haunt Sethe and her people throughout the story. All of the characters try to repress their memories, which need to be faced and exorcised as you would a ghost. The end of this novel emphasizes the importance of the community and the individual’s search for self which characterizes the survival struggle of Black Americans. Sethe is destroyed by her memories and her isolation with the ghost of Beloved, (representing the memories of slavery) until the community intervenes and saves her. The black community and their cohesiveness and harmony is an essential factor to further the healing of 244 years of slavery and another 133 years of political abuse.