On Tuesday, the Africana Studies and Research Center hosted a public commemoration to reflect on one of Cornell’s most treasured alumnae, Toni Morrison M.A. ’55, who passed away in August.
The event was an intimate gathering of Morrison’s friends, colleagues and admirers and featured Cornell students, Ithaca residents and faculty from the Africana Studies department.
Many of the participants knew Morrison personally throughout her prolific career.
Prof. Riché Richardson, Africana Studies, the chair of the programming committee of the Africana Department, currently teaches ENGL 4509: Toni Morrison’s Novels and penned a column in The Sun in tribute to Morrison back in August.
Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, English, completed her Master’s in African Studies at Howard University, where Morrison also taught for a time. Another participant, Prof. Tao Leigh Goffe, FGSS, was a former student of Morrison. All also work in the Africana Studies department.
While the event was originally planned for Sept. 30, the Africana committee pushed it back to invite as many people as possible to reflect on Morrison’s death once the frenzy of the first week of classes had subsided. Richardson said that much time and consideration was needed to recognize “someone with such distinction and achievement.”
The event coincided with other tributes dedicated to Morrison across the country. On the day of the event, Amazon released the Kindle edition of the latest collection of Morrison’s work, Goodness and the Literary Imagination: Harvard’s 95th Ingersoll Lecture with Essays on Morrison’s Moral and Religious Vision.
During the event, notable speakers reflected on their personal relationship with Morrison as well as their personal tributes to the eminent writer. Eric Acree, director of the Africana Library, shared an online guide on Morrison where he compiled and organized Morrison’s novels, non-fiction works and children’s books.
The website also provides links to noteworthy interviews, critiques of her works and a link to her recent documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which was released in June.
The program featured an art quilt that Richardson had created in honor of Morrison’s 80th birthday, which was exhibited in Balch Hall in 2011. Speakers took turns reading their favorite passages from Morrison’s novels including Sula, and discussed the importance of Morrison’s literary recognition on the African American community.
Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is renowned as a prolific fiction writer, literary critic and theorist. Her most famous works include Pulitzer Prize winning Beloved, The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon.
In 2012, Morrison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Barack Obama. In her novels, Morrison centralized the experiences of Africans and African Americans through the eyes of her black protagonists, shedding new light on slavery, the origins of America, black identity, womanhood, motherhood and colorism. Prof. N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba, Africana Studies, noted that Morrison was a pioneer in American literature for featuring “black people as the center stage.”
As part of the Africana faculty, Richardson hoped that people who attended the commemoration hoped to “encourage them to really immerse themselves in reading her works.”
Prof. Judith Byfield, history, and author of The Bluest Hands: A Social and Economic History of Women Indigo Dyers in Western Nigeria recalled how Morrison’s The Bluest Eye inspired her dissertation and even the way she taught her students.
Byfield emphasized the importance of Morrison’s work saying that primary sources on slavery assigned to Cornell students often miss the “traumatic nature of enslavement” that the Nobel laureate was able to convey.
Those who attended the event reflected positive responses. Lesley Allee Ph.D. ’01, grew up reading Morrison’s work with her mother. She recalled that Morrison’s novel was the first time she’d read “anyone centering the black experience,” and said that the event was “very moving and educational.”
“I think it’s amazing to have a space here on campus to celebrate one of our most famous alums,” said Michael Miller grad. “This is a community that can appreciate Toni Morrison, and I thought it was done beautifully.”
Kelysey Jennings Roggensack grad, Prof. Derrick R. Spires, English, and Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, English, also spoke at the event.
“For those of us who worked on [this event] and for those of us who’ve known her, it’s been a labor of love,” Richarson said. “It’s been such an honor to connect with such a beautiful, unforgettable person.”