Remembering Toni Morrison: A Reflection and Celebration

[APPLAUSE] SPEAKER 1: Great, thank you so much Is this mic at a good volume and all? We’re here? Excellent Thank you I’m very grateful for this community today, to honor, to grieve, and to celebrate the life and gift of Toni Morrison She was an extraordinary person who made an immeasurable contribution to black and black feminist letters, to literary criticism, and to our collective spirit I was reminded– I’ve seen this video a few times, helped put it together– but you know, the way she can say something like, “as though our lives have no meaning,” et cetera, et cetera You know, it’s not simply what she thought, it’s how she could convey it So when I heard about her passing, I mean, of course I was shocked But my first gut, first of all, was to call Akua Naru, but that’s a different story And then the second thing was I had to do something I felt we should rejoin this semester with some kind of collective honoring, that we shouldn’t just let it pass, and wonder, come Christmas, wow, wasn’t that terrible, and not pay attention to what the experience was like And I didn’t want to do something just alone, or with my husband, or with close friends I wanted to bring the community into being And so this event is intended to create a gathering where some of our most creative and insightful colleagues at Brown have an opportunity to celebrate her There are many more people who could easily be here And we’re hoping some people in the audience will participate in our conversation and the folk thought But I also hope that what we do here embodies the power of the collective to heal itself, and to hold close between us the lessons that she has given us So we have something very informal planned, where each of us will speak for five minutes, in the order of our seating I will read one presentation by someone who couldn’t make it Then we have a performance by Akua Naru, and a folk thought with the audience led by Elmo Terry Morgan, and a reception in the lobby And so I turn the mic over now to Lisa Biggs Thank you [APPLAUSE] LISA BIGGS: This is an excerpt of her speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered on the 7th of December, 1993 Once upon a time, there was an old woman– blind, wise In the version I know, the woman is the daughter of slaves– black, American– and lives alone in a small house outside of town Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question Among her people, she is both the law and its transgression The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away, to the city, where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement One day, the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is Their plan is simple They into her house and ask one question, the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability, her blindness They stand before her, and one of them says, old woman, I hold in my hand a bird Tell me whether it is living or dead She does not answer, and the question is repeated, is the bird I am holding living or dead? Still she does not answer She is blind, and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands She does not know their color, gender, or homeland She only knows their motive The old woman’s silence is so long the young people have trouble holding their laughter Finally she speaks, and her voice is soft but stern I don’t know, she says I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive But what I do know is that it is in your hands It is in your hands Her answer can be taken to mean, if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it If it is alive, you can still kill it Whether it is to stay alive is your decision

Whatever the case, it is your responsibility For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised Language is a system It is an act of consequences Status language censors and can be censoring It can be ruthless in its policing duties It has no desire or purpose other than to maintain the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance However moribund, it is not without effect For it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls the conscience, suppresses human potential Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell other story, fill baffling silences Official language smithereed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago In her country, children have bitten their tongues off, and used bullets instead to iterate the void of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidelines, or expressing love But she knows tongue suicide is not only the choice of children It is common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human sentiments, their human instincts For they speak only to those who obey or in order to force obedience The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined, and possible lives of its speakers, readers, and writers It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the inevitable We die That may be the meaning of life But we do language That may be the measure of our lives (SINGING) I’ll fly away, oh, darling, I’ll fly away When I die, hallelujah by and by I’ll, I’ll fly away Thank you [APPLAUSE] COLIN CHANNER: Good afternoon My name is Colin Channer I teach in the Department of literary arts As such, I should warn you I might be digressive, but I promise to be brief Many years ago, maybe 1991, I had to face a moment in life where I was going to be blind The truth is that without very specialized contact lenses I am legally blind And from here to where you’re sitting, without my lenses, I would not know if you were there I was born in Jamaica, and I had a congenital disease My corneas were becoming steeply coned, and it wasn’t diagnosed until I immigrated to America And in 1991 or so, I had surgery I was living in Atlanta My eyes became infected And for three months, I couldn’t see at all It was at that time that I decided that I would be a writer And I made a kind of childish bargain with God that if he would allow me to see, I would do the thing that I’ve wanted to do but haven’t really made myself do, which is to write books

