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Today, Clint Smith will teach you about the legendary writer Toni Morrison. Morrison is best known for her novels which chronicle the experiences of Black Americans throughout history. She was the first Black American Woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Want to learn more about Toni Morrison's work? Check out these videos from Crash Course Literature:
Slavery, Ghosts, and Beloved: Crash Course Literature 214:
Sula: Crash Course Literature 309:

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
Nellie Y. McKay, ed. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1988).
Philip Page, Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison’s Novels (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995).
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. June 21, 2019.
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CC Kids:
Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History! “The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything,” Toni Morrison said in a 1993 interview with The Paris Review.

Going on to say, “Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said.” When I first encountered Toni Morrison’s work in high school, it was most often atop a sea of unmade sheets on my bed, with two pillows propping me up against the headboard.

I used one of those cheap, drugstore pens to underline the sections that most resonated. It was tough for me then, to read in places where there was a lot of noise. I preferred reading and writing in my room, where I could listen to the soft scratch of ink on paper, and the ceiling fan whirring above.

Which is to say, I first encountered Morrison’s words in the silence that she alludes to. In this series we've talked about a number of authors who have used their work to share the lives and experiences of Black Americans on the page. And the person we’re discussing today, Toni Morrison, is one of the best writers that this country has ever produced.

She changed the literary landscape. She challenged the traditionally white male canon of literature and she did it on her own terms. Let's start the show!

INTRO I don’t know how else to put it, Toni Morrison is a legend. She published everything from plays to children's books. Her novels earned many prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

She also was the first Black American woman to win a Nobel Prize for literature. Much of her work centers on the stories of Black people at different points throughout American history. She talks about their highs and their lows, their triumphs and their failures, and the consequences of racism in everyday life.

Her work emphasizes the loss, memory, psychological trauma and joy of Black life. She wrote in ways that remain enjoyable to everyday readers while inspiring writers of all races. She helped highlight Black American literature, serving as a catalyst for it to be nationally and internationally recognized.

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in 1931. Chloe was the second of four children. She grew up in Lorain, Ohio in an environment where segregation wasn’t the law, but the invisible lines were understood.

Although her family struggled in the aftermath of the great depression, she credits her childhood as what motivated her to eventually write: hearing African American folklore and music, learning about African American cultural rituals, and growing up working class. When she was twelve years old, Chloe converted to Catholicism. She was baptized under the name Anthony, for Saint Anthony of Padua (PAHD-uh-ah).

And it would be under the nickname Toni that she would become world-famous. After graduating with honors from Lorain High School in Ohio in 1949, she attended Howard University. Toni experienced the dangers and horrors of the segregated south while touring with the Howard Players, an acting club.

But she also started to connect with other Black writers, activists, and artists. She graduated with a Bachelor's degree in English in 1953 and then went on to complete her Master of Arts in American Literature from Cornell University in 1955. After she obtained her Master's, she taught English at various HBCUs.

She married Harold Morrison, an architect, and had two children. In 1958, she returned to Howard University as a lecturer and joined a writing group where she would begin working on her first novel. She spent seven years at Howard University, got divorced, and then became an editor of the textbook division of Random House Publishing where she quickly moved up the ranks.

She eventually became a senior editor at Random House, the only Black American woman to hold that position in the company at the time. Morrison used her power and influence as an editor to publish many books by Black American writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, June Jordan, and Angela Davis. Many credit her with introducing a whole new group of Black writers to the wider world.

While elevating the Black authors around her by putting their work into print, Morrison started to put her own work in the spotlight. Remember that novel she started at Howard a few years earlier? Well, after waking up at 4am each morning to work on it while raising her two children on her own, it became her first published novel: The Bluest Eye.

It came out in 1970, when Toni was 39 years old. The Bluest Eye is about Pecola Breedlove, a young Black girl who had an extremely difficult childhood, and believed that her life would be better if she just had blue eyes like the white people around her. It was seen by some as a controversial book and was met with pretty mixed reviews.

But Toni Morrison stated in later interviews that the book’s reception was very similar to how other characters treated her main character in the novel. Morrison said she was “dismissed, trivialized, misread.” The lack of a warm initial reception for The Bluest Eye didn’t stop Morrison. She published her second novel, Sula, only three years later.

In this book, Morrison explores morality, ethics, and relationships, through the friendship between two Black women. This book had a much more positive reception than The Bluest Eye and it was even nominated for a National Book Award. By the time Morrison published her third novel, Song of Solomon in 1977, she was a household name in the Black community.

This was one of the few books Morrison wrote with a male protagonist, a young man searching for his identity while trying to escape an oppressive society. This was her first truly commercially successful book. It became the first book written by Black American author to be selected by the Book of the Month Club since Richard Wright’s Native Son in the 1940s.

She received a National Book Critics Circle Award along with many other accolades. The book became a staple of American literature in classrooms, among academics, and for general readers. This success encouraged Morrison to become a full-time writer.

In 1987, Morrison released what many consider to be her Magnum

Opus: Beloved. The book is inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, an African American woman who was living in slavery. The main character of Beloved is Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman who is constantly haunted by her dead child after making the gut wrenching decision to kill her children rather than see them become enslaved. Though three of her children survived, her infant daughter did not.

Morrison dedicates the book to the millions of Africans killed during the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The title of the book is taken from Romans chapter 9, which states: “Those who were not my people, I will call my people and her who was not beloved, I will call beloved." The story explores themes of loss, morality, and the impossible choices that befall the oppressed. The book became an enormous critical and commercial success.

It was a best seller for 25 weeks and won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. From the 1980s onward Morrison's literary prowess impacted the minds and hearts of much of the world. She continued to win awards and honors throughout her life and in 1989 she became a professor in the Creative Writing program at Princeton University.

In 1993, she became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. In 1996, she was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the Jefferson Lecture, and also won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Also, Oprah Winfrey loved her.

I mean, really, really loved her. It was Oprah who helped bring Toni Morrison’s work even further into the mainstream when she selected four of Morrison’s novels in six years for her book club. With an average of 13 million viewers watching these book club segments, the support from Oprah helped Morrison sell millions of copies and gave her a bigger sales boost than she experienced when she won the Nobel Prize.

In 1998, Beloved was even made into a movie starring… well Oprah, as well as Thandiwe Newton, and Danny Glover. And honestly, the rest is history! Morrison received a dozen honorary degrees and was a guest curator at the Louvre museum in Paris.

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom--which was awarded to her by the first Black President of the United States, Barack Obama. In total she wrote 11 novels, 9 nonfiction works, 5 children's books, 2 short stories, and 2 plays throughout her life. She died on August 5, 2019 in New York City.

Several years ago, before she passed away, I had the opportunity to see Morrison give a lecture in person. It was an extraordinary experience, to physically be in the presence of one of the greatest writers to have ever lived. When Morrison came onto the stage, the audience rose to their feet and gave a resounding round of applause.

Whistles and cheers ricocheted across the vastness of the room. Morrison was brought to a table at the front of the stage cloaked in a red cloth that had a small glass of water at its corner. At 85 years old, she was still remarkably lucid.

As I listened to her speak, I thought of my future children. How one day they will read Morrison, and how they might marvel at the fact that their father once shared a room with this writer who seemed to belong to another world. I will tell them that when she spoke, the vowels stretched across the theater like a hammock.

I will tell them that her laughter pushed open the walls of the room and invited everyone in. Morrison laid the foundation for generations of Black writers that followed. She rejected the idea that being Black or being a woman might hinder her appeal or the universality of her work.

In a 1987 interview with The New York Times, Morrison said, “I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither.... So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” Morrison is gone now, but she indeed made the world bigger.

She built upon her literary ancestors and paved the way for her literary descendents. She is one of the best writers to have ever lived and she transformed our understanding of what literature could do. Thanks for watching!

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