12 Fascinating Facts About Toni Morrison

Portrait Session With Toni Morrison
Portrait Session With Toni Morrison / Todd Plitt/GettyImages

Toni Morrison—who was born on February 18, 1931—has written some of literature’s most enduring classics, from The Bluest Eye and Sula to Beloved and beyond. Morrison’s works stick with her readers, a fact the author was proud of. “I am very happy to hear that my books haunt,” she once said. “That is what I work very hard for, and for me it is an achievement when they haunt readers.” Here’s what you need to know about the author.

1. Toni Morrison grew up in a racially integrated town in Ohio.

A map of Ohio showing Lorain.
A map of Ohio showing Lorain. / FrankRamspott/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Though she was born before the Civil Rights Movement, Morrison grew up around people of different races in the integrated town of Lorain, Ohio, where her father, George Wofford, eventually moved after the traumatic experience of seeing two Black men lynched in his Georgia neighborhood when he was a teen. (Which doesn’t mean that racism didn’t exist there—as Morrison explained in an interview, “they never had the laws as they had in other parts of the country. But what they did have were understandings.” Morrison’s mother made it a point to check out every new spot opening in town, “just to see where the ushers were directing people. They would never have a sign, but … they’d been told ‘put them all over here.’” Her mother would make sure to sit somewhere else.) Morrison didn’t encounter racially segregated restaurants until she went to college in Washington, D.C. In 2007, Lorain opened an elementary school named after Morrison.

2. When she was 2 years old, her family’s landlord set their home on fire.

When she was growing up, Morrison and her family lived in a number of homes; in one, they endured a particularly traumatic experience. Morrison was around 2 at the time, and her parents had fallen behind on the $4-a-month rent—so the landlord set the place on fire with the whole family inside. Thankfully, everyone escaped uninjured.

Morrison was too young to remember the blaze, but her parents spoke about it, and the author would later tell The Washington Post that she had taken an important lesson from the incident. “If you internalized it you'd be truly and thoroughly depressed because that’s how much your life meant. For $4 a month somebody would just burn you to a crisp,” she said. “So what you did instead was laugh at him, at the absurdity, at the monumental crudeness of it. That way you gave back yourself to yourself. … You distanced yourself from the implications of the act. That’s what laughter does. You take it back. You take your life back. You take your integrity back.” As the Post notes, many of Morrison’s characters seem to take this lesson to heart.

3. “Toni” began as a nickname.

Morrison’s birth name was Chloe Ardelia Wofford. At 12 years old, she made the decision to convert to Catholicism, and during her baptism, she was christened Anthony after the Saint Anthony of Padua.

Chloe apparently wasn’t a very common name at the time, and “nobody could pronounce it properly outside my family,” Morrison told NPR in 2015. “I couldn’t bear to have people mispronounce my name.” When she went to college, someone called her Toni—and the nickname stuck. She became Toni Morrison when she married Harold Morrison in 1958.

The marriage ended in 1964, and Morrison actually wanted to go by Toni Wofford on her first book. But by the time she called the publisher to make the change, “they said, ‘it’s too late. They’ve already sent it to the Library of Congress,’” she recalled. “But I really would have preferred Toni Wofford.”

4. Morrison attended an HBCU.

An aerial view of the campus of Howard University.
The campus of Howard University. / Westend61/Getty Images

After completing high school, Morrison decided to attend Howard University, a Historically Black University founded with the intent of helping Black students achieve the same value of education as their white counterparts. There, she earned her bachelor’s degree in English, graduating in 1953, and continued her studies through a Master’s in English at Cornell University. She would later return to Howard to teach. (She also joined a writers group at that time, where she wrote a story that, many years later, she would turn into her first book.)

5. Morrison was the first Black woman to work as an editor at Random House.

Morrison, the first Black woman editor at Random House, was able to help many new Black writers enter the scene when she began working there in 1967. Some of the most prominent names she edited were Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, activist Angela Davis, boxer Muhammad Ali, writer and poet Henry Dumas, and more.