Maybe about 2 and 1/2 months into my recovery, I could see a little bit And I had a visit with a doctor, and he said, listen, I want an assurance from you that you’re not looking at anything closely or trying to But I needed so badly to read I lived by myself in a house with maybe 5,000 books And I asked a friend to find a book for me I said, I’ll read anything you give me My friend gave me a copy of Sula I read it, and it hurt It hurt the eyes, it hurt the soul But it was also leavening Because in a moment of pain, in a moment of wondering what I would do with my life, I was given direction from a book I moved back to New York to write a book And I did so with a kind of obscene optimism of the immigrant I would just go back to New York and write a book, because that’s what people in New York do They write books And I moved back with my mother And my mother is a good Jamaican woman, a pharmacist, the kind of person was said, I just don’t understand people who get bachelor’s of arts That’s not a profession So I moved in with her But she was also a woman– and still is– of great comfort And she said, if you want to do this writing thing, you can do it But if you’re living in my house, you have to work I said, good And so I got a job at an ad agency As I said, I will be aggressive, but I promise to be brief And I had a friend by the name of Patrick, and he lived on East 90th street Said I could write at his place all day as long as I wrote all day And I said I would write all day I got a little job at an ad agency, 7:00 in the morning till noon, as a proofreader You see, because I had my specialized contact lenses, I could see lots of stuff And one day going to Patrick’s– and it might have been the first time I was going there seriously to write– I was at Grand Central Station And as you might have probably gotten, I like to make these ridiculous bargains And I said, you know what, maybe if I got some sort of sign it would mean that maybe I should do this thing And they still had token booths in those days And I went, and in front of me was a tall gentleman who had one of those accents that no longer exists in America It was George Plimpton, the sort of Playboy writer I says, my God, George Plimpton My God, I’m buying a token behind George Plimpton My God, this is my sign So I took the train up to 59th Street And the reason I went to 59th street is that I had a friend called George who worked in the cafe at Bloomingdale’s And I could afford a token, each way, but I couldn’t afford lunch And George let his friends who worked in the cafe know that, I have a friend called Colin He comes by He’ll sit at the counter He’ll read And if you offer him a coffee, he won’t say no If you put a biscuit on the side, he’ll take it, too And I had my coffee, and I decided to walk to my friend Patrick’s place from 59th Street He lived on 90th And I was crossing Third Avenue And it was about maybe 2:00 in the afternoon, fairly crowded And I was crossing the street, something happened I saw, walking the other way, a woman with silver dreadlocks who was about that tall, rocking And I looked at her in a kind of awe-filled way, the way, that I’m sure that someone in a canoe centuries before would have seen a Spanish galleon, a certain kind of weight to it, a certain kind of power to it And it was Toni Morrison, just going about her business Now, I had made my decision I was looking for a sign I thought my sign was George Plimpton [LAUGHTER] And here comes Toni Morrison to mash up my sign

I was frightened Again, when you’re a literary canoe in the presence of a galleon, you’re concerned about the power of the wake And I felt the trembling in me And she moved by And I turned, followed her with my eyes And it was as if every single person who was crossing that street, whether they knew her or not, knew to get out of the way And I stopped in the crosswalk Horns began to blow And I realized horns were blowing on reflection, because I was completely transfixed And I thought about all the books of hers that I had read And the horns kept blowing And I thought about what it means to have permission to do something, and how very often that permission is not one given in comfort, but it is given in a kind of tremendous delightful fear, that when you’re in the presence of bigness, you feel inside you something beginning to trigger And I remember going up to my friend Patrick’s place And I wrote about 30 pages, longhand, none of which was good [CHUCKLING] But being in the presence of Toni Morrison that day for a brief moment– it couldn’t have lasted more than five, 10 seconds– I had a redoubling of purpose And in the years to come, I would read and reread her work again Years later, when I was a true grown-up, I had the opportunity of spending some time with Rita Marley, the widow of Bob Marley, and in many ways the person who made Bob Marley aware of his potentiality as a songwriter And I told her the story– she was telling a story of when she saw Haile Selassie arriving in Jamaica in 1966, and what that did And it was a very interesting story, because I told her my story about seeing Toni Morrison And she said, you know, I only know Bob to read one novel, and it was by that guy, Toni [LAUGHTER] I never told her the truth Thank you very much [APPLAUSE] SPEAKER 1: Thank you, Colin These are some written remarks prepared by Ann duCille, professor emerita, and a great friend who wanted to come, but could not make it It’s entitled “Voluptuous– Notes on Toni Morrison.” You haven’t lived– or maybe died– until you answer your phone to find Toni Morrison on the other end of the line, and have to struggle to hold up your part of an intelligent conversation while trying not to faint or giggle like the groupie you are Although I did eventually have the great honor of getting to know her personally, enjoying her wit, humor, and generosity, like much of the literate world, I first met the magnificent Toni Morrison through her writing, specifically her inaugural novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970 I was at that time an earnest undergraduate English major, studying mostly dead white men, as was the canon and the custom in the dark ages of the academy of yesteryear Not that black women hadn’t written novels before But books have a way of becoming what culture keepers considered to have taste claimed they are And for decades, the work of black women had been disparaged as sentimental, lace-curtained romances, and dismissed as incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial by a criterati that was largely white and mostly male The Bluest Eye– appearing, it’s important to note, the year as Alice Walker’s first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland– changed all that, with Morrison spearheading a seismic reshuffling of what

