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Author Toni Morrison receives the PEN Award

Toni Morrison/ Photo courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf Publishing (195618)
Toni Morrison/ Photo courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf Publishing

Nobel Prize-winning novelist and Princeton University professor emeritus Toni Morrison has received the 2016 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. Announcement of the honor, which comes with a $25,000 cash gift, came on March 1, and is just the latest in a long line of honorariums for this celebrated woman of letters.

Born Chloe Wofford in Lorrain , Ohio , circa 1931, she picked up the pet name “Toni” upon her conversion to Catholicism at the age of 12, as a derivative of the baptismal name “Anthony,” with Morrison being the surname of her ex-husband, Jamaican architect Harold Morrison. Born of the union of transplanted Southerners who escaped the racism of their birthplace, she and her siblings were weaned on the ghost stories of their forebear’s sharecropper past, and later this informed her fiction, along with the radio dramas she loved. Her natural inclination for scholastic achievement landed Morrison on the campus of Howard University, then took hrto graduate school at Cornell and on to a teaching career.

By 1965, two children and a divorce prompted a career change, and she began her tenure as an editor in the publishing industry. In this capacity at Random House, she was instrumental in bringing such talents as Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Henry Dumas, and Gayl Jones to the public’s attention.

Morrison’s own entrée into the publishing realm began with “The Bluest Eye,” a tale about a Black girl’s inferiority complex, released in 1970. It was derived from a short story she had presented before a group of writers while teaching at Howard in the late 1950s, and its volatile content of incest, molestation and the color caste system has kept it in the vortex of controversy over the years.

This set the tone for her subsequent output, and made her reputation as an author who frequently probed the less palatable facets of life in such works as 1973’s “Sula” (interracial romance), 1977’s “Song of Solomon” (cultural identity), and 1987’s “Beloved” (infanticide), which paved the way to her 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Literature, for, in the board’s words “… richly-expressive depictions of Black America.”

Other titles produced over the years include “Jazz” (1992), “Paradise´(1997), “Love” (2003), “A Mercy” (2008), “Home” (2012), and “God Help the Child” (2015) which chronicles the travails of a dark-complexioned women in the cosmetics industry. In 1993, Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Black woman to be so honored, and the last American to win this coveted award.

A professorship at Princeton University was bestowed upon her in 1989, and in the following year she became a visiting faculty member and the recipient of multiple honorary doctorates at many prestigious institutions. She also became a prominent public figure sought out for sound bites on myriad subjects, such as when she came to the defense of then-President William J. Clinton in the midst of his infamous “impeachment/persecution” episode. Citing the affinity between people of color and the honorary “first Black President,” she wrote that: “… Clinton displays almost every trope of Blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas .”

Upon conferring the 2016 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, the selection committee issued the following statement about Morrison:

“Revelatory, intelligent, (and) bold, her fiction is invested in the Black experience, in Black lives, and in Black consciousness, material from which she has forged a singular American aesthetic. Toni Morrison not only opened doors to others when she began to publish, she has also stayed grounded in the issues of her time.”