Monday 28 Nov, 2016

Nobel Journeys: Toni Morrison

The following is an excerpt from Nobel Journeys, a story collection that chronicles the extraordinary lives of Nobel Prize Laureates from the past and present, from all over the world, and from every Nobel Prize category. All 10 stories focus on important moments of discovery in the Laureates’ lives that helped them choose their unique pathways to success. And every tale reinforces the notion that education is an essential ingredient to a bright future.

Nobel Journeys is the first of many joint initiatives from the Nobel Museum and EF Education First, two global organizations dedicated to bringing learning to life for students. Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom, and show your students that great ideas can come from anyone, at any time.

Chloe Anthony Wofford changed her name to Toni at the age of 18, soon after arriving in Washington DC to study literature at Howard University. It had started out as a misunderstanding. She had introduced herself to a classmate as Chloe, but the young woman had misunderstood and began calling her Toni. Chloe hadn’t bothered to correct her. “Toni” was easier to pronounce and, anyway, it wasn’t entirely out of the blue: Chloe’s baptismal middle name was Anthony, after St. Anthony of Padua. Chloe decided to go by Toni from then on. She had just begun a new phase of her life; she may as well have a new name to go along with it.

For Toni, everything about college life in Washington DC was so different. For one thing, she had never felt so self-consciously black.

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Colour had never been a big deal in Ohio where Chloe had grown up. Lorain, Ohio was a steel mill town on Lake Erie, one that had attracted African-Americans from the South – like her own family – but also immigrants from all over the world. Her neighborhood was fully integrated, and her childhood playmates had been of black, Eastern European, and Mexican descent.

Their one common denominator was usually poverty. But Chloe’s parents had taught her the importance of focusing on the future, not the past. She needed to take pride in everything she did. For Chloe that was school. She had learned to read at a very early age, and her parents had always found a way to save up for new books. Though Chloe was the only African-American in her first grade class, she was also the only kid who already knew her letters – so nobody made her feel inferior.

Chloe had graduated with honors from Lorain High School. She had taken Latin, and she had fallen in love with the great works of European literature. Among her favorite authors were Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Gustave Flaubert. She admired how these writers took on big ideas and themes, while creating utterly believable characters who struggled with everyday life. Chloe couldn’t have been more thrilled than when she was accepted to Howard – America’s historically black university – to study literature.

So far, though, Howard University wasn’t what Chloe – now Toni – had expected.

First of all, she was surprised by Washington, D.C.’s marked racial segregation. Suddenly, there were written rules about where black people could go and what they could do. But even on campus, where Chloe felt “normal,” she became aware of how the colour of one’s skin made a difference. Lighter was better, even among her fellow black students. Plus, she found herself frustrated by the attitudes of some of the young women in her dormitory, who seemed far more focused on buying clothes, going to parties, and getting married than on getting a good education. Above all, Toni had been looking forward to reading and studying the works of contemporary black authors. But very few of these were actually taught in her classes. In fact, there were virtually no novels to read with young black women as protagonists.

At first, Toni just accepted this as a fact of living in a racially segregated world. She graduated from Howard in 1953, and continued on to Cornell University in New York. She earned her master’s degree in English in 1955, writing her thesis on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. But after a brief year of teaching English in Houston, Toni decided to return to Howard at the age of 26, to teach English there. She was lonely at first – it was hard to make new friends in a new city – until she had two important social encounters. The first was meeting Harold Morrison, an architecture professor from Jamaica. The couple soon married and had a son, also named Harold, in 1961.

The second encounter was when a fellow Howard faculty member invited Toni to a writer’s group that regularly met for lunch to read and critique each other’s work. For Toni to join, she needed to bring a piece of writing to share. At first, she brought a few essays and stories she’d written in college. Mainly, she was interested in the writer’s group for the company and the food – both were really good – but in order to keep attending, she knew she needed to take the writing itself more seriously.

She decided to write about what she knew. What she knew best, of course, was her working-class hometown of Lorain. But when she began to think about it, she realized that her struggle as an adult with issues of discrimination – against her race, the lightness or darkness of her skin, her gender as a woman – had profoundly changed her perception of her own childhood. She could no longer see Lorain as fully integrated. She could not write about a young black girl from there without addressing the issue of discrimination.

And she realized she had a whole lot to say.

To write, Toni would get up before dawn. She would make herself a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise. Then she would sit on the sofa with baby Harold on her lap, waiting for thoughts and memories to flow – jotting them down in pencil on a yellow lined legal pad. “My older son was barely walking,” she would later recount, “and he spit up on the tablet. And I was doing something really interesting, I think, with a sentence because I wrote around the puke. I figured I could always wipe that away, but I might not get that sentence again.”

What Toni discovered was that storytelling was an important part of her family life. Her childhood had been filled with African-American folklore, music, rituals, and myths. Her characters came from that same rich cultural heritage. But they didn’t celebrate it. Outside the home, they found themselves doubting the value of black culture whenever they compared it to white society around them. Black was not beautiful. What her black characters had been taught to value was straight blond hair and blue eyes.

Toni’s writing group found her Lorain stories very interesting. They encouraged her to keep writing from the black perspective. She did. She kept writing, even when she left Howard University in 1963 to travel around Europe with her family. She kept writing after her return, when she broke up with her husband and moved back to Ohio to have her second child Slade. She kept writing when she eventually moved to Syracuse to work as a textbook editor. And she kept writing even after she relocated to Manhattan to edit other black women novelists such as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones.

Toni Morrison published her first novel The Bluest Eye in 1970. Though it got good reviews, it didn’t sell well. Toni didn’t care. It was a story about a young black girl struggling with her blackness, one that other black girls could read and relate to. It was a novel she wanted to read. And that gave her the courage to begin the next one. For over 40 years, she has been contributing to an ever-growing body of contemporary African-American literature. In the process, she has inspired many other authors to do the same.

Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom.