The Toni Morrison Achievement Award was established in 2021 to honor novelist Toni Morrison (1911-1979), a former National Book Critics Circle Winner who championed literature throughout her celebrated career. The Morrison Award is given annually to an institution that has, over time, made significant contributions to book culture. The decision to name the award for Toni Morrison was the result of a year-long process in which the general membership of the NBCC was asked to nominate deserving candidates. Former board President Jane Ciabattari initially proposed naming the award for Morrison and the Morrison family generously agreed to permit the NBCC to honor the renowned author in this way.
Toni Morrison (née Chloe Ardelia Wofford) was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. After graduating from Howard University and earning a master’s degree from Cornell University, she taught literature at Houston’s Texas Southern University, before returning to her alma mater as an English professor. In 1965, she left academia for publishing, soon becoming the first Black woman employed as a senior editor in Random House’s fiction department. Among the writers she edited were Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones and heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali. During that time, she rose before dawn each morning to work on a manuscript, The Bluest Eye, that proved her first published novel in 1970. What followed was a series of increasingly noticed and esteemed novels of the African-American experience—Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981) and Beloved (1987)—that garnered major awards and earned Morrison a place as the matriarch of American letters. Her international reputation was confirmed when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Morrison served as the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University from 1989 to 2006, while continuing to champion aspiring writers and herald unheard voices. In accepting the NBCC Award for Fiction for The Song of Solomon in 1977, she lent her own prestige to the nascent organization. A decade later, she was a fiction finalist for Beloved. Morrison was a lifelong friend of NBCC co-founder John Leonard, and through Leonard, maintained ties to the organization. She died on August 5, 2019.
2021 Cave Canem