Toni Morrison and the “Woman’s Award”

My writing friends and I have been talking about Toni Morrison since her death early this month. Her influence on American letters is gigantic, and many have written about her effect on them personally. I have two small connections myself.

As a docent at the historic home of author Pearl S. Buck, I point out her Nobel and Pulitzer prizes and say she was the only American woman to hold both awards for 55 years until Toni Morrison won the Nobel prize in 1993. What I don’t usually say, but might from now on, is that Morrison also received the Woman of the Year Award (now called the Women of Influence Award) from the Pearl Buck Foundation (now Pearl S. Buck International) in 1994.

In her acceptance speech, Morrison said that after reading Buck’s work, she was disappointed to find the honesty and empathy with which Buck wrote about other cultures was not common in American novels. She decided to “fill the void,” she said, remarking with a bit of humor: ‘I’m grateful to her for misleading me in a sense.”

Pearl Buck wrote what she knew: the culture and lives of the people of China in the early twentieth century. Morrison did likewise, becoming one of the foremost writers on the lives of African Americans. From The Bluest Eye to God Help the Child, she was fearless in portraying the consequences of racism. The long list of her awards on Wikipedia does not mention the Pearl Buck Woman of the Year. A local newspaper at the time called it the Pearl S. Buck Woman’s Award.

I like the fact that Morrison came in person to accept it, and signed books, programs and even slips of paper for admirers who waited in long lines to meet her. I wish I had been there.

I saw her in person once, on a street corner in Princeton, New Jersey. The light changed and I started to cross the street when she sailed toward me, unmistakable in salt and pepper dreadlocks and a sweeping long caftan, a half smile on her lips. “That’s Toni Morrison,” I whispered to my husband beside me. She disappeared into the crowd before I could think of something good enough to say.    

I never met Pearl Buck either, but it helps me to remember how hard they both worked to get it right, and how they tried to find out what they didn’t know so the rest of us could benefit from their stories, and see ourselves in their characters. A good writer transcends time and place and brings us together. 

What about you? Have you ever been struck speechless by someone you admired? Let us know in the comments section. I’d love to hear!

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