This week’s #WomanCrushWednesday goes out to a teacher, Pulitzer-prize winning author, and the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Toni Morrison. She credits her parents for instilling in her a love of reading, music and folklore. She was born 1931. Her dad witnessed the lynching of two black businessmen in Georgia, after which he moved the family to a racially integrated neighborhood in Lorain, Ohio. When she was two years old, their landlord set their home on fire – while they were inside – because they couldn’t pay the rent. Her parents’ reaction had a lasting impact on her. Instead of being angry, they laughed at him.
Growing up in a racially-integrated town, Toni Morrison says she really didn’t understand racism until she was a teenager. She was the only African-American in her first grade class, and the only one who could read. She graduated from high school with honors and went on to Howard University, where she majored in English, then earned a master’s degree at Cornell. She married Harold Morrison in 1958 and had her first child three years later. That’s when she joined a writer’s group, where she started working on her first novel, The Bluest Eye. It was originally a short story. She had another baby, then her marriage broke up and her husband moved back to Jamaica. Toni Morrison moved back home to Ohio with her two sons, then eventually set off for New York, where she became the first African-American female editor of fiction at Random House. She published her first novel in 1970 and published three more novels, before the one for which she won the Pulitzer – Beloved – a tragically poignant real-world story about a woman who kills her child, rather than see her become a slave. It was inspired by Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman in pre-Civil War America. Beloved was made into a movie in 1998, starring Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review declared it the best novel of the past 25 years. Toni Morrison also wrote a libretto exploring slavery from Margaret Garner’s perspective, which debuted at the New York City Opera in 2007. She expanded into children’s literature in 1999 and was also a prolific publisher of nonfiction – essays, speeches and reviews.
In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African-American woman ever to win the Nobel prize in literature. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She died last month in New York at the age of 88.
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