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Visionary Voice

The University celebrates one of its most remarkable alumni: literary legend Toni Morrison

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When Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, MA ’55, returned to the Hill in 2013 for a conversation about literature, she told an attentive audience in Alice Statler Auditorium about how she had refused to change her novels to make them more accessible to white readers—something most Black writers did at the time she began to pen her own stories. It was a topic she spoke about often, including in the 2019 documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, released two months before her death at age eighty-eight. As she states in the film, in the sonorous voice familiar to fans worldwide: “I spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”

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Morrison (center) participating in a literary conversation on campus in 2009 with English professors Kenneth McClane ’73, MA ’74, MFA ’76 (left), and Margo Crawford.Jason Koski/UREL

Indeed, Morrison captured the complexity and reality of Black American life—in particular, of African American women—in a way that no writer had ever done before. Over five decades, she penned eleven lyrical and genre-bending novels that include Beloved, a tale narrated by an escaped slave that won the Pulitzer Prize, and Song of Solomon, a story about four generations of a Black Midwestern family that received a National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as children’s books, plays, an opera, and essay collections. Yet Morrison’s remarkable career got off to a relatively late start: her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was released in 1970, when she was almost forty. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of that publication, Cornell is hosting a series of events during the 2020–21 academic year that commemorate her status as a literary icon and one of the University’s most accomplished alumni. “Cornell has a very rich history of great writers who have been faculty or students—Nabokov, Pearl Buck, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and so on—but I think Toni Morrison is the biggest star of them all,” says Roger Gilbert, professor of English and co-organizer of the series. “She will remain an esteemed part of the Cornell legacy for as long as Cornell exists.”

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A screenshot from an online reading of Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, that Cornell hosted last fall.Provided

Events held in fall 2020 in Morrison’s honor included a seven-hour “virtual reading” of The Bluest Eye that involved renowned participants like U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, activist Angela Davis, and authors Tayari Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Edwidge Danticat, along with an online teach-in by Cornell faculty on the impact of Morrison’s work. A one-credit course was offered in the fall on The Bluest Eye, which gave students the opportunity to closely examine Morrison’s harrowing debut novel, about a dark-skinned girl growing up in the post-Depression era who equates beauty with whiteness. The University also announced that it will name one of the new residence halls on North Campus after Morrison (as well as one after late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54). And in December, Morrison was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame—making her the ninth Cornellian to be so recognized.

The celebration continues on February 18—what would have been Morrison’s ninetieth birthday—with an online roundtable discussion about her literary influence. Also in the works for this spring is a reading of Lydia Diamond’s play based on The Bluest Eye, an exhibit of international editions of that novel at Olin Library, and a project that asks members of the Cornell and Ithaca communities to create quilts in the author’s memory. Riché Richardson, associate professor of African American literature and a series co-organizer, notes that it’s a particularly resonant time to concentrate on Morrison’s work, given the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a renewed national push for racial justice. “Her writing leads us to think about the very definition of what it means to be an American, and the long history related to the origins of this nation that involves slavery and issues of freedom and democracy,” says Richardson. “Her work is a valuable and indispensable toolbox that raises questions that could help heal and advance our culture and truly move us forward.”

Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, a working-class, industrial town on Lake Erie. She changed her middle name to Anthony (in honor of the saint) when she converted to Catholicism at age twelve and started using Toni as her first name while an undergrad at Howard University. (Morrison was the surname of her ex-husband, a Jamaican-born architect with whom she had two sons; they divorced in 1964.) On the Hill she earned a master’s in American literature, writing her thesis—a copy of which can be checked out of Uris Library—on how William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf addressed the theme of alienation; two years later she returned for some summer courses, including one in creative writing. For Gilbert’s lecture at the fall teach-in, he researched Morrison’s time as a student at the University and found she had two main reasons for attending: she was attracted to Cornell as a place of unapologetically liberal and progressive thought during the troubling McCarthy era, and was drawn by the beauty of the campus.

Gilbert’s most surprising discovery was a letter that Morrison sent to her adviser, English professor Robert Elias, in 1966—years after receiving her degree. (As Gilbert prefaced to the audience during his lecture, in the letter Morrison “makes satirical reference to a couple of demeaning racial tropes and uses a now-obsolete racial term.”) “I am going to take another liberty and tell you now what I would never have dared to say, or even dared to know, when I was in Ithaca,” she wrote. “Cornell was the first place in my life where I was treated as a human being. That is, nobody patted me on my wooly pate and shoved a watermelon in my hand; nobody went into fits of glee when I strung a simple sentence together; nobody (and this was the important thing) nobody considered my stupidities negro stupidities—and the penalties for slovenliness and ignorance were neither lessened nor exaggerated. I was welcomed there into the human race and, good or ill, I have been there ever since. Now, that, I think, was progress.”

