Toni Morrison has been called “the national novelist” and “the conscience of America.” Author of eight novels and longtime professor and editor, Morrison has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest living writers. What Toni Morrison also is, is a single mother who raised her two sons independently and right alongside her writing career.
Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio in 1931, the second of four children in a working-class family. (She gained the nickname “Toni” at age 12 when she received the baptismal name “Anthony” upon becoming a Catholic.) A bright girl, she never planned to become a writer, but always loved to read. (Favorite childhood authors included Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Jane Austen.) Her parents had a profound effect on her personality and spirit. Her mother radiated strength and pride, never backing down in the face of adversity. Of her mother, Morrison said, “She was the type who tore eviction notices off the door.” Her father, a welder, modeled hard work and self-confidence. When Morrison worked as a domestic at age 13, she bristled at being yelled at by her boss. Her father told her, “Go to work, get your money, and come home. You don’t live there,” meaning, she believes, that you don’t have to be the person others imagine you as. She also felt the influence of a larger community, thinking all along that she was deserving of success: “I was surrounded by black women who were very tough and very aggressive and who always assumed they had to work and rear children and manage homes. They had enormously high expectations of their daughters, and cut no quarter with us.”
Morrison left home at 17 to study at Howard University, where she graduated in 1953 with a degree in English. After earning her master’s degree at Cornell, she taught English at Texas Southern University and then at Howard. While back in Washington DC, she met and married, in 1958, her husband, Harold Morrison. The couple’s marriage was not a happy one. Though Morrison is tight-lipped about her reasons for leaving her husband, she has hinted that she was more independent than he might have liked, saying, “He didn’t need me making judgments about him, which I did. A lot.” The union was short-lived, but it did produce two sons, Harold and Slade. The couple split while Morrison was pregnant with Slade and, after the divorce, she moved with her boys (aged 3 and 3 months) to Syracuse, New York, where she worked for Random House as a textbook editor and raised her children on her own. Of that time, she admits, “I don’t think I did any of that very well. I did it ad hoc, like any working mother does.” She soon moved again, this time to New York City, where she began to edit fiction, working to shepherd literature by African American authors into the “mainstream.”
During this turbulent time in her life, Morrison became a writer. With a catch-as-catch-can routine, Morrison transformed The Bluest Eye from a short story into a novel, writing in the early mornings or after putting her children down for the night and publishing it at age 39. The book did not garner much attention until years later, but her subsequent novels gained her national regard and critical praise. Sula was nominated for the National Book Award and Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1983, Morrison quit her editing job to concentrate on her writing. Her next book, Beloved, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work, an honor about which she remarked, “I was thrilled that my mother is still alive and can share this with me.”
Morrison sounds like any other working parent when she describes trying to juggle parenting and her writing life. She is famous for waking up in the wee hours of the morning to write, a habit she formed when her boys were young. (As she has said, “I needed to use the time before they said, Mama – and that was always around five in the morning.”) She says that she is unable “to write regularly. I have never been able to do that – mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spent a lot of weekend and predawn time.” But far be it from her to feel sorry for herself, pointing out, as she has, that “most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress.” Whenever she caught herself starting to complain, she thought of her maternal grandmother, a sharecropper who fled her landlord with her seven children to start a new life with her husband. “Whenever things seemed difficult for me in New York,” she said, “I thought that what I was doing wasn’t anything as hard as what she did.”
I remember one day when I was confused about what I had to do next – write a review, pick up groceries, what? I took out a yellow pad and made a list of all the things I had to do. It included large things, like “be a good daughter and a good mother,” and small things, like “call the phone company.” I made another list of the things I wanted to do. There were only two things without which I couldn’t live: mother my children and write books. Then I cut out everything that didn’t have to do with those two things.
Morrison seems to have enjoyed a good relationship with her sons, though they didn’t necessarily love having a writer as a mother. (Says Morrison, “Who does? I wouldn’t. Writers are not there. They’re likely to get vague when you need them. And while the vagueness may be good for the writer, if children need your complete attention, then it’s bad for them.”) She has also discussed the tension that the divorce created between her and her sons, noting, “Now, of course, they’re delightful people, whom I would love even if they weren’t my children. But when they were young, 5 and 6, they didn’t understand what this was about.” Despite the tricky balancing act of life as a single mother, Morrison found joy and solace in her sons: “The real liberation was the kids, because their needs were simple. One, they needed me to be competent. Two, they wanted me to have a sense of humor. And three, they wanted me to be an adult. No one else asked that of me…They didn’t care if I did my hair, didn’t care what I looked like.” In another interview, she noted, “If you listen to [your children], somehow you are able to free yourself from baggage and vanity and all sorts of things, and deliver a better self, one that you like. The person that was in me that I liked best was the one my children seemed to want.”
Morrison lost her son, Slade, to pancreatic cancer in December 2010. He was 45. She found herself unable to write immediately after his death and told Oprah that the idea that she would ever get “closure” on his passing was “some kind of insult.” She eventually returned to work on her novel, Home, deciding that the last thing Slade would want was for her to stop writing, noting that instead of closure, “I want what I got. Memory. And work.
“And some more ibuprofen.”