In 1970, Nobel Prize laureate and Cornell alumna, Toni Morrison M.A. ‘55 published her acclaimed debut novel The Bluest Eye, marking the beginning of a career that spanned nearly five decades.
To commemorate the publication of her first novel, authors, poets and Cornell community members around the world gathered virtually to read excerpts from The Bluest Eye all of Thursday. The event included notable guests like Angela Davis, Ta-Nehesi Coates and Tayari Jones.
“As a group, we decided every word in this novel deserves to be read — the words that annihilate the reader and the listener alike. We share both the history and the language that this novel charts,” Prof. Shirley Samuels, English, said at the beginning of the stream.
Calling Morrison Cornell’s most famous alumna, professors spoke about Morrison’s contributions to literature. Prof. Anne Adams, Africana studies, noted Morrison’s position as the second Cornell alumna to win a Nobel Prize in literature, after Pearl Buck in 1938, and described how the messages in Morrison’s book are applicable to almost everyone.
“Toni Morrison means different things to different people and to different readerships,” Adams said during the introduction. “And we’re hoping this marathon reading of The Bluest Eye reaches some members of all those readerships.”
Prof. Riche Richardson, African-American literature, spoke in-depth about The Bluest Eye’s impact specifically, citing it as a revolutionary text that launched the voices of Black women writers in the post Civil Rights era.
“Toni Morrison has written prolifically across a range of genres, including essays, anthologies, an operetta, and children’s books, and has been widely influential as a literary theorist and critic, but is best known for her novels and her profound and pivotal role in shaping world literature,” Richardson said, highlighting her 11 novels that encompassed a range of themes and timely issues.
She was followed by other Cornell faculty members who shared stories from Morrison’s life, describing her transition from working as a fiction editor at Random House publishing to her growth as an author in her own right.
Nia Priest ’23, co-treasurer for Black Students United and a lifelong Morrison fan, was one of several students who read during the event.
“It’s important to commemorate her because of how powerful of a figure she is, just in the Black community what she stands for and what her stories stood for,” Priest said. “I think they really helped bring awareness to the conditions of African Americans in the United States and in the world,”
Though Priest had read the novel as a freshman in high school, she found herself relating to the messages of the novel more as a college student and a Black woman in 2020 America. She emphasized the significance of Morrison’s work in uplifting marginalized communities.
Taren Daniels ’23, another reader for the event, echoed Priest’s sentiments, adding that Morrison’s books gave underrepresented communities a lens to view themselves in modern literature. Daniels participated in the reading alongside members of her acapella group, Baraka Kwa Wimbo, a group aimed at bringing together women of color through gospel music.
“Toni Morrison carved out a space for Black writers, specifically Black female writers,” Daniels said. “She created this landscape of literature to include the whole diaspora — the whole spectrum of diversity rather than a singular component.”
The event on Thursday was the first in a year-long celebration of Morrison’s life entitled “Cornell Celebrates Toni Morrison.” As a continuation to this event, a Toni Morrison “teach-in” will be held Oct. 15 where Cornell faculty will discuss Morrison’s scholarly work. The event, which is open to the public, will also include a live Q&A session.
Correction, Oct. 9, 12:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated Morrison’s position at Random House. Morrison was a fiction editor at Random House, not the director. The article has since been updated.