Novelist Toni Morrison turns 75 on Feb. 18, and the nation -- as well as the world -- ought to take note of this American literary giant.
Perhaps no other U.S. writer has explored the issues of racism, sexism and class in American society so honestly and so beautifully as this Nobel laureate has. As the New York Review of Books declared years ago, Toni Morrison is "the closest thing the country has to a national writer."
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, near Cleveland in 1931, Morrison's parents-- like millions of other African-Americans -- had migrated north from Alabama to escape the stark legalized racism of the South. The family settled in the working class city of Lorain and Toni, shielded from the overt racial apartheid of the American South, became an insatiable reader.
Eventually, the young Chloe attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and graduated in 1953. While at Howard, she changed her name to "Toni," explaining that people found "Chloe" too difficult to pronounce.
After earning her master's degree from Cornell University in 1955, Morrison taught at several universities around the country, including her alma mater, Howard.
By the mid-1960s, Morrison was working as an editor for Random House in New York City and dreaming of writing her own books.
Morrison finally became an author herself in 1970 with the publication of her novel, "The Bluest Eye." American literature was never again the same. Using a mixture of mythology and politics, Morrison's poetic debut tells the tragic tale of Pecola Breedlove, a black girl who, among other things, is confined to a world where the measure of beauty is something she does not possess: blond hair and blue eyes.
Upon the publication of "The Bluest Eye," author Haskel Frankel wrote in The New York Times that Morrison was a writer of "considerable power and tenderness, someone who can cast back to the living, bleeding heart of childhood and capture it on paper."
After "The Bluest Eye," Morrison only got better. Her second novel, "Sula," appeared in 1972 and was described by writer and critic Sara Blackburn as "a howl of love and rage, playful and funny as well as hard and bitter."
"Song of Solomon" was the next novel, and it earned Morrison the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977.
After her fourth novel, "Tar Baby" was published in 1982 to more acclaim, Morrison wrote the book that changed American literature forever: "Beloved."
"Beloved" is based on the true story of Margaret Garner. Garner, who Morrison renamed Sethe in the novel, was an African-American woman enslaved in Kentucky who escaped her horror, but who after being re-captured, slitted the throat of one of her children rather than have the child suffer the humiliating, second-class life of a slave. The book earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and was made into a movie by Oprah Winfrey in 1998.
Last year, an opera based upon "Beloved," entitled "Margaret Garner," began touring the country.
In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was the first African-American to be awarded the prize. In naming Morrison the recipient, the Nobel Committee stated that she "gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."
She was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities at Princeton University in 1987.
In 1998, in The New Yorker, she famously penned a cleverly constructed essay on race and politics in America that created great controversy when Morrison declared that President Clinton "is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime."
With politics and prose, Morrison conveys her message.
At 75, she has cemented herself in American literature. May she continue to excel for many more years to come.
Brian Gilmore is a lawyer and poet with two collections of poetry, including "Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags: A Poem for Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra" (Karibu Books, 2000). He can be reached at email@example.com.