Toni Morrison

Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, courtesy of the photographer

African American, Cultural Theory, Literature

Toni Morrison


Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio to Ramah and George Wofford whose parents had fled Georgia to escape sharecropping, debt, and violence. Raised in a household that nurtured traditional storytelling, she learned to value ancestors, community connection, and the supernatural. She graduated from Howard University with an BA in English and a minor in Classics (1953), after which she earned an MA in English at Cornell University (1955). After teaching briefly at Texas Southern University, she returned to teach at Howard, where she met her husband, Harold Morrison, whom she later divorced. 

Morrison maintained a lifelong engagement with African American folklore through her writing, speaking, editing, and curating that signals a profound engagement with the art, knowledge, values, and practices of African American ancestors. This ensured that readers engaged with ancestral guides through characters like Pilate, from her novel, Song of Solomon, who piloted readers through the expansive terrain of Black American folklore to glimpse the coherence and power of a culture. In fact, on such a journey, the young male protagonist of this novel affirms his connection to ancestors and learns how Black culture, worldviews, and identity are sustained in the context of the brutally violent racial history of the Americas.  

Many young people first become aware of encountering Black folklore and an African American worldview through Morrison’s writings, as her fiction is widely read and studied across high schools and universities. A hybridization of print and oral cultures, Morrison’s writings extend the reach of Black folklore and continue to invigorate it. She intentionally built African American sensibilities into her novels–namely, oral culture (including audience participation and a chorus), the presence of an ancestor, and a Black cosmology in which the supernatural is blended with a “rootedness” in this world. In her nonfiction writings, she also delved into racial stereotypes, revealing traditional structures of whiteness and racism in the American literary imagination.  

As the first African American editor at Random House in 1967, she mentored other African American writers, and co-curated with Middleton A. Harris, the illuminating volume, The Black Book (1973), a multi-genre collage of images, narratives, and folklore about Black experiences in the US.  From 1989 until her retirement in 2006, Morrison was a faculty member at Princeton University.  Morrison was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award (1977) for Song of Solomon; the Pulitzer Prize (1988) for her novel Beloved; and for her complete body of work, the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993) as the first African American woman awarded the prize, and the National Medal for the Arts and Humanities (2001). Morrison published 11 novels, along with numerous essays, essay collections, and children’s books.  

Among Morrison’s books that have relevance to folklore are:

Tar Baby (1981)

Playing in the Dark (1992)

Wilson C. Chen

(coming soon)