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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. Her father, George Wofford was a shipyard wielder and her mother, Rahmah Willis Wofford, raised her family. Her familyís move from the south to the north is much like the Breedloves in The Bluest Eye. Her motherís family moved from Alabama and her fatherís family moved from Georgia. Rahmah and George had four children, Toni Morrison being the second child. Morrisonís family was rich in folkloric knowledge and musical acumen. Her mother sang in the church choir and her grandfather was a professional violinist. Morrison grew up hearing folktales from the adults in her family and community, tales of slave times, Emancipation, tales of dealing with the racism of the white majority, and tales of the supernatural. Morrison married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, had two sons, and then was divorced in 1964.
Morrison early developed a love of literature. She earned a B.A. degree from Howard University in 1953. Her major was English and her minor, classics. She went on the Cornell University to earn a masterís degree in 1955. She wrote a thesis on the theme of suicide in the novels of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Morrison moved to Houston, Texas and taught for two years at Texas Southern University, then she returned to Howard University and taught until 1964. Morrison lived briefly with her parents in Lorain, Ohio in 1964, then she moved to Syracuse, New York in 1965 to work as a textbook editor.
Morrison began to write fiction in 1957. She was especially spurred in this direction by her participation in a group of African- American writers in Washington D.C. While living in Syracuse, New York, Morrison completed and published The Bluest Eye (1970). Morrison moved to New York City and worked at Random House until 1984. While working as an editor, Morrison also taught in various universities the State University of New York at Purchase, Yale University, Bard College, the State University of New York at Albany, Princeton University where she teaches today.
Morrisonís second novel, Sula (1973) is set in a fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. Sula was enthusiastically received by literary critics and reviewers. Song of Solomon (1977) was a bestseller and culled several prestigious literary awards. In 1981, Morrison published Tar Baby, another popular and critical success. Morrison wrote one short story, "Recitatif" in 1983 and one play, Dreaming Emmett, still unpublished. In 1987, Morrison wrote a tour de force in novelistic fiction, Beloved, a novel which explores the history of slavery especially as it affected relations within black families. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and other prestigious awards. In 1992, Morrison published another novel, Jazz. In the same year, Morrison published a collection of essays of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. It provides a compelling critique of the European-American canon of literature as it relies upon the African-American presence while presuming to ignore it or place it on the periphery of important literary concerns. In 1993, Morrison won the Novel Prize in Literature.
Toni Morrison has been experimenting with fiction from the beginning of her literary career with The Bluest Eye. It is useful to recognize Morrisonís expertise in Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, two masters of experimentation in the novel. They both wrote their most important works in the 1920s and continued writing through the 1940s. They are two of the most important modernist writers of the twentieth century. Modernism was a literary and artistic movement which reached its height in the 1920s. It is known for all kinds of experimentation with form. A modernist slogan, "The medium is the message," could also be paraphrased, "The form is the content," or "how a message or theme is presented is as important as what the message or theme is." Unlike earlier writers who wrote chronological narratives which in some ways reflected the conventions of history writing, modernists became interested in representing the way characters thought. They decided that people did not think in sequential, logical, or chronological ways but much more as a sort of free association of thought. For instance, while walking down the street, a person might be thinking of last nightís dinner conversation, or an event ten years before in which she was embarrassed by somebody, or she might be wondering about what will happen to her when she reaches her destination. She might be thinking all these things in rapid succession, without logical transition from one thought to the next. This is what many modernist writers attempted to capture in the novel and they called it stream of consciousness narration. Toni Morrison learned a great deal from the high modernists.
She also learned a great deal from the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary period which centered especially in the 1920s in Harlem, New York. Harlem was a center of African- American life in the north during this period. Thousands of African Americans moved from the southern states to find work in the north. Many of them heard about Harlem as a place where they could live in an all-black community and be relatively free from embattlement by white racism. Harlem attracted the best African-American artists and writers. They took the insights of the high modernists (all European Americans) and applied them to the concerns and the unique artistry of black life in America. Many of them, especially Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, experimented with the representation of Black English, African American folk forms, and the incorporation of the unique rhythms of jazz and blues into prose and poetry. In reading Morrisonís fiction, rich in folk knowledge and inspired by the rhythms of black music, blues and jazz, it is clear that she was highly influenced especially by the African American twist on modernism. Its vision is more social or communal than the individualistic European modernist vision. Its politics are closer to the democratic and communal than the elitist and aesthetic politics of most European modernists.
The Bluest Eye was also a product of its own time, 1970. At the time, the Civil Rights movement had produced historical advances in the freedom and dignity granted to African-American citizens, but African Americans still found themselves discriminated against on all fronts--economic, religious, educational, political, and legal. They began to notice also that the culture industry produced a single standard image of beauty, and that standard insistently excluded them. It was the image of white womanhood and also of white girlhood, blonde, blue-eyed, and economically privileged. The Black Pride movement was borne out of this recognition. Morrisonís novel is part of this movement. She demonstrates the serious damage caused by internalized racism, what happens when African-American people begin to believe the stereotypes of themselves, when they comply with the idea that white is most lofty and beautiful and black is most degraded and ugly. Morrison demonstrates this phenomenon in the most devastating way--as it affects children. Black children were commonly given dolls which looked like privileged white babies. They were encouraged to see these dolls as the epitome of beauty and worth. In this, they were indirectly encouraged to see themselves as less than beautiful, even ugly. A particular branch of the cosmetics industry thrived--the branch that served the needs of internalized racism. Vanishing creams which claimed to lighten dark skin, hair straighteners promising to make African hair look more like that of the movie stars, and all kinds of other produces were used by African Americans. The training in physical inferiority began with children. Morrison attacks the problem at this point.
Morrison also attacks another problem, one still to be taken to heart by mainstream America. That is the oppression of children. In her novel, the Bluest Eye, she depicts the world from a childís point of view. The child is regarded as less than human. She is not spoken to directly by an adult. She is accorded no physical integrity; instead she is hit and pushed around at the whim of the physically superior adult. She is not listened to or believed. In fact, she has no voice. She is regarded as an inconvenience. Children act out their oppression by adults on other children. Morrison shows this cycle of oppression in the treatment of Pecola by other children in her community. They also grow up to act out their own hurts on their children. We see this especially in the abandoned child, Cholly Breedlove, who grows up to become an dysfunctional father, who tragically rapes his daughter, Pecola. The rape of a child is thereby given to the reader in two forms, psychological and physical. Morrison thus combines a vivid critique of internalized racism with a critique of what might be called adultism.