Courtesy of Prof. Riché Richardson

August 27, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Teaching Toni Morrison

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Toni Morrison was truly a genius. Her sudden passing on Aug. 5, 2019 is so heartbreaking. The Nobel Laureate will go down in history as one of the world’s greatest writers who helped globalize the novel as a genre. She made a profound, critical impact on areas such as African American literature, American literature, black women’s literature and world literature, among others. Her career launched in 1970 with the publication of her first novel The Bluest Eye while she was still an editor at Random House. She also contributed to a range of other literary genres, including the short story. She was a consummate essayist whose writings made critical interventions into public dialogues on issues from the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings to the O.J. Simpson case. Her fiction is inherently philosophical and linked to history. I have learned so much from it, like many on this campus and in the larger community who teach and treasure it. In 1955 Morrison graduated from Cornell with a Master of Arts in English, linking her literary legacy inextricably to this institution and challenging us to be good and bold stewards of it. 

I have literally grown up as a student, teacher and scholar engaging in consistent reflection on her work. I first read her writing during the summer weeks before I began classes at Spelman College, a historically black and women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia, as a student in 1989 because her novel Sula was one of the selections on our freshman reading list. I encountered her work again in my freshman composition courses and several other courses and analyzed Morrison’s writing in several papers. I wrote my paper on her first five novels in Dr. Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper’s African American literature course at Spelman, and included it as my writing sample with my applications to graduate school. 

I first met Toni Morrison in person as a junior in 1991 after her public reading of what became her novel Jazz, where she signed my copy of The Bluest Eye. I didn’t see her again for many years, until I was an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, where my former colleague, the writer Pam Houston, brought her to the campus in the fall of 2004 after interviewing her for Oprah’s O magazine. I was invited to be a part of a panel with Professor Morrison and several students, and we each asked her a question about her latest novel, Love. Later that night during her public reading, my perspective out in the vast audience crowding the Mondavi Center — one filled with people who traveled from all over Northern California just to be in her presence — moved me all the more as a revelation about Morrison hit me: “That is why God allows greatness.”

I am thankful to have been able to help celebrate her at various events held by the Toni Morrison Society, whose Biennial Conferences she attended over the years. Its “Bench by the Road Project” was inspired by the epigraph of Beloved that set forth the novel as a memorial to those enslaved. This longstanding project is all the more timely at this point as many are commemorating 400 years from the beginning of slavery in the Americas this month. While she reflects on the early period of slavery in her 2008 novel A Mercy, Beloved, which is often classified as a neo-slave narrative, was set in the years thereafter and focused on its continuing traumas. 

I am thankful to have been able to tell her how much she means to me through the public tribute that I had the opportunity to do for her here at Cornell in 2009, and in my exhibition for her as an artist at the luncheon in my department, the Africana Studies and Research Center, held in her honor in 2013. I last saw her in July 2016 as the TMS celebrated her 85th birthday in New York City. The panels discussed various aspects of her outstanding editing career and featured numerous distinguished speakers, including Angela Davis, Quincy Troupe, Paula Giddings, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Edwidge Danticat and Tayari Jones, with a banquet emceed by actress, singer and director Phylicia Rashad. Her history as an editor is also one of her extraordinary lifetime achievements and has helped bring many remarkable writers to voice, and is a reminder to us all to embrace and share the stories we have. 

My seminar course Toni Morrison’s Novels, which I inaugurated in 2005 in my African American literature course sequence at UC Davis after encountering her there, has been a mainstay in my teaching that I have since offered at the Breadloaf School of English in North Carolina, where I taught high school teachers, and Cornell. Here at Cornell, it has been a pleasure to study her with students, who are always excited about her work and eager to read her full body of novels. I look forward to teaching two different sections of this course this fall. I welcome everyone who would like to reflect on her writing to come journey with us through a comprehensive study of her brilliant body of novels, while exploring related historical, cultural and critical contexts. Continuing forward, we at Cornell are challenged and charged to find both small and big ways to honor her that will keep her light burning brightly in this community now and into distant futures.

Riché Richardson is an associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell. Comments may be sent to [email protected].