6. She was 39 when she published her first book.

The cover of Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye.'
Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye.' / Penguin Random House (cover), Mental Floss (background)

The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s debut novel, was published in 1970, when she was 39 years old. She had been working in publishing as an editor for several years by that point and helped open doors for many aspiring Black authors. Following The Bluest Eye, Morrison became a prolific author, writing a number of novels and nonfiction works as well as plays, poetry, and children’s books (some of which she penned with her son, Slade Morrison, before his death in 2010 at the age of 45).

“I don’t want to give my readers something to swallow,” Morrison said of her intent while writing in a 1983 interview. “I want to give them something to feel and think about, and I hope that I set it up in such a way that it is a legitimate thing, and a valuable thing.”

7. She preferred writing in the early mornings.

Morrison first began the habit when her children were young, but as she continued to write, she realized that mornings suited her writing routine, even if that meant waking up at 5 a.m. “I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down,” Morrison told The Paris Review in 1993. As part of her writing ritual, she would make a cup of coffee while it was still dark out and get to work once the sun began to rise.

8. Morrison’s experiences growing up influenced her writing.

Morrison not only included autobiographical details in The Bluest Eye (the story is set in Lorain, for example, and the main character has roots in a conversation she had with one of her childhood friends) but, as the Nobel Prize website notes, “her father’s stories, taken from the African-American tradition, later became an element in her own writing.”  

Morrison once said that when she was growing up, there was equal opportunity for storytelling for both the men and women in her family. “In terms of storytelling, I remember it more as a shared activity between the men and the women in my family,” she said. “There was a comradeship between men and women in the marriages of my grandparents, and of my mother and my father. The business of storytelling was a shared activity between them, and people of both genders participated in it. We, the children, were encouraged to participate in it at a very early age.”

9. Love was one of the biggest themes in her writing.

In a 1990 interview, Morrison spoke about the way Black people in the “inner city” were intervening in the lives of the young people who lived there: She saw the love they showed to disadvantaged children and the way they made a difference in their lives. “We are here, and we have to do something nurturing that we respect before we go. We must,” she said. “It is more interesting, more complicated, more intellectually demanding, and more morally demanding to love somebody, to take care of somebody, to make one other person feel good.”

Morrison believed that love is what gives life value and turns it into what she called “a gallant, gallant event.” She also valued self-love, which became a recurring theme in many of her novels.

10. She was the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Barack Obama, Toni Morrison
President Barack Obama awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to Toni Morrison. / Alex Wong/GettyImages

Being the first seemed to be a common theme of Morrison’s life. In 1993, she became the first Black woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. (She didn’t believe she had actually won—and hung up on the friend who called to tell her.) The honor came shortly after the 1992 release of Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, which Morrison edited and wrote the introduction to.

Morrison also received a number of honors in addition to the Nobel Prize, including the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

11. Morrison received an honorary doctorate from Oxford.

Morrison worked at various universities in her lifetime, including Texas Southern University, Howard, Cornell (where there is a hall that bears her name), and Princeton (which also has a Morrison Hall). She was passionate about teaching students and sharing her insight with the next generation of writers. Morrison also received a number of doctorates, including an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Oxford in 2005.

12. Morrison believed in always improving.

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison in 1994. / Leonardo Cendamo/GettyImages

“I am giving myself permission to write books that do not depend on anyone’s liking them, because what I want to do is write better,” Morrison said in 1983. “A writer does not always write in the ways others wish.”

By this point, Morrison had published three novels, and was beginning to think about her next: 1987’s Beloved. What mattered most to Morrison was whether she had said what needed to be said in her novels and whether she was improving her delivery. “The way I handle elements within a story frame is important to me,” she said. “Now I can get where I want to go faster and with more courage than I was able to do when I began to write.”