The title is a French word for a music that hovers between song and ordinary speech.
In the story, Roberta and Twyla are roommates at a shelter for orphaned or otherwise homeless youth. Their lives unfold over the next 40 pages. Morrison is opaque about which girl is Black and which is white, but sprinkles details: they’re both poor, one has a sick mother, the other’s mother is a woman who “dances all night.”
The girls meet again and again as they grow up, begin families and continue to hold on to memories of their four months together at the shelter.
The short story published in a 1983 collection called “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women.” Morrison wrote in 1992 that her goal was to craft “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”
The result is uncomfortable, as Morrison surfaces her readers’ impulse to scan each page, each bit of dialogue, for a racial clue. Just when you think you’ve settled on an answer (Twyla’s white, you assert confidently), another paragraph makes you double back.
Even knowing Morrison’s aim, it’s difficult to detach from our deep socialization. Race matters, we know it matters, and to remove it feels like our roadmap has been snatched. We’re driving blind.
Smith notes this conundrum in the introduction: “If race is a construct, whither blackness? If whiteness is an illusion, on what else can a poor man without prospects pride himself? I think a lot of people’s brains actually break at this point. But Morrison had a bigger brain.”
The women collide into each other on scenarios that give readers space to examine their own biases. Is the waitress more likely to be black? What about the mother protesting school integration? Who would be more likely to be on their way to see Jimi Hendrix? Part of the fun is recognizing where bias falls short and commonality emerges.
“Morrison constructs the story in such a way that we are forced to admit the fact that other categories, aside from the racial, also produce shared experiences,” Smith concludes. “Categories like being poor, being female, like being at the mercy of the state or the police, like living in a certain zip code, having children, hating your mother, wanting the best for your family. We are like and not like a lot of people a lot of the time.”
Startling that what was true in 1983 feels fresh almost 40 years later.
“Quiet as it is kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941 . . . Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year.”
These lines from the beginning of “The Bluest Eye” helped cast a spell and launch the writing career of Toni Morrison. The lake is Lake Erie, the gardens are in Lorain, Ohio, the hometown of a woman who elevated and altered the course of world literature.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, Morrison remade English literature as an editor, novelist, professor, essayist and cultural critic. Her 11 novels include “Beloved,” which won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. From the beginning, Morrison shrugged off the white gaze, creating worlds in which Black characters shone in their particular and universal complexity, beauty and pain.
In February, Bill 325 passed the Ohio House, then moved to the Senate for a subcommittee hearing.
“Seeing someone from our neighborhood rise to worldwide renown and recognition, including being the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a continual source of pride for all of us in the Lorain area,” testified Miller, whose district encompasses Lorain.
Howse also testified. “Her work stirred our souls, challenged our conscience to confront injustices, and encouraged the rest of the world to do the same,” she said. “She set the stage for an entire generation of authors to tell their untold stories and celebrate the beautiful diversity of humankind.”
More context came from Cheri Campbell, whose 30-year tenure at the Lorain County Public Library coincided with the dedication of the Toni Morrison Reading Room in 1995. She recounted the story in her House testimony:
“Upon her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1993, many in the community wanted to rename streets, rename the library system, among other ideas,” Campbell wrote. “When the community discussion reached Toni’s ears, she asked us to establish a reading room in her name that would – in her words – ‘be the one place available in the neighborhood with a quiet room and comfortable chairs.’ Our library had been where she spent many hours reading books, so that is what she wanted from us. And we gave it to her.”
Campbell said the Reading Room drew many visitors and scholars, curious about Morrison’s origins. “In my work, no matter where it’s set,’ “she once told an audience at Oberlin College, “‘the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie.’”
Dr. Marilyn Mobley, a founder of the Toni Morrison Society and professor of English and African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University, also wrote in favor of the bill. “It is only fitting,” she said, “that the state of Ohio recognizes all that Toni Morrison has given us through the power of her words, the persistence of her commitment to truth, and the unwavering passion she shared for the sanctity of the human spirit.”
House Bill No. 325 will have a second hearing in the Ohio Senate in December. If the bill passes the subcommittee, it will head to the full Ohio Senate for a vote.
Ohio residents wishing to send along letters of support for the bill can email Rep. Miller at Rep56@ohio.house.gov.
A mere dozen miles from the site where Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a day-long gathering will mark what would have been the novelist’s 89th birthday.
“This warrior artist had such a giant global impact and such an individual impact,” he said. “I think there are individuals dispersed all over this planet who have very direct relationships with the images that Ms. Morrison conjured on the page and with the narratives she called up.”
Organizers hope citizens will stop by the Irene and Alan Wurtzel Theater to give an excerpt reading, or record an audio tribute to underscore how Morrison’s work influenced their lives.