had been a stacked deck No critic could call The Bluest Eye sentimental or romantic Here was a novel that defied known forms, invented new grammars, upset, inverted, and subverted traditional structures and narrative strategies The novel unbound, blackened, feminized, repopulated, and unpunctuated Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with the now-famous line, “All happy families are alike Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But Morrison, mocking the grade-school primer at the bedrock of the American educational system, wrote, “Here is the house it is green and white it has a red door it is very pretty here is the family mother father dick and jane live in the green and white house they are very happy,” appearing on the page unpunctuated And in increasingly small enjambed print, graphically foreshadowing familial dysfunction and the tragic descent into madness that the novel recounts Never had an opening line said so much about the declining human condition, almost without uttering a word Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941 Because she would insist on saying so herself, I feel obliged to point out that brilliant and wise as she was with words, Toni Morrison was no solitary genius in a vacuum She was part of a tradition of black women writing of, for, and about their community The flowering of fiction she ceded that would be called black feminist, though Morrison herself claimed neither the term nor the politics, was more than a renaissance It was a revolution that brought to the forefront lines of literary studies daring new themes, theories, characters, and narrative techniques that helped change not only the nature of the novel and the composition of the canon, but also the gender, color, and contours of the university itself, as African-American women, enabled, inspired, and emboldened by the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Women’s movements, stormed the halls of the academy to professors and students no longer content merely to teach and study great white men, but determined instead to cultivate their own black female gardens In addition to her own novel contribution to American and African-American letters, Morrison, as an editor at Random House, published the work and guided the careers of a number of black writers, many of them young women whose first books she brought into print, including Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gail Jones It’s been said that Toni Morrison wasn’t just a black editor, she was the black editor She was a hands-on street-fighter kind of advocate for black voices and books she believed the world needed to know, from Muhammad Ali’s autobiography, The Greatest, to the poetry and prose of Henry Dumas, which she fought to publish posthumously and which the world otherwise might have never known The extent to which Morrison helped shape African-American cultural production and helped direct the course of both Black and Women’s Studies as emerging fields in the ’70s and ’80s is perhaps best captured in the cultural contours of one of her most significant editorial credits with Random House, The Black Book, a compendium of art, artifacts, photographic images, and historical documents that charts and chronicles the black experience in the so-called “New World.” Originally published in 1974, against great odds, and reissued in 2009 in a luxurious 35th anniversary edition On a personal level, Morrison’s missing marigolds and Alice Walker’s revolutionary petunia also changed the course of my own life in letters I’m here today because of them Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I had always said I wanted to be a lawyer like Perry Mason or a physician like Dr. Kildare But my secret wish was to be a writer And it was that desire or delusion to author the great American novel that first brought me to Brown nearly 50 years ago as a graduate student in the creative writing program, where Gail Jones was my classmate and friend Talk about establishing a curve In awarding Morrison the Nobel Prize for Literature in ’93, the Swedish Academy described her writing as a kind of lustrous poetry that seeks to liberate language from the fetters of race I’m not sure about this “fetters of race” thing, but that Morrison wrote with the luster of poetry is an apt assessment

Not being a stupid child, encountering that poetry in the 1970s, coming face to face with true creative genius, put my own delusions of writing grandeur in perspective Instead of struggling vainly and in vain to write the great American novel, it became my pleasure to read them, and a privilege to become part of their interpretive community I’m often asked to name my favorite Toni Morrison work, which is a little like asking a parent to single out a best-loved child Morrison taught me how to use old language in new ways One of her favorite words was “voluptuous,” not to describe a body, as might be expected, but perhaps to describe a body of work, as in, “her writing is so love voluptuous.” Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say And I flattered Morrison a lot Voluptuous became my favorite word, too So when it comes to playing favorites, the most I