You know what I love most about this series? I love delving into the lives of the women I get to paint. Many of them, I had heard of, but didn’t really know what they were famous for. Take Toni Morrison, for example. Growing up, I knew that she was a famous African American Author. I knew her books were popular and I would often confuse her with Alice Walker (shameful, I know).
I had no idea, until working on Women Behaving Badly, that she was the first African American woman to not only win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but to win the Nobel Prize for Literature as well. Morrison won the Nobel Prize for her book Beloved, which was turned into a movie in 1998. I remember seeing the trailers on TV, but I was at boarding school at the time and wasn’t able to drive to the theatres.
Anyway, back to Toni Morrison. Her parents had moved to Ohio to escape the racism of the South in the 1920s. In school, she was one of very few Black kids and was the only child who could already read in the First Grade. This was because her parents understood the value of a good education and taught her to read early. I can relate. I was also an early reader and would spend my school days waiting for my classmates to catch up. Toni Morrison used her time differently. Fueled with ghost stories and tales of Southern Black inventors, she would weave narratives of her own, though it was years before she would call herself a writer.
After high school, Morrison attended Howard University. Her father had to work three jobs to afford her tuition so she took full advantage of her education. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in the classics. In 1953 became the first person in her family to graduate from university. She then went on to earn her Master’s in English Literature at Cornell University in 1958.
After all that schooling, Morrison went to work at Random House as a textbook editor. At the time, she was one of the very few female African American editors. Realizing how rare this was, she used her position of power to introduce young Black women writers who probably would not have been published otherwise. She also began work on her first novel, The Bluest Eye. This book about a young Black girl who imagined herself to have blue eyes and fair skin, was a commentary on the ways in which standards of beauty and personhood affected those who didn’t meet those standards.
What set The Bluest Eye apart from other stories at the time was the fact that it was told entirely from the African American perspective. Morrison made a point of not “translating” any of the language or story elements for a White audience. “Dostoevsky wrote for a Russian audience, but we’re able to read him” says Morrison. “If I’m specific and I don’t over explain, then anyone can overhear me.”
…to be continued…