Why Toni Morrison changed her name

Mildred Europa Taylor Mar 20, 2021 at 09:00am

March 20, 2021 at 09:00 am | Opinions & Features, Women

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

March 20, 2021 at 09:00 am | Opinions & Features, Women

Toni Morrison pictured in 1979. (GETTY IMAGES)

Toni Morrison is celebrated around the world as the greatest writer of our time. Her books such as Beloved, Sula, The Bluest Eye and Songs of Solomon are on the reading requirements list of several top-notch schools around the world. Beloved, which is about a Black woman who killed her daughter to save her from returning to slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988. It was adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in 1998.

In 1993, Morrison became the first Black woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize after she took home the prize for her outstanding contribution to literature. Indeed, Morrison is well known for her prestigious awards and countless books and articles about the African-American experience, but what many do not know is that her real name isn’t Toni. She changed it long before she kicked off her career.

Morrison only started writing at the age of 39 when she had read so many works of fiction but did not find anything on the things she was really interested in – lives of regular Black people living during significant times such as slavery and the civil war. She started The Bluest Eye while she was the single mother of two boys, living in Syracuse, New York. “I was young. I started writing when I was 39. That’s the height of life…,” she said in an interview.

The Bluest Eye was based on a short story she wrote for her writers’ group at Howard. Though she began her studies in the English department at Howard, she spent a lot of her time within the drama department. It was while at Howard that she changed her name to Toni as people found it difficult pronouncing her birth name, Chloe. Getting married in 1958 to Howard Morrison also changed her last name to Morrison. Wofford is her maiden name.

Note that this was not the first time the author adjusted her name. According to the National Catholic Reporter, she first changed her name when she became Catholic at age 12. She chose the name Anthony, after St. Anthony of Padua, as her confirmation name. Anthony then became her middle name but her family members shortened it to Toni, which she used while a student at Howard, where she later taught.

But it seems Chloe Anthony Wofford regretted making changes to her name years later. The American novelist, essayist, editor, teacher, and professor emeritus stated in a 1992 interview that: “I am really Chloe Anthony Wofford. That’s who I am. I have been writing under this other person’s name. I write some things now as Chloe Wofford, private things. I regret having called myself Toni Morrison when I published my first novel, The Bluest Eye.”

What Morrison probably never regretted was her close relationship with her family. “She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends,” her family said in a statement following her passing in 2019. “The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life.”

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