In September, Cleveland Book Week featured reflections from writers who followed Morrison into the Anisfield-Wolf canon — Walter Mosley, ’98; Marilyn Chin, ’15; Kevin Young, ’18; Brent Staples, ’95; and Jesmyn Ward, ’18.
“Morrison centered blackness, in ways unparalleled, though she was not alone in doing so,” Young stated. “She helped us see ourselves and free ourselves and remind us that as she put it, the function of freedom is to free someone else.”
Walter Mosley, who also praised Morrison in 2019’s “The Pieces I Am” documentary, spoke on his friend of more than 20 years: “Of all her acts in the world of literature, Morrison almost single-handedly raised Black America to an international platform without us losing our identity.”
Marilyn Chin recited her new poem, “Praise (For Toni Morrison),” ending with “Praise holy, holy Chloe/Who shall finally reclaim her name.” A framed copy of the poem will be installed in the newly remodeled Morrison room at the Lorain Public Library. It will mark her birthday by hosting a rededication ceremony at 2 p.m. featuring members of the Morrison/Wofford family.
Praise Sula, Praise Nell, Praise Sethe
Praise Bride and her blue-black beauty
Praise Valerian, Praise Sweetness, Praise Rain
Praise Pecola, forgive Cholly
May Milkman Dead find his wings
Praise Medallion, Praise Shalimar, Praise Mercy
Praise the blessed earth Lorraine
Praise the gateless gate of eternity
Praise the Great Mother’s legacy
Praise holy, holy Chloe
Who shall finally reclaim her name
Anisfield-Wolf recipient Zora Neale Hurston would have turned 129 years old January 7. To celebrate her birthday, the editors of ZORA, an online magazine eponymously named after the Harlem Renaissance writer and pioneering anthropologist, compiled the ZORA Canon, its definitive list of the best books written by African American women.
Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge (“We Love You, Charlie Freeman”) writes that the editors decided to take up the task when they realized no one seemed to have published a comprehensive list of black women authors, a baffling fact considering the robust reading habits of black women.
Collectively, they took steps to remedy that omission. “Taken together, the works don’t just make up a novel canon,” Greenidge writes in the introduction. “They form a revealing mosaic of the black American experience during the time period.”
Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Jesmyn Ward was one of the six panelists who selected the works, ranging from poetry to plays, nonfiction to short stories and novels. Alongside Ward was Malaika Adero, a former vice president and senior editor for Atria Books; Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson and author of “Negroland;” Ayana Mathis, a professor and bestselling author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie;” Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and author of “Thick”; and Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies whose most recent book is “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.”
The 100 works are divided into five sections, spanning 160 years of literature: “A Fight For Our Humanity” (1859-1900), “A Rebirth of the Arts” (1924-1953), “Civil Rights & Black Power” (1959-1975), and “The Strength of Self Worth” (1976-1999) and “A Radical Future” (2000-2010).
Browse the list and you’ll find Anisfield-Wolf winners peppered throughout: Toni Morrison appears four times (“Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved,” and “A Mercy”) and Rita Dove gets a nod for 1986’s “Thomas and Beulah.” Sonia Sanchez, our 2019 lifetime achievement winner, is recognized twice for her 1970s poetry collections: “We a BaddDDD People” and “I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems.”
As ZORA senior editor Morgan Jerkins debuted the list on Twitter, she noted: “For those academics who are scratching their heads over how to make their syllabi more diverse, here you go. You have 100 books to choose from and they were chosen from the best of the best.”
And to cap the birthday off, Amistad Press is giving away free electronic copies of Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Visit www.CelebratingZora.com for downloading instructions.
At 87, Toni Morrison is a direct woman. The Nobel laureate in literature has long contemplated her legacy, and the larger meaning of art, society and belonging.
The documentary captures the magisterial Morrison mulling the limits of language in 2006 as she curated an exhibit at the Louvre she also called The Foreigner’s Home. Its centerpiece is Theodore Gericault’s massive 1819 oil painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” created just three years after an actual shipwreck off the coast of Senegal that doomed dozens of 19th-century passengers from the lower classes.
“My faith in the world of art is not irrational and it’s not naïve,” Morrison told a Parisian audience. “Art invites us to take a journey from date to information to knowledge to wisdom. Artists make language, images, sounds to bear witness, to shape beauty and to comprehend . . . this conversation is vital to our understanding of what it means to be human.”
The writer explained that the title has two meanings – the foreigner at home, and the foreigner is home, flinging wide the questions of displacement and belonging. She noted that each individual finds oneself “being, fearing or accommodating the stranger.” She put these notions and the Gericault painting before street poets, playwrights, dancers, musicians, choreographers and novelists whom Morrison invited to the Louvre from around the corner, and around the globe.
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian writer living in New York, lent her insights, and roughly ten years later, traveled to Morrison’s home in the Hudson River valley, to update and enlarge the conversation for the film. (Both women are recipients of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.)
