Toni Morrison is the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is best known for her novels focusing on intimate relationships, especially between men and women. These stories are set against the backdrop of African American culture.
In 1949 Morrison entered Howard University, where she received a B.A. in English in 1953. She earned a Master of Arts degree in English from Cornell University in 1955. After graduation, Morrison became an English instructor at Texas Southern University and then returned to Howard to teach English. In 1965, she worked as an editor at the New York City headquarters of Random House. She also taught at Yale University and Bard College during these years. As an editor, Morrison played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream, editing books by authors such as Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones.
Morrison began writing her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), while she was in a writers’ group at Howard University. The story is about an African American girl who wishes that her eyes were blue and fit a different image of beauty. Thirty years later the book still speaks to a universal audience and was chosen to be an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection. Sula (1974), Morrison’s second novel, was nominated for a National Book Award.
Her third book, Song of Solomon (1977), won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. It was also chosen as the second novel by an African American to be a Book-of-the-Month selection. Tar Baby was published in 1981. Beloved (1987) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Jazz was published in 1992 and Paradise followed in 1997. Meanwhile, Morrison worked as writer-in-residence at the State University of New York, first at Stony Brook and later at Albany, before moving on to Princeton University in New Jersey.
In 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her citation reads: Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She is currently the last American to have been awarded the honor.