While Gilbert observes that Morrison may have been exaggerating somewhat, what comes across is that the author had a strong sense of belonging on the Hill, even though Cornell’s student body was overwhelmingly white at the time she attended. “That letter really knocked my socks off,” says Gilbert. “She was very aware that nobody was treating her differently, and that the exact same things were expected of her as of the other students. Standards weren’t lowered for her, and no one was surprised when she did well. That seems to have been important to her.”

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The author speaking about Beloved on the Hill in 1988Cornell Rare and Manuscript Collections

After earning her master’s degree at Cornell, Morrison helped foster a cadre of talented Black writers for nearly two decades as a senior editor at Random House—where she was its first female African American editor—publishing works by Toni Cade Bambara, Muhammad Ali, and Angela Davis, among others. She maintained a robust teaching career, most notably at Princeton, while achieving critical and commercial success with her own writing. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, with the Swedish Academy honoring her as an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” In 1996 she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and in 2012 Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In addition to her many literary prizes, Morrison topped bestseller lists and became a household name—thanks in large part to Oprah Winfrey, who featured Morrison’s novels in her TV book club and co-produced and starred in a 1998 film adaptation of Beloved. Despite her increased prominence and a busy schedule, Morrison returned to Cornell often over the years, including as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large from 1997 to 2003. Anne Adams, a professor emerita in Africana studies who led the effort to add Morrison to that distinguished roster of visiting educators, says the author was in her element when on campus and engaged in highly intellectual discussions—recalling that she “charmed students and faculty alike.”

Adams points out that while Morrison’s novels were groundbreaking because they centered on previously unheard Black perspectives and stories, they are ultimately about the human experience. That universality, she says, is underscored by the fact that Morrison’s books are wildly popular overseas; the global power of her work was highlighted during October’s marathon recitation of The Bluest Eye, when readers delivered passages in Portuguese, Spanish, French, and German. “Morrison was very deliberate in how she told that story from the perspective of a Black girl as opposed to the usual white masculine perspective that has dominated the American literary canon,” says Richardson. “She always affirmed the value of looking through a different lens to get at larger questions.”

Richardson and her colleagues hope the yearlong series will attract a new generation of readers to Morrison’s work and heighten her recognition as one of America’s greatest authors. As Gilbert observes, her writing is so imaginative and insightful, he believes it will be taught across disciplines—not just in literature classes—for years to come. “Whatever course you’re teaching,” he says, “you could probably figure out a way to include something by Toni Morrison.”


Morrison 101

Riché Richardson, associate professor of African American literature in the Africana Studies and Research Center, has taught a course on Toni Morrison’s novels since 2005. Here, she offers insights on five of the author’s most influential works.

""The Bluest Eye (1970)

Morrison’s debut novel tells the tale of a young Black girl—considered ugly because of her dark skin—who wishes she met the standards of American beauty: blue eyes, blonde hair, and fair skin. The book contains explicit scenes of incest and rape, which have prompted numerous attempts over the years to ban it from schools and libraries. “Not only is the story told from the perspective of a little Black girl, it confronted issues of abuse that had typically not been directly addressed [in fiction] before,” says Richardson. “That made it a very different work introduced into the American literary canon.”


""Song of Solomon (1977)

Morrison’s third novel—which Richardson calls “an epic quest for African American self-discovery,” draws on the Bible, Greek mythology, and African folklore for this coming-of-age story of a Black man who pieces together his family history in a search for his own identity. “It’s significant for dealing with the issue of what it truly means to discover and know one’s ancestry,” she says, noting that Morrison’s book was published the same year that millions of households tuned in to watch the TV miniseries “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s 1976 historical novel about a slave and seven generations of his descendants. (1977)


""Beloved (1987)

Inspired by the true story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, this Pulitzer Prize-winning work is about a woman who murders her infant daughter rather than see the child be recaptured—and is later haunted by her ghost. Morrison wrote it as a tribute to the millions of lives lost in the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade. “There had been works that dealt with slavery before, of course,” says Richardson, “but Beloved was a groundbreaking neo-slave narrative that focused on the continuing impact of the trauma of slavery.”


""A Mercy (2009)

Set in late seventeenth-century colonial America, Morrison’s ninth novel centers around a young Black girl who is given to an Anglo-Dutch trader as payment for a debt from a plantation owner. This book returns to the theme of the long-lasting damage inflicted by the institution of slavery, exploring its origins during this country’s infancy. Says Richardson: “It helps us to understand what may have been possible had America become more of an interracial democracy than a slave society.”


""God Help the Child (2015)

Morrison again uses elements of magical realism in this novel about a beautiful young woman named Bride who has dark skin and a successful career in the cosmetics industry. Because of her skin color, Bride was rejected as a child by her light-skinned mother, leaving her emotionally scarred. “In certain ways,” Richardson observes, “it circles back to grapple more with themes related to the negation of Black beauty and issues of self-love that came up in The Bluest Eye.”

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