Students attend a reading by the author Toni Morrison in 2013.

Kirsten Luce / The New York Times

Students attend a reading by the author Toni Morrison in 2013.

August 6, 2019

America Reacts to Toni Morrison’s M.A. ’55 Death: Throughout Her Life, Morrison’s Work Moved Cornellians and The Nation

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After the announcement of Toni Morrison’s death, people across the country and at Cornell reflected on what the trailblazing author, who collected top accolades from across the literary world, embodied in her 88 years.

Here, The Sun collected responses to Morrison’s influence, including a statement by former President Barack Obama, memories from professors who worked with her and thoughts of current students who studied Morrison’s work in Goldwin Smith Hall — where she, too, studied over sixty years ago.

Morrison’s Travels to Ithaca

The Cornell Daily Sun on November 3, 1978: Morrison said her own writing “must have some contact with the axis on which my life turns.” She continued: “The axis on which any oppression turns has always been a moral axis.”

The Sun on November 3, 1978: Morrison said her own writing “must have some contact with the axis on which my life turns … the axis on which any oppression turns has always been a moral axis.”

Morrison would return to the hill to discuss the changing world and its impact on literature, stating during a lecture in Kennedy Hall in 2000 that “in this new, almost completely, digitalized and globalized world … where language is becoming increasingly bankrupt in the rush to one-size-fits-all, literature it seems to me is needed now more than it has ever been.”

Sitting in Statler Auditorium in 2013, Morrison, who joined Princeton University’s faculty in 1989, answered audience questions alongside fellow Princeton Prof. Claudia Brodsky, who told The Sun that the two had become close friends and “each other’s favorite analytical interlocutors instantly and permanently upon meeting.”

Morrison, right, and Brodsky engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue and answered questions from the audience in Statler Auditorium in March 2013.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Morrison and Brodsky engaged answered questions from the audience in Statler Auditorium in March 2013.

Morrison then shared why she chose Cornell to pursue her master’s degree in American literature. The Sun then reported, “… she stated that there were three main reasons: the faculty — she ‘remember[s] at least three of them’ — the beauty of the seasons in Ithaca and Cornell’s ‘pink’ and ‘liberal’ reputation, largely spurred by its notoriously non-denominational Sage Chapel. She reflected fondly, paused for a moment and then asked, ‘The agricultural school … is that still here?’”

Brodsky, who said she was still processing the news of Morrison’s passing, said the two understood each other in a “lucid” way, “because for us the same things mattered — the power of language and everyday human goodness above all.”

Pulitzer Prize nominee and feminist author Sandra Gilbert ’57 said she was “so sad” about the literary giant’s death, whom she called a “treasured colleague” during their shared time at Princeton.

After Gilbert’s husband died from a medical accident, Morrison called her from New Jersey.

“I think I must have said something like ‘Oh what shall I do,’ because she replied, gravely, ‘He’ll tell you, Sandra,’” Gilbert wrote in an email to The Sun.

“And I believed he did: he told me to write a book, which I began with Toni’s words,” Gilbert continued, who recalled that conversation in the preface of her book “Wrongful Death.”

Cornellians Remember Her Impact

“We’ve lost perhaps the greatest writer,” Prof. Nafissa Danielle Thompson-Spires, English, wrote to The Sun.

Thompson-Spires urged readers to examine “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination,” which she called a “masterful critical work,” and praised Morrison’s ability to teach readers about “the power of words to incite meaningful change instead of hateful rhetoric.”

Students and community members discuss Morrison's "The Origin of Others" at a read-in at Keeton House.

Sun Staff Photographer

Students and community members discuss Morrison’s “The Origin of Others” at a read-in at Keeton House in February 2018.

Morrison’s work spoke to many on campus through events and courses at Cornell. Keeton House hosted a dialogue in February 2018, where students discussed Morrison’s “The Origin of Others,” and interrogated the idea of the “other” in modern society.

Upon hearing the news of Morrison’s death, “[I] felt like, sucker punched in the gut,” said Ruchi Chitgopekar ’21, who was enrolled in a first-year writing seminar examining Morrison’s work, ENGL 1158: American Voices: Writing, Memory, and Survival in the Novels of Toni Morrison.

While minority writers are often labeled by their identity, “Toni Morrison surpassed all that,” Chitgopekar said. “Yes, she wrote a black novel. And it was also the Great American Novel of our time. She saw the value, and she made sure everyone else saw it too.”

Colin DeMeritt ’19 recalled his time as a student in the same class, calling it “by far one of the most memorable courses” he took at Cornell. This fall, ENGL 4509: Toni Morrison’s Novels will continue to teach Morrison’s legacy.

Other professors lauded her works’ mastery, but also noted Morrison’s warm persona.

“She was also kind,” Prof. Noliwe Rooks, director of American Studies, noted in a media statement shared by the University, in which Rooks recalled meeting Morrison at Princeton around 20 years ago. “Her office was a few doors down from mine.”

“My husband, Bill, and 6-year-old son, Jelani, both came to hear her closing remarks. Jelani had a question about something she said and afterward my husband told him he should ask Prof. Morrison what she meant,” Rooks recalled.

“What I remember is that she took the time and care to answer him and explain. That is what he remembers as well. Toni Morrison looked him in the eye and explained,” Rooks continued. “That is the feeling I have had over the decades when reading her works. I felt that she looked us all in the heart and explained it all.”

Public Figures Honor Her Legacy

Many politicians and public figures took to social media to honor the deceased author. The Cornell alumna was a “national treasure,” Former President Barack Obama said.

Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris commented on the Nobel Prize winning author’s passing, quoting Morrison’s work.

Political standout Stacey Abrams recalled the “towering intellect” of the famed American novelist.

Amina Kilpatrick ’21 contributed reporting to this article.