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Toni Morrison’s career paved the way for writers and storytellers of color in a way few can compare with – her characters are neither tokens nor personified political statements, and her stories are universal depictions of anguish and hope. For many women of color, Morrison was the first author they could look up to who looked like them.
A pioneer in every sense of the word, Morrison authored 11 novels as well several children’s book and collections of essays. She was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1993, as well as numerous other literary accolades — including the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
Though Morrison died earlier this week at age 88, her legacy lives on among D.C.’s academics and writers, as do her roots as an alumna of Howard University.
We’ll meet two D.C. scholars who teach, study, and research Morrison’s body of work.
Produced by Maura Currie
- Dolen Perkins-Valdez Author, Associate Professor of Literature at American University; @Dolen
- Evelyn Schreiber Professor of English at George Washington University, Board Member of The Toni Morrison Society
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned into The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll sit down with WAMU's Murray Horwitz. You might know him from The Big Broadcast here on WAMU, but the man's career is as quirky as it is impressive. But first, award winning author Toni Morrison passed away Tuesday at age 88. Her impact on literature is reflected not only in her Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for 1987's "Beloved" it's reflected in writers of color across the country. And while you know her work, you might not know that Morrison got her start in very many ways here in Washington D.C.
KOJO NNAMDIHere to share more about her life and legacy is Evelyn Schreiber. She is a Professor of English at George Washington University. She's also on the board of directors of the Toni Morrison Society. Evelyn Schreiber, thank you for joining us.
EVELYN SCHREIBERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Dolen Perkins-Valdez. She is an Author and Associate Professor of Literature at American University. Dolen, thank you for joining us.
DOLEN PERKINS-VALDEZIt's a pleasure.
NNAMDII must mention that WAMU is licensed to American University. Evelyn Schreiber, tell us a little bit about Toni Morrison's connections to D.C.
SCHREIBERWell, she first came to D.C. when she went to Howard University. She had grown up on Lorain, Ohio. And wanted to get away from her small community and was actually very shocked when she came to D.C. She said it was the first time she had encountered racism. That she had grown up in Lorain, Ohio, which was more defined by working class rather than by race, and her neighbors and her school were multicultural, but poor. And when she came to Howard and found out she had to sit at the back of the bus. She couldn't use the restrooms at certain department stores, she was very taken aback.
NNAMDIThat was in the 1950s, right?
SCHREIBERLate 40s, mm-hmm.
NNAMDIAnd her academic career brought her back to Howard as well. Tell us about that.
SCHREIBERWell, she came back to be part of their faculty.
NNAMDIAnd she -- how long did she spend teaching at Howard?
SCHREIBERYou know, I'm not sure what year she was there. I know she did the bulk of her teaching at Princeton, but she was at Howard. And her other time at Howard that was important to her was her work with the players. There was a theater that she was involved with.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, you can find Reflections on Toni Morrison from local bookstore owners and librarians, and a blog post on our website kojoshow.org. And I saw a fascinating photo of her while she was with the Howard University players, because she was also one of the actors who played at Howard. Dolen Perkins-Valdez, do you remember the first time you read a Toni Morrison book?
PERKINS-VALDEZI remember that I tried to read a Toni Morrison book in high school. And I didn't understand it. I didn't know what I was reading at all. The first time that I read her and understood what I was reading was in college. I was in a black woman writer's college at Harvard with Henry Lewis Gates. And it was a small seminar style class. And I remember we read "The Bluest Eye" and I remember at the end of class that day I just sat at the table stunned by what I had read. It was a life altering moment.
NNAMDIWas that the same book you had attempted to read in high school?
PERKINS-VALDEZIt was the same book I had tried to read in high school.
NNAMDIFirst one I read too actually. Evelyn Schreiber, you've written several books on Toni Morrison's work. What about her -- what is it about her that captured your attention?
SCHREIBERWell, I realize that I hadn't read any of her novels. And asked graduate students at GW what I should read. And they said, well, you have to read "Beloved," but you can't take it on vacation. I said, I was going on a trip, and I thought they don't know that's the only time I have time to read. So I literally didn't put "Beloved" down for 48 hours. I read it before we left on the trip. I remember brushing my teeth and it was still on the counter. And I thought, this is just -- she's completely taken over my imagination.
SCHREIBERAnd it was something in her language. I had down all my previous work on William Falconer. And there was something that was resonating with me that I was hearing a new version of his voice in her works. And so she just totally captivated me by her language and the subject matter. And I read all of her books that summer.
NNAMDIDolen Perkins-Valdez, going back to when you read her or attempted to read her for the first time in high school when you were reading "The Bluest Eye" and then your class with Henry Lewis Gates kind of opened your eyes and ears to Toni Morrison. You say you have to learn how to read Toni Morrison. So what do you mean by that?
PERKINS-VALDEZYou know, when Morrison's books first came out there was a lot of feedback from readers about how difficult she was. There was an accessibility conversation. One time the writer Marita Golden said to me, you know, Toni had to teach us how to read her. And I thought that was very true. She made us better readers. She invited us into the process of meaning making. And she didn't talk down to the reader. She really elevated the reader to a high position in the reading experience.
NNAMDIShortly after news of her death was made public, you tweeted the following, quoting here, "Did she really know what she did for us? I mean, did she understand that she gave birth to us?" What do you mean by that?
