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Toni Morrison is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

The presidential medal of freedom is awarded by the president of the United States to individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” and this year author Toni Morrison was recently one of the recipients who received this honor from President Barack Obama.

Barack Obama said himself of the recent recipients, ”What’s wonderful about these events for me is so many of these people are my heroes individually,” Mr. Obama told the honorees before the presentation of medals. “I know how they impacted my life.”

In remembering the novels of Toni Morrison, Mr. Obama spoke of how the recipients onstage had informed his intellectual development and world vision. ”I remember reading ‘Song of Solomon’ when I was a kid, and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think,” the president said of Morrison’s novel.

TONI MORRISON AMONG PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM RECIPIENTS 

Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. She is an American novelist, editor and professor who has won a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer Prize. In her work, she examines the lives of black characters who struggle with identity amidst racism and hostility. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison was the second oldest of four children. Her father, George Wofford, worked primarily as a welder, but held several jobs at once to support the family. Her mother, Ramah, was a domestic worker. Morrison later credited her parents with instilling in her a love of reading, music, and folklore.

Living in an integrated neighborhood, Morrison did not become fully aware of racial divisions until she was in her teens. “When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child who could read,” she later told a reporter from The New York Times. Dedicated to her studies, Morrison took Latin in school, and read many great works of European literature. She graduated from Lorain High School with honors in 1949.

At Howard University, Morrison continued to pursue her interest in literature. She majored in English, and chose the classics for her minor. After graduating from Howard in 1953, Morrison continued her education at Cornell University. She wrote her thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, and completed her master’s degree in 1955. She then moved to Texas to teach English at Texas Southern University.

In 1957, Morrison returned to Howard University to teach English. There she met Harold Morrison, an architect originally from Jamaica. The couple got married in 1958 and welcomed their first child, son Harold, in 1961. After the birth of her son, Morrison joined a writers group that met on campus. She began working on her first novel with the group, which started out as a short story.

Morrison decided to leave Howard in 1963. After spending the summer traveling with her family in Europe, she returned to the United States with her son. At the time, Morrison was pregnant with their second child. She moved back home to live with her family in Ohio before the birth of son Slade in 1964. The following year, she moved with her sons to Syracuse, New York, where she worked for a textbook publisher as a senior editor. Morrison later went to work for Random House, where she edited works for such authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones.

Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. It told the story of a young African-American girl who believes her incredibly difficult life would be better if only she had blue eyes. The book received warm reviews, but it didn’t sell well. Morrison continued to explore the African-American experience in its many forms and time periods in her work. Her next novel, Sula (1973), explores good and evil through the friendship of two women who grew up together. The work was nominated for the American Book Award.

Song of Solomon (1977) became the first work by an African-American author to be a featured selection in the book-of-the-month club since Native Son by Richard Wright. It follows the journey of Milkman Dead as he searches the South for his roots. Morrison received a number of accolades for this work.

A rising literary star, Morrison was appointed to the National Council on the Arts in 1980. The following year, Tar Baby was published. The novel drew some inspiration from folktales and it received a decidedly mixed reaction from critics. Her next work, however, proved to be one of her greatest masterpieces.Beloved (1987) explores love and the supernatural. The main character, a former slave, is haunted by her decision to kill her children rather than see them become slaves. Three of her children survived, but her infant daughter died at her hand. For this spellbinding work, Morrison won several literary awards, including the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book was turned into a movie in 1998, and starred Oprah Winfrey.

Morrison became a professor at Princeton University in 1989, and continued to produce great works. In recognition of her contributions to her field, she received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first African-American woman to be selected for the award. Since then she has published several more novels as well as children’s books – a collaboration with her son Slade. In 2006, Morrison announced she was retiring from her post at Princeton. That year, The New York Times Book Review namedBeloved the best novel of the past 25 years. She has continued to explore new art forms, writing the libretto for Margaret Garner, an American opera that explores the tragedy of slavery through the true life story of one woman’s experiences. The opera debuted at the New York City Opera in 2007.

Toni Morrison will continue to be an icon in American literature.  Black Literature Magazine congratulates writer Toni Morrison for her many contributions to literature and we salute President Barack Obama for selecting her for this prestigious and well deserved honor.

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