In 2006, architect Ford Morrison traveled to France with his mother and filmed parts of the Paris gathering, then tucked the footage away. Morrison mentioned her desire to have something done with the materials to Jonathan Demme, her neighbor and friend who had directed the cinematic version of her novel “Beloved.”
‘She said, ‘Jonathan, I don’t want to deal with this, but do you know some nice, quiet folk who might want to deal with it?’” recalled Rian Brown-Orso, a co-director of the documentary and professor at Oberlin College.
Demme did. All three of his children attended Oberlin, where he met cinema professors Brown-Orso and Geoff Pingree. Demme helped the duo in their 2009 initiative to restore the Apollo Theatre in Oberlin.
The director agreed to executive produce the Morrison film project. “He thought at the time he’d either use HBO or he’d try us,” Pingree said. Brown-Orso created the hand-painted animation for The Foreigner’s Home and Pingree wrote the script.
But the task was complex and wound up taking five years. “Geoff and I spent two years logging and transcribing,” she said. “Some material was unusable; some had bad sound quality.”
The pair concluded they must ask Morrison to sit for the camera, violating one of her original conditions. Pingree wrote a passionate two-page letter in November 2014, making a case for a new interview. In their letter, the directors asked to build 20 minutes of archival materials into a film commensurate with the ideas Morrison explored. In the intervening years, questions around migration had become more urgent.
Demme and then Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, who had helped raise $350,000 for the project, predicted Morrison would decline. Instead, she agreed.
“We set the film up, and the first thing you hear is water,” Pingree said. “Then we hear [Morrison’s] voice. Then we see an animated boat with hand-drawn figures. They suggest anyone at sea, literally or figuratively offshore. So we begin asking, ‘Where will they land? Who’ll take them in? Where will they find anchor?’”
When The Foreigner’s Home debuted in North America with a screening in Miami in March, Pingree said a viewer approached him. “This 67-year-old white guy came up to say he was riveted. He said, ‘If I could have gotten my 20-year-old self to watch it, it would have changed my entire life.’ “
The man shook Pingree’s hand and melted back into the crowd.
For Brown-Orso, such a response indicates Morrison is sounding a warning, that her voice is prophetic: “Our task was to make a visual space to uphold the power of Ms. Morrison’s words.”
The film is dedicated to Demme, who died last year.
“The mission of art is the destruction of barriers and walls,” Morrison says, “the things that prevent people from connecting with their home or each other.”
Thinking about gaps in our communal memory has long occupied Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. In a 1989 interview, she said:
“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to.”
Professor Marilyn S. Mobley witnessed that quiet, first monument set upright on the island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. She attended the second bench placement near Oberlin College, saw another installed in Paris, France and yet another on the campus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Each spot is a link to the African-American resistance history that Morrison evokes.
The 19th bench, dedicated this April in Cleveland, sits on a green swell of lawn in University Circle, identical in its simple design to the benches installed before it: black ribbed steel, a length of four or six feet, with a descriptive plaque mounted in a cement foundation next to it. On a recent spring morning, sparrows and squirrels hopped and scurried around it.
Mobley, vice president of inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity at Case Western Reserve University, said she spent two years working toward putting a bench in the neighborhood adjacent to campus, a community once active on the Underground Railroad.
“It was worth my time and trouble because I believe in the concept of the need to remember — remember and celebrate,” she said. “I want to remember this history, which is part of our identity as Americans: there was a group of people who made this difficult journey to freedom. We were more than our suffering, our indignity.”
Mobley collaborated with Joan Southgate, the legendary retired social worker, who, at the age of 73 in 2002, began walking from Ripley, OH to St. Catharines, Ontario, the terminus of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. She completed the 519 miles and walked 250 more back to Cleveland.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about the Bench by the Road until Marilyn brought the idea to me,” Southgate said. “It couldn’t have been more perfect. It’s what my walk was all about.”
Southgate expressed her deep pleasure with the placement of the bench on the lawn of the Cozad-Bates House, 11508 Mayfield Rd. It is the only pre-Civil War building left standing in this Cleveland neighborhood. Southgate is working to see that the structure, owned by University Circle Inc., will eventually reopen as a small abolitionist museum combined with a guesthouse for transplant patients.
“This bench is placed in recognition of the heroic freedom seekers who made the arduous journey to freedom along the Underground Railroad, aided in part by Cleveland’s African-American and White anti-slavery community,” reads the permanent proclamation. “Horatio Cyrus Ford and Samuel Cozad III, successful businessmen and property owners in the area now known as University Circle and African-American businessman and civil rights activist, John Malvin, were exemplars of Cleveland’s participation in the resistance to slavery and in the struggle for social justice. This bench is a memorial to the freedom seekers who passed through Cleveland and to those Cleveland residents who assisted them on their journey.”
