Toni Morrison

National Humanities Medal


Toni Morrison does not choose easy subjects for her novels. She wrote Beloved after hearing the account of an escaped slave who had killed her child to prevent the child from spending life in bondage. In Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead sets out to recover a financial fortune, discovering instead the legacy of his ancestors' suffering and flight to freedom. The Bluest Eye depicts a black adolescent impregnated by her father, who wishes fiercely to become beautiful by her eyes turning blue.

"The impulse to write fiction is a question in my mind, a 'what if,'" Morrison explains. "Take away the generalizations to see what it is really like, not just in political terms. Like to be an abused child, or a slave. Not, 'what does it mean?' But, 'what does it feel like?'" Known for the depth of allegory and literary allusion in her novels, Morrison strives to write novels that are both accessible and beautiful. "The trick is not writing for a limited audience. The really hard thing is to write for people who are fastidious in their taste and for people who are not."

Morrison also writes and edits nonfiction on black history and literature, the writing process, and social issues. At times she is inspired by news stories such as Anita Hill's testimony or the O.J. Simpson trial--especially when they touch on issues of power, race, and gender. Her motivation for editing a collection of essays on the Clarence Thomas hearings was born of dissatisfaction. "I was exhausted with shallow, sound-bite television and journalism, with the narrative designed for ratings as opposed to intelligent debate," she says.

Born in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison attended Howard University as an undergraduate and received a master's degree from Cornell University. She taught introductory English at Texas Southern University and joined a small writer's group, where she wrote the story that would become The Bluest Eye. She worked as an editor at Random House for nearly twenty years before becoming a visiting lecturer at Yale University. Morrison is now the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University.

A novelist, essayist, playwright, and the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison is dedicated to her craft as a writer. "I don't mark it by prizes," she says. "The point is to have a career, to write because you're absolutely mesmerized by the subject, in a way that serves the subject."

Morrison believes that education should enrich people on more than one level. "My professional life has always centered on humanities scholarship," she says. "In languages and in literature you have the consequence of what science and technology can do in the world of art and its attendant disciplines." Throughout Morrison's career, literature has been a constant: "All my life I have been teaching books, writing books, or reading books."


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.