This Day In History: January 11

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On January 11, 1978, Toni Morrison wins the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon. The award brought the writer national attention for the first time, although she had already published two moderately successful books, The Bluest Eye (1969) and Sula (1973). Morrison went on to win the Pulitzer in 1988 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, to a welder father and homemaker mother. She graduated from Howard University in 1953, then took a master’s in literature at Cornell. She married architect Howard Morrison and had two sons. After she and her husband divorced, Morrison taught English and worked as one of the very few Black editors at Random House. She published her first novel in 1969. After the publication of her breakthrough novel in 1978, she published Tar Baby (1981) and Jazz (1992). Her 1987 novel, Beloved, the story of a 19th-century enslaved woman who escapes bondage but is forced to kill her own baby, won the Pulitzer.

When Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993, she became the first African American to win the award, as well as the first American woman to win in more than 50 years. The same year, a fire destroyed her Nyack, New York, home—fortunately, she’d left the manuscript of her next novel, Paradise, in her office at Princeton University, where she was teaching creative writing. The book, published in 1998, explored the dynamics of an all-Black town in the late 1960s. Morrison died on August 5, 2019. Her last novel was 2015's God Help the Child.