The Toni Morrison Society states that “the goal of the Bench by the Road Project is to create an outdoor museum that will mark important locations in African American history both in the United States and abroad.” Its president, Carolyn Denard, flew from Atlanta to Cleveland to see the 19th bench unveiled.
Raymond Bobgan, executive director of Cleveland Public Theatre, said he would not have joined in the bench project without the blessing of Southgate. “We need to continue to acknowledge what we aren’t proud of in our history,” he said. “People sometimes say, ‘My family didn’t own slaves’ but the same people are happy to claim, say, the founding fathers. Well, both are our history, and both have repercussions in our lives.”
The 20th bench will be installed July 26 in Harlem, New York at the Schomburg Library in recognition of the institution’s century-long commitment to preserving, archiving and telling African-Americans stories. Papers from many winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards can be found on its premises, and embedded in the terrazzo tile of the lobby is a design honoring Langston Hughes’ seminal poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
Come learn more about the Cleveland that helped shape Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Harvey Pekar. Teaching Cleveland has teamed up with Literary Cleveland and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards to present “Cleveland in Print: The History and Literature of Northeast Ohio” on Thursday, January 28.
The story of Cleveland in the 20th Century is one of immigrants and migrants, racial tensions, and economic stratification. Join us as we examine three works by these three Northeast Ohio writers and explore the interplay between person, place and perspective; bring a notebook or a laptop and explore your own connections as well.
A light dinner will be served, and participants will receive a book, compliments of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
“Here is a unique opportunity to reflect on transcendent American literature tied to the 216,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the book awards. “I have enormous respect for the work of Greg Deegan and Arin Miller-Tait as innovative educators and founders of Teaching Cleveland, and Lee Chilcote for his initiative in bringing Literary Cleveland onto the scene. This night should be worth everyone’s time.”
At 84, Toni Morrison is full of reflection on her successes and incidents where she might request a do-over.
“It’s not profound regret,” she told NPR’s Terry Gross. “It’s just a wiping up of tiny little messes that you didn’t recognize as mess when they were going on.”
Morrison’s press tour for her eleventh novel, God Help the Child, has been full of little fascinating admissions like this. (My favorite parts of the recent lengthy New York Times profile are the quick revelations that Morrison has never once worn jeans and that she considers sleeping on ironed sheets one of life’s greatest luxuries.)
Her vulnerability is heightened during the NPR interview as she riffs on the pains and shifts that accompany older adulthood. As she has aged, her circle has become smaller; as a result, “there is this boredom or the absence of something to do.”
But the conversations all lead back to her novel, a haunting tale of childhood traumas sans redress. Bride, the main character in God Help the Child, is a dark-skinned cosmetics executive struggling with the weight of rejection that has plagued her entire life. In her review for Newsday, Anisfield-Wolf manager Karen Long calls the novel “hypnotic” and praises Morrison for her vivid language and pacing: “Morrison has a Shakespearean sense of tragedy, and that gift imbues “God Help the Child.”
Poet Rita Dove introduced Toni Morrison—the only living American Nobel recipient in literature—with joy and grace and poetry at the New School in Manhattan, where Morrison received the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof award—its lifetime achievement prize. The NBCC stressed that Morrison the editor, the essayist, the critic, the mentor and professor had made enormous contributions to American letters, in addition to her luminous books. But it was the eloquent Dove, a Pulitzer winner, a former U.S. poet laureate and long-serving juror of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, who made a case for the ages. Dove remembered herself as a searching young woman, the only African American graduate student at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop:
“One day, deep in the bowels of the library, I stopped dead in my tracks. Something had caught my eye; I wasn’t sure what. There, just behind my left shoulder . . . I couldn’t shake the feeling a book was looking for me. Since it was spring, when such things happen, I didn’t question the feeling, I just turned around. And there it was, at eye-level, bound in black linen and peacock-blue lettering: THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison.”
This first novel, which transformed Dove, met a different initial critical reception, one Morrison remembered as “slight, indifferent, even hostile” until the critic John Leonard took up the novel and wrote about it.
Last Thursday night, when a resplendent Morrison, 84, rolled onto the stage in her wheelchair and wearing a gray beret, a standing ovation enveloped her. She looked at Dove, smiled and cracked wise: “Rita, that was beautiful. And true.”
Read the entire Dove introduction, reprinted with permission, here:
Good evening. Thank you, Steven Kellman and the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, for inviting me to introduce Toni Morrison as the recipient of this year’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Although Toni Morrison certainly doesn’t need an introduction per se, there can scarcely be too many celebratory tributes to one of the greatest novelists of our time and the only living American Nobel laureate in literature. I don’t have to rattle off Toni Morrison’s many accomplishments and honors to those present here tonight. As book critics you are, by and large, deeply familiar with her works, and your organization was among the very first to publicly recognize the rising star when, in 1977, she received the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Song of Solomon.”