PERKINS-VALDEZWell, when I tweeted that I was mourning, because I had gotten the news and I was just stunned. She spawned an entire generation of writers and literature lovers. She was our -- and I know this sounds hyperbolic, but I think I speak for a lot of other people when I say she was our queen mother. She gave us permission to write to say the things that were on our hearts. You know, so she birthed, I believe, an entire cultural literary renaissance. And I wondered if she knew. She knew we loved her, but she was so humble I wonder sometimes if she really really knew.
NNAMDIYou know, a friend of mine just posted on Facebook, "Don't mourn. Celebrate. Her work will be with us forever. This is a time for celebration." So I guess your brief period of mourning is going to be followed by a lifelong celebration of Toni Morrison.
PERKINS-VALDEZYes. And it's up to us to keep the work and the legacy alive. It's not guaranteed than any author is with us forever. So I really think the next stage of celebration is to commit to keeping the work alive.
NNAMDIEvelyn, you've been involved with the Toni Morrison Literary Society for many years. Tell us about what a literary society is and what this one does.
SCHREIBERWell, the American Literature Association has yearly meetings where people, professors, who teach American Literature come to hear papers on different authors. And there are many author societies, Falconer Society, Updike Society, Melville Society. And so the Toni Morrison Society was created because she was a new author who needed her own society. So we do our yearly meetings at the American Literature Association, but we also have several projects that we work with.
SCHREIBERWe have biannual conferences and they're thematically connected to Morrison's work at places that were important to her life. And we have a Bench by the Road project where we have memorial brunches that celebrate incidents or African American lives that have been erased from cultural history of America, and that commemorate and memorialize those.
NNAMDIDid you get to work with Toni Morrison?
SCHREIBERI did get to work with her. I mean, it was a very extraordinary experience to be working with a live author, who actually wanted to engage with the scholarship that we were producing. And she -- I must have met with her at least once a year if not more for over 20 years as my connection with the society. So she would come and she would come listen to our papers and she would come discuss them with us. And if you were writing a book she'd want to know all about it, and gave you feedback and approval, which was nice. And it was just extraordinary that she was so curious about what people were thinking all the time about everything including how her works are being taught and remembered.
NNAMDIHere's Dana calling from Howard University. Dana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANAHi, Kojo. And thank you so much to Dolen and Evelyn. I agree with everything that they're saying. Dolen mentioned the writer that Morrison -- or how she fostered a whole generation of writers. She edited Henry Dumas, Toni K. Bambara, Angela Davis, Mohammed Ali, John McCloskey, I mean, I could go on. And it wasn't just prose or poetry. So she also did Lucille Clifton and June Jordan, but Chinweizu's "The West and the Rest of Us" or "They Came Before Columbus" for Ivan Van Sertima. What Morrison made possible at Random House simply is unparalleled really.
NNAMDIAnd there's a documentary about Toni Morrison now playing here at the Landmark E Street Theater. And June Jordan is mentioned in that documentary also. Thank you very much for your call, Dana, and for mentioning that. Dolen, you teach literature at American and you teach Toni Morrison's work. Do your students react to her differently than you did as a student?
PERKINS-VALDEZWell, you know, Morrison has been so canonized now. When I was a student she had not won the Nobel yet. So there's a different reaction now, because there's a feeling that students have that they're being forced to read her. But the love affair with her work once we read it in the classroom setting is the same. Once they sort of understand and get passed the barrier of entry they love it. And it's still, I think is life transforming as it's ever been. I don't know if you agree, Evelyn.
SCHREIBERI--I teach her work. I teach a course on Toni Morrison and William Falconer to undergraduates. And I had a graduate seminar just on -- we read all of Toni Morrison's works. And they are captivated by the prose by the concepts. And even if it's difficult reading they don't stop. They follow through and her books are very open ended. And sometimes ambiguous how they end and Morrison always said, "You write the novel with me. I invite you into this process." And so every time you read her novel you're rewriting it perhaps with a different nuisance and different experiences that you've had yourself at that point. So my students, they just love her work.
NNAMDIShe had some thoughts on what you should name that course, didn't she?
SCHREIBERYes, it was Falconer and Morrison and she suggested that it should be Morrison and Falconer. And that's what it is officially in the books now.
NNAMDIDolen, what makes Morrison's writing unique in the canon of black fiction writers and what about literature more broadly?
PERKINS-VALDEZWell, you know, we have to remember that when she began writing in -- you know, the first book published in 1970, we're coming out of a time of a black arts movement where literature was considered to be very political and to have a specific political function. Toni steps into that conversation without directly engaging the black arts movement, but still being a sort of member, I think. And not only in terms of the writers who Dana mentions, who she published, you know, Angela Davis and Gale Jones, but also in terms of the fact that her writing is political. But there's another dimension to it, which is it's also highly esthetic. It's engaging us on every single front from the political to the esthetic.
PERKINS-VALDEZShe wanted us to have the full experience. And that to me is what differentiates her from some of the writers before. And that's not to say that we didn't have highly esthetic writers before, clearly we did. But the way in which Toni enters that conversation is very unique. She also foregrounds black women in a way that other writers had not. And so she foregrounds black women's experiences beginning with Pecola Breedlove. She just takes that experience and makes it global, and speaks really to the entire world about a little black girl.
NNAMDIDolen Perkins-Valdez is an Author and an Associate Professor of Literature at American University. We would carry on this conversation forever, but you can do it even better by just reading Toni Morrison's work. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIEvelyn Schreiber is a Professor of English at George Washington University. She's also on the Board of Directors of The Toni Morrison Society. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we will be discussing with Murray Horwitz. You might know him from The Big Broadcast on WAMU, but this man's career is as quirky as it is impressive. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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