The Life and Work of Toni Morrison

Categories: Literature

Toni Morrison was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio (Toni Morrison). Morrison often writes about growing up in an integrated neighborhood as a child and only learning about and experiencing racial divisions in her teen years (Toni Morrison). She attended Lorain High School and graduated with honors in 1949 (Toni Morrison). She then matriculated at Howard University, a historically black university, where she majored in English (Toni Morrison). She received her Masters degree from Cornell University where she wrote her thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner (Toni Morrison).

After getting her degree, she first taught English at Texas Southern University, a historically black university (Toni Morrison). After teaching at Texas Southern for a few years, she returned to Howard University to teach English (Toni Morrison). She began writing her first novel there in the 1960s after joining a writers’ collective with other faculty at the university (Toni Morrison). After teaching at Howard University, she took various jobs at publishing agencies for the next few years and worked as a senior editor (Toni Morrison).

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In 1970, she published her first novel The Bluest Eye, which received positive reviews but did not sell well (Toni Morrison). She subsequently published Sula in 1973 and Song of Solomon in 1977 (Toni Morrison). In 1987 she published her most successful work, Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Toni Morrison). In 1989 she began teaching at Princeton University and in 1993 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Toni Morrison). Additionally, in the late 1980s and early 1990s she wrote non fiction essays and compiled collections of writings from various authors (Toni Morrison).

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These are the works that should be added to the cannon of Anthropology. The two pieces that I have selected are both the introductions to two of her non-fiction books: Race-ing Justice, Engendering Power: Essay on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality and Playing in the Dark. Morrison applies the ideas of intersectionality in her work and it is extremely useful to see these ideas in action, not just read about them in theory. She also aims to explain why certain people are absent from the cannon of literatures in the humanities and the social sciences and what the effects on the readers are. These are two things that are essential for students of Anthropology to understand. In her book Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, Toni Morrison compiles essays about the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas case. In 1991, Thomas was nominated for Supreme Court Justice and Hill shortly after accused him of sexual misconduct. Even after the allegations, Thomas was still voted into the Supreme Court. Toni Morrison published this book on October 9th, 1992. The book is a collection of 18 essays; all but one were specifically written for this book. The essays were written by a variety of scholars and writers. The essays are about and in response to the Hill and Thomas case. Toni Morrison writes the introduction for the book. While our class has read about the theories of intersectionality, Morrison’s work puts the theories into practice. Her work in this book aims to explore the complications of sex, gender, and race through a concrete historical event. First, Morrison explains the historical weight of this event and describes the language around it and the language leading up to it. She begins by explaining how in this case, and in many others, race is both an empty yet powerful category (Morrison Race-ing Justice ix). This speaks the ideas of categorization by “others,” but Morrison brings to light the real life implications and paradoxes of created categories. When explaining the lead up to Thomas’ nomination, before the accusation by Hill, she explains the racialization of Thomas in the literature and speech that surrounded him. Morrison points to the discourse surrounding Thomas’ body; there were often references to his weightlifting hobbies and the physical strength of his body (Morrison xiv), a reflection of white discourse surrounding black bodies in America and in other places. By pointing this out, Morrison helps us to see the way “othering” discourse still prevails in supposedly neutral reporting. Morrison addresses the way in which the accusations affected Thomas’ image. She says that the “allegations of sexual misconduct re-raced him” (Morrison xviii). While Thomas was poised to be a symbol of racial equality in America, the accusations changed his positionality. They complicated his identity. He occupied many different spheres and Morrison points out how the public had trouble comprehending that. She warns us of the dangers that relegating a person to one sphere of their identity has. While it is useful to read theory on the complications of multiple identities, it is essential to see it play out in real life situations and Morrison’s introduction to the collection of essays very poignantly describes the difficulty with which people have in comprehending the concept. It is because of the difficulties that many people have in understanding how intersectionality plays out, that we should read literature on how it has affected recent history. A second piece of writing useful for Anthropology students to read is Morrison’s introduction to Playing in the Dark, also published in 1992. The book uses examples in literature to examine the pervasiveness of whiteness in academia. She also explains how and why black writers are missing from writings in academia. Often, Anthropology classes discuss the fact that many people’s writings are missing from the cannon of Anthropological works, but Morrison expands upon this by demonstrating the effects that it has. She calls attention to how she felt as a young reader. She says that her “early assumptions as a reader were that black people signified little or nothing in the imagination of white American writers. Other than as the objects of an occasional bout of jungle fever, other than to provide local color” (Morrison Playing in the Dark 15). She says that the lack of black writers, unfortunately, has little to no effect on the average student’s academic life (Morrison 13). Because these writers are not considered essential, students do not feel like they are missing anything. While students may not feel that they are missing anything, Morrison points out what they are missing by not reading these works: a critical eye. She says that because people are not reading the works of black authors, they are not critical of the racial undertones in many canonical works (Morrison 14). She points to the criticism of many works that have sexist notions and the move to eliminate the high status of those, but indicates that there is not as much push to do this in terms of works with racist messages (Morrison 14). It is necessary for students of Anthropology not just to know that certain groups of people are missing from academia, but to understand the effects it has on the field of study as well as on the individual. Toni Morrison’s work could be placed alongside a few different authors on the syllabus for Culture Theory. Her writing could be read alongside the selections of W.E.B. Dubois from The Souls of Black Folk about double consciousness. His work seems like a predecessor to ideas about intersectionality; an earlier interpretation of seemingly conflicting identities. They are also writing about two different times in history so it is useful to apply these theories in different places. Morrison’s pieces could also be read in conjunction with Michel Foucault’s Docile Bodies. In Foucault’s essay, he often speaks to the classification of certain bodies and the categorization and subsequent ranking of people. This is especially relevant to the argument that Morrison makes about the way the media wrote about Thomas’ body and also relevant to the categorization of people in general that Morrison writes about. Foucault also links the idea of disciplines of the body to disciplines in the academic sense, which is related to many of the arguments that Morrison is making. And of course, Morrison’s writings could be read alongside the unit with other feminist and intersectional writers such as Ellen Lewin, Zackie Achmat, and Ruth Bahar. Yet, as Ruth Bahar said to our class, we should not eliminate any writers or pieces from the cannon, we should just keep adding more. It is necessary to read the predecessors of the field in order to understand the relevant critiques. The discipline of Anthropology is a discussion; and we should only add more to the discussion as opposed to taking away from it.

Works Cited

  1. Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  2. Morrison, T. (1992). Race-ing justice, en-gendering power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the construction of social reality. New York: Pantheon Books.
  3. Toni Morrison. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2015, from

Cite this page

The Life and Work of Toni Morrison. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

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