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Cover by Bert Andrews

October 15, 2020

Behind Cornell’s Celebration of ‘The Bluest Eye’

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On Thursday, Cornell held a virtual day-long reading of The Bluest Eye to celebrate the amazing career of author Toni Morrison M.A. ʼ55 and the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. This event was the beginning of a year-long celebration of Toni Morrison as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Arts Unplugged Series.  Morrison, one of Cornell’s most notable alumni, published The Bluest Eye, her first novel, in 1970.

While the pandemic delayed this event from its original planned date last spring, there are some benefits to the virtual format. “The advantage of doing it remotely is that thousands of people everywhere can hear it, can see it,” said Professor Anne Adams, Africana Studies. “There’s more of a consistency to the experience of watching it than there would have been if we were going between live readers and readers being brought in remotely,” added Professor Roger Gilbert, English.

The pre-recorded reading was streamed live to the public with as many as 800 viewers at once on eCornell and on Facebook, and boasted an impressive list of just over 120 readers from across the world. A wide array of people volunteered to read, including author Ta-Nehisi Coates, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, author and A.D.White Professor-at-Large Tayari Jones and political activist Angela Davis.

Other notable readers include Cornell faculty and students, faculty from Howard University (Morrison’s alma mater), Cornell administrators such as President Martha Pollack, Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick and even audio clips of Morrison herself reading the book. The reading also featured two musical performances as well as sections read in French, Spanish, German and Portuguese to represent Morrison’s large international audience.

Student readers were part of the new, one-credit, English class titled “The Bluest Eye at Fifty,” taught by Prof. Gilbert and Prof. Adams, which gives the opportunity for students from across the university to read and discuss The Bluest Eye and partake in the event. “We wanted to have as many students as possible read the novel, think about it, write about it, talk about it and be part of this celebration” said Gilbert.

For Morrison, publishing and writing books featuring the voices of Black people was her form of activism and contribution to the 1960’s Black Power movement, Adams explained. “She decided that the way that she could contribute to the social and political struggles of Black people was to put publications out there in the voices of, and telling the stories of, African Americans” said Adams. While Morrison was working as a fiction editor at Random House prior to writing her own novels, she published many works featuring Black voices, including the autobiography of Muhammed Ali and political activist Angela Davis — a longtime friend of Morrison’s who participated in the reading Thursday.

“In a way, this reading is connecting three distinct moments” said Gilbert, referring to the 1940’s when the book takes place, the 1970’s when the book was written, and the Black Lives Matter Movement today. Despite being in slightly different forms, “we’re still in this cycle” said Gilbert. “People are recognizing that racism and injustice are still with us in very powerful and violent ways.”

“Toni Morrison brings a voice of African Americans into the literary attention” said Adams. “The whole idea of listening to Black people, and of listening to Black people as individuals — seeing Black people as individuals — is a source of relevance of this book for today.”

The next event celebrating Toni Morrison will be a “Teach-In” live-streamed on Thursday, October 15th at 4:30 PM EST featuring short lectures by Cornell faculty and a live Q&A discussion.  More events will occur in the spring, including a staged reading of a play based on The Bluest Eye. “Some of us are committed to future [events] as well,” remarked Gilbert.  “We think that Toni Morrison is important enough that she deserves at least a decade’s worth of celebration.”

 

Emma Leynse is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at eleynse@cornellsun.com.