In our age of factual information cascading from smart phones at the tap of a few buttons, you don’t need me to refresh your memory with all the titles of our honoree’s eleven luminous – and illuminating – novels and her numerous other works – the plays and essays and children’s books. I also assume you wouldn’t want me to whittle away minutes at this podium with a recitation of previous awards… although, I admit, it is tempting to mention at least a few – such as the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved,” the 1996 Jefferson Lecture, the National Humanities Medal in 2000, the honorary doctorate from Oxford and the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Although my personal panoply of greats—that literary Valhalla I call upon for inspiration—is heavily weighted in favor of the craft of poetry, Toni Morrison has always commanded a prime seat front and center, for she is not only a prose virtuoso but also a master of poetic sensibilities and lyrical language: Her influence on discourse, idiom and the vernacular has transformed our perception of the intricate paths to the interior consciousness – be it the thoughts of an illiterate slave or the harrowing logic fabricated by a father guilty of incest; of children whose souls have been damaged beyond the reach of pity and women ravaged by a longing so desperate that nothing short of annihilation will satisfy; of a ghost starved for love, of a town bent on its own brand of self-preservation. With an extraordinary poet’s economy of idiom and her signature elliptical elegance, Toni Morrison has probed the crannies and tunnels of mental illness and the torment of war veterans shattered by the myriad possibilities for sabotage in the world; she has recreated the improvisational call-and-response of jazz, the see-saw proclivities of obsessive attraction and violence freighted with fear. And while birthing upon the literary stage a host of characters we, the readers, recognize as familiar and accept in the way of Family, from the praiseworthy to the quirky to the closeted, she has also been – subtly, cannily – at work on fashioning a new graph of American history whose many intersecting trajectories take us from the Anglo-Dutch slave trade through the ante-bellum insanities of Southern racial terror, from the Great Migration and 1920’s Harlem to the labor pains of the Automobile Age whose factories disgorged a glittering stream of chrome-trimmed fantasies from what are now the rust belt cities of the Midwest; from the L.A. cosmetics industry to a trailer parked outside of Whiskey, California.
A few days after I received Steven Kellman’s call asking me if I’d like to pay homage to Toni Morrison tonight – an undertaking somewhat tantamount to introducing Athena, while she looks on with her gray eyes – my husband and I went to a dance – a milonga – at our local Argentine tango club. In an attempt to boost everyone’s mood in the middle of a drear, chilly winter and as a nod to the Carneval season, everyone was asked to come masked. But when we arrived with our Venetian facial wear and harlequin confections, we quickly discovered that the masks got in the way of dancing – ribbons tangled, feathers snagged on gold braid trim, and with obstructed peripheral vision, balance was impaired so we teetered and wobbled. After a quick confab with the young man who had asked me for the second set of tangos – a newcomer to our town – we decided to ditch the masks; and as the bandoneon throbbed to Carlos Gardel singing about the kind of woman who can ignite an “instant violent love”, my dance partner remarked, out of the blue: “Now that’s some Toni Morrison love.” I was struck with speechless. But by the next day my curiosity had overwhelmed my hesitancy, so I asked this young man, via a Facebook message, what his first encounter with the books of Toni Morrison had been. His response was effusive and – there’s no other way to describe it – grateful. He wrote:
I think I was 22 or 23—after college but before grad school. I went into a bookstore and had a sort of literary crisis. I felt that so many of the authors on the shelves were creating entire worlds and entire castes of characters that merely served as backdrops for the breakdown of yet another petty “I.” Like all those books could be retitled “The Day *I* Was Sad.” Then I picked up “Beloved.” Faith in literature restored. What a genius Morrison is! I think so many novelists are like peacocks with their language, flourishing feathers and letting the reader know how smart and lyrical they are. But I think Morrison is able to do extreme lyric and yet be conversational at the same time. I wish I had found her work earlier. I want to know why she isn’t required reading in school. Morrison has wisdom in abundance, along with lyrical and storytelling brilliance. I wonder how she does it.
And my tango-dancing friend ended with a postscriptum prompted by his wife of just a few months:
Now my wife wants to tell you about how she battled the Dominican obsession with Aryan features as a teenager but then encountered “The Bluest Eye” in high school. She says Morrison gave voice to all of her dissent and made her comfortable with it.
Four decades earlier I had fought a similar battle with myself and the strange environment I had chosen to immerse myself in when I attended the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop as its only African-American graduate student. As a young poet still trying to locate myself in the thicket of literary traditions, I often wandered the stacks, willing myself into unknown territory. I had yet to find myself, or at least an image I could identify with, in the pages of European and American literature; while most of the books concerned with Black America took place, by and large, either in the Deep South or in urban ghettos. What about the experiences and dreams of a black girl growing up middle class in middle America? I wondered. Was there no room, no mirror, for me? Then one day, deep in the bowels of the library, I stopped dead in my tracks. Something had caught my eye; I wasn’t sure what. There, just behind my left shoulder . . . I couldn’t shake the feeling that a book was looking for me. Since it was spring, when such things happen, I didn’t question the feeling; I simply turned around. And there it was, at eye-level, bound in black linen with peacock-blue lettering: THE BLUEST EYE, by Toni Morrison.
The library had removed all book jackets, so there was no biographical note, no blurb to give me a hint of the contents. The title intrigued me; I didn’t know the author, but as soon as I opened the book and began to read, I was convinced that Toni Morrison, whoever she was, knew me, my people and where I came from – Akron, Ohio, one of the industrial towns sprinkled along the smudged neckline of the Great Lakes. By the time I finished the opening section – those three amazing paragraphs mimicking the eerie deadpan of primary school primers, variations on an American Dream gone horribly wrong – I was certain that this writer had also experienced, as I had, the “double-consciousness” which W.E.B. Du Bois defines as that “peculiar sensation … of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” When I reached the sentence, “Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year,” a wild hope began to stir that maybe, just maybe, she was from the Midwest. Fifteen pages later came the confirmation I craved: “There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio.” I began to shiver. My gut response had been right: Toni Morrison was a home girl.
No words can fully express what Toni Morrison has meant to me ever since – as a writer, a woman, a black woman, and, yes, a fellow Ohioan. She gave me literary shelter and pointed me toward the poetry in my geographical space. She taught me to pay attention to everything without prejudice, for beauty can be found in the “ginger sugar” smell rising from a polluted lake, and the fate of an empire can rest on the curve of an eyebrow. Her work has accompanied me through my years of honing myself as a writer and a woman. How desolate that journey would have been without Milkman and First Corinthians, or Flores or the intrepid Sula; without Toni’s wry humor and chastening gaze, her laughter that seems to come straight up from the middle of the earth!
Over the years Toni and I have met a number of times – official events as well as more private gatherings; even once by chance, late one evening in a hotel lobby in Cleveland where we convinced the bartender to serve one more round of drinks before closing shop. But two scenes with Toni stand out vividly – a 1994 tribute in her honor at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and a gala seven years later at the New York Public Library in celebration of her 70th birthday. In both places Toni was surrounded by orchids. Orchids – those gorgeous, engorged blooms that come in every color you can think up (and beyond), their petals veined like human hands held to the light, with a smell as intimate and ravishing as an indelicate thought crossing your mind in the middle of the 23rd psalm. As symbols of love and desire (both the light and the dark sides), they can make young girls blush and coax a Mona Lisa smile from a grown woman; these curiously mammalian creatures that seem to live on nothing but mist and air, yet can inspire in their breeders a devotion teetering on madness. Orchids are the queen bees of the flower world, and you better not mess with them.
Like the orchids surrounding her then, Toni Morrison has always seemed both rooted in the earth and poised for flight, resplendent and serene. Most importantly, she has woven tales that beguile, even as they lead us deeper into the carefully shielded psyche of homo sapiens than we knew to go. She has given us stories where survival may not mean victory and cruelty may reveal itself as the ultimate tenderness; stories where home is not a country, especially when the country has never learned to be at home with its past – and from the midst of those magnificent specimens of art, Toni Morrison – woman, mother, editor, writer, critic, Nobel laureate, professor, mentor, friend – shines all the more fiercely. I thank you, Toni, for your life’s work past, present and future, and for your resplendent example. May you keep on shining.
Anisfield-Wolf winner Toni Morrisonfound herself on stage at the Hay Festival in Wales May 28, the same day her friend Maya Angelou died in North Carolina at the age of 86. The obvious question—”Do you have any words to say about her life and legacy?”—was coming.
“She launched African-American women writing in the United States,” Morrison said, choosing her words carefully. “She was generous to a fault. She had 19 talents…used 10. She was a real original. There’s no duplicate.”
The friendship between Morrison and Angelou spanned more than 40 years. In 1973, Angelou wrote to Morrison after she finished reading Sula, telling her, “This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.” Their friendship deepened as they continued to cross paths and support one another’s work over the decades. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, Angelou threw a party at her Winston-Salem home.
In 2012, Angelou traveled to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to toast Morrison’s contributions to literature. Poet Nikki Giovanni organized “Sheer Good Fortune,” a two-day celebration on the Blacksburg campus where she has taught since 1987. The guest list was historic, with Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis in attendance.
The writers assembled at Giovanni’s request, as a show of solidarity after the quick death of Morrison’s son Slade from pancreatic cancer in 2010. The gathering took its name from the dedication for Morrison’s 1973 novel, Sula :“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”
On stage, Maya Angelou smiled at the crowd and praised her friend for liberating her as a younger woman. “That is what this woman has done through 10 books: loving, respecting, and appreciating the African-American woman and all the things she goes through.”
Later, Morrison said, “This is as good as it gets.”
She gave credit to Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings for helping her discover the meaning in her work. “I had not seen that kind of contemporary clarity, honesty…sentences that were more than what happened, but how….I took sustenance from that. The door was open, so black women writers stepped through.”
Of course, it is strange to see “Kitchen Confidential” make the cut, and the bizarre assertion that “Portnoy’s Complaint” is Philip “Roth at his finest.” The Amazon list tilts toward best-sellers, rather than an author’s best work.
Working another vein is the redouble Cosmopolitan Magazine, which has offered its list of the 10 best books to read after a breakup. Junot Diaz makes this list, too, this time for “This is How You Lose Her,” his sexy, harrowing short story collection. Surprisingly, he is joined by Adrian Nicole LeBlancfor her gold-standard of domestic reporting, “Random Family.” Cosmo editors give the somewhat spurious reason that the book is an absorbing distraction. May we add: and much more.
Toni Morrison doesn’t hold her tongue on anything she deems important for the masses to know. At 82, she has earned that right.
In speaking with freshman cadets at the United States Military Academy, Morrison expressed her views on the war in Iraq and shared her inspiration for her latest book, “Home.” The novel, about a Korean war veteran named Frank Money, who is struggling with PTSD and the segregated south, is part of the English curriculum at West Point. Lt. Col. Scott Chancellor, director of the freshman English program, selected the book for their classes thanks to its relevant messages to troops today, particularly as it touched on race and trauma.
Col. Scott Krawczyk, the head of the academy’s English and philosophy programs, tied the book’s themes into the larger picture of the academy’s training:
“At West Point we ensure that cadets are made to struggle with moral ambiguity, so that when they confront tangled scenarios, they will be able to do that well. Morrison gives us just enough psychological complication of Frank Money to open up an understanding of how desperately malignant the realm of war can be.”
During the conversation, Morrison was vocal about her disdain for the war in Iraq (“I dare you to tell me a sane reason we went to Iraq”) and expressed concern about the number of veteran suicides (a recent report shows the suicide rate for veterans has risen 22% in the past 14 years).
Watch below as Morrison talks about “Home” and her intention to explore the themes of masculinity, war, and race.
We were thrilled to receive an invitation to participate in Toni Morrison’s first live digital book signing, courtesy of Google Play. We weren’t sure what to expect from the format—how would the digital signing of books work? How long would she speak? Would technical difficulties get in the way?
We were pleasantly surprised at how well the event went. Toni Morrison broadcast live from Google’s New York offices and the event was streamed live over several websites. Readers were encouraged to submit questions beforehand and a lucky few were selected to speak with Ms. Morrison herself. After the event, readers would be able to download signed digital copies from the Google Play store.
Casual, comfortable and inviting, the digital book signing was billed as a first-of-its-kind event, one we hope more authors consider when trying to determine how to best connect with readers. Ms. Morrison answered questions about the best advice she’s ever received, what advice she’d give to struggling writers, and what books, if given the chance, she might want to go back and change.
Editor Kelsey McKinney summed it up best in her review of the event (she was one of the lucky ones chosen to ask a question):
…it brought something to the reading community that has been missing: live interviews with the best minds of our time that anyone can watch…A big thank you to Google Play, and Toni Morrison for transforming a normal Wednesday afternoon into something I won’t forget.
We agree wholeheartedly.
Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Beloved, took home the Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction in 1988. In it, a slave, unwilling to see her children grow up and live the same fate as their mother, killed one of her children rather than see them in bondage. Eighteen years later, the mother is visited by a young woman who she believes is the slain infant, returned.
However lauded the work may be, not everyone is a fan. Most recently, a Fairfax County parent has petitioned to ban the book based on the book’s content, which she says gave her son nightmares after he read it for his senior-level English class. “I’m not some crazy book burner,” Laura Murphy said. “I have great respect and admiration for our Fairfax County educators. The school system is second to none. But I disagree with the administration at a policy level.”
Of course, Ms. Murphy’s request is nothing new for the novel. According to the American Library Association, Beloved ranks 26th out of the most frequently banned books of the past 10 years. Its content (particularly the infanticide) has certainly disturbed many readers, but it is still lauded for its examination of the African American experience throughout the course of history—both good and bad.
”I was amazed by this story I came across about a woman called Margaret Garner who had escaped from Kentucky, I think, into Cincinnati with four children. And she was a kind of cause celebre among abolitionists in 1855 or ’56 because she tried to kill the children when she was caught. She killed one of them, just as in the novel. I found an article in a magazine of the period, and there was this young woman in her 20’s, being interviewed – oh, a lot of people interviewed her, mostly preachers and journalists, and she was very calm, she was very serene. They kept remarking on the fact that she was not frothing at the mouth, she was not a madwoman, and she kept saying, ‘No, they’re not going to live like that. They will not live the way I have lived.'”
Morrison argued that her novel was not about slavery but a broader look at passion, self-sabotage, and the will of a people told they are less than human.
While Ms. Murphy may not succeed, her concerns about what is appropriate for children and young adults are very valid. Have you ever read a book you felt you were too young for, or have your children come home with a book you felt was above their maturity level?
In honor of Ms. Morrison’s 82nd birthday, we’re looking back at our archives for some of our favorite moments from the esteemed author over the past few years. Take a walk down memory lane with us:
“Beloved” is named one of the “88 Books That Shaped America” by the Library of Congress:
Toni Morrison won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her post-Civil War novel based on the true story of an escaped slave and the tragic consequences when a posse comes to reclaim her. The author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, and in 2006 The New York Times named “Beloved” “the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years.”
She wins the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom:
In his personal remarks during the ceremony, President Obama said of Morrison’s work, “I remember reading Song of Solomon when I was a kid. Not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be. And how to think.”
“Home,” her 10th novel, hits newsstands in 2012:
The Washington Post wrote that in her latest novel, Morrison “has never been more concise, and that restraint demonstrates the full use of her power.” Read more reviews here.
Her legacy moves closer to home
Last year, the Toni Morrison Society, a group of scholars, moved its headquarters from Atlanta to Oberlin, Ohio. Morrison grew up in nearby Lorain, where she still has family. Founded in 1993, the society supports the teaching, reading, and critical examination of Toni Morrison’s works.
If you haven’t read it already, Junot Diaz’ This is How You Lose Her is a terrific collection of short stories that reaffirmed NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani belief that Diaz has “one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction.”
Multiple book critics have deemed Louise Erdrich’s new novel the best she’s written and that’s saying a lot as her other 13 novels have been widely praised for her extraordinary storytelling skills. Watch a quick video of Erdrich discussing her latest.
Do we need to say more about Toni Morrison? We don’t think so. We’ve enjoyed her many interviews this year while on the promotion trail for her latest book, Home, and she was candid in her views on racism, her legacy, and President Obama. Home shines a harsh light on an era we tend to idealize and Ms. Morrison would have it no other way.
Several Nobel laureates, Libraries Without Borders and dozens of authors believe so. They are petitioning for books to be considered crucial in disaster relief. Among those who have signed the petition are Anisfield-Wolf winners Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Joyce Carol Oates and Edwidge Danticat.
Patrick Weil, chairman of Libraries Without Borders, says they are urging the UN to consider “nourishment of the mind” a fundamental resource in disaster relief. This first came about after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, when the organization was contacted about rebuilding a destroyed library.
“The first priority is life, but when life is secure, what can people do if they are staying in a camp? They cannot do anything, and they can become depressed. Once life is secured, books are essential. They’re not the first priority, but the second…They are so important. They’re the beginning of recovery, in terms of reconnecting with the rest of the world, and feeling like a human being again.”
In the video above, get an overview of Libraries Without Borders and UNICEF’s efforts to bring literature to distressed areas of Haiti. For more information, visit urgencyofreading.org.
On December 6, Toni Morrison will deliver the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality at 5 pm in Sanders Theatre on the Harvard campus. Throughout the fall semester, Harvard Divinity School has hosted a working group on the religious dimensions of Morrison’s writings. Watch the video here.
If you’re interested in attending, tickets may be requested from the Harvard Box Office. Limit of 2 tickets per person. Tickets are available by phone and internet for a fee, or in person at the Holyoke Center Box Office. Call 617.496.2222 or reserve online at www.boxoffice.harvard.edu. Limited availability. Tickets are valid until 5:00 pm on the day of the event.
School board member April Miller would not vote to make “Song of Solomon” available in Frederick County high schools.
The novel by Toni Morrison, which details the life of an African-American male living in Michigan from the 1930s through 1960s, includes graphic sexual and violent content.
“It’s definitely not something I want my 14-year-old reading,” she said Thursday in a phone interview.
Miller’s daughter will be a high school freshman next year.
“Song of Solomon” was set to be approved Wednesday in the Frederick County Board of Education’s consent agenda, which requires only a yes or no vote with no discussion, before Miller asked that the item be pulled for discussion.
Miller is asking that the lists of books to be approved be given to board members in advance so they have time to read the books and make a more informed decision about which books should be available in the curriculum. Other board members disagree, saying they are not curriculum experts and should trust the school’s discretion.
Sound off in the comments—where do you stand?
We found this piece of art by local artist John Sokol fascinating. In it, he uses words to fill in the visage of Ms. Toni Morrison (perhaps words from her own works?).
Visit the link to see more of his “word portraits,” including those of James Joyce, Dante, and more.