By Laura Donnelly-Smith
Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison spoke Wednesday night about race, American history and how free food helped spur her to begin working on The Bluest Eye, her widely read 1970 novel. She also read from her latest novel, A Mercy, as well as from a newly finished but still unpublished work.
Seated on a comfortable chair in front of a packed Lisner Auditorium audience, Ms. Morrison spoke to the crowd as if she were addressing a good friend.
“I have some rather special feelings about this town,” she said, explaining how she came to Washington, D.C. in 1949 to attend Howard University, despite the protestations of family members who wanted her to attend Ohio State University, close to her hometown of Lorain. “I wanted to be in the company of black intellectuals.”
Ms. Morrison also described how, as a Howard faculty member, she began attending an informal writing circle, bringing in short stories she had completed many years before. Eventually, though, she knew she needed to produce new work. “They wouldn’t let you keep coming unless you had something new,” Ms. Morrison said. “And I was eager to go because they had such good food!” So she wrote a short story about a black girl who prayed to have blue eyes. Eventually, she expanded the story into her novel The Bluest Eye.
Ms. Morrison read aloud a chapter from A Mercy, a 2008 novel set in 1690 colonial America—a time when slavery was not tied to race. There have been slaves everywhere in the world, in all sorts of civilizations, she said. With A Mercy, she wanted to ask the question, What was it like before race became synonymous with slavery in this country? She also read several pages from Home, a recently finished novel that has not yet been published. Unlike many of Ms. Morrison’s works, which are told from a female perspective, Home features the voice of a young man.
On Wednesday afternoon, George Washington President Steven Knapp, faculty members, students and local government officials gathered in Lisner to dedicate a new bench in Ms. Morrison’s honor commemorating the auditorium’s integration in 1947.
“It really is a special pleasure as well as a deep honor to welcome Toni Morrison to campus,” Dr. Knapp said. “She is an American literary and cultural icon.”
The bench placement and dedication was part of the “Bench by the Road” project, an initiative of the Toni Morrison Society. GW Associate Professor of English Evelyn Schreiber, a scholar of Ms. Morrison’s work, and her husband, Scott, donated the bench. The phrase “a bench by the road” comes from a 1989 interview in which Ms. Morrison remarked that there existed no monuments or memorials commemorating slaves, their ancestors and their experiences—“there’s no 300-foot tower, there's no small bench by the road.”
GW’s bench is the sixth placed by the Toni Morrison Society. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown attended the bench dedication and declared Sept. 21, 2011, as “Toni Morrison Day” in the District of Columbia. GW senior and history major Juliana Nganele spoke at the ceremony about her experiences growing up biracial and the strength she found in exploring her identity though Ms. Morrison’s writing.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Morrison said she liked the idea of benches as memorials to black people’s experience in America.
“A bench is such an un-decorative, easy-access place. You don’t pray there. You don’t stand there and look. It’s not awe. It’s just a place to sit down….That’s the aspect I really like. It’s the accessibility, without the theater of being a monument.”
Terri Harris Reed, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, told the Lisner audience Wednesday night that having Ms. Morrison on campus provided a unique learning opportunity for the GW community.
“We are her students, and not just an audience. I say this because, to me, Professor Morrison is first and foremost a teacher—a master teacher, in fact,” she said.
After reading her work, Ms. Morrison answered questions from audience members, touching on racism, her writing process and whether young people should read her difficult, sometimes disturbing books.
“Racism is ‘useful,’ it ‘works,’” she said. “You don’t have to talk about class, you only talk about race in this country…. It never occurred to me that racism disappeared just because we elected Barack Obama,” she said. And though her books can be difficult to read and a challenge for young people to understand, she does not believe in banning books. “You can’t be frightened of dirty words…. I don’t think you should curtail the inquisitive mind of a child,” she said.
Her writing process has changed as she’s gotten older and become a more skilled writer, Ms. Morrison said. “Writing pulls me together intellectually… I don’t write unless it’s ‘there,’” she said. “The more I write, the more economical I am.”
And which of her novels was her favorite to write?, a student asked.
“I always enjoy the novel I’m doing now best,” she said, smiling. “This one I just read from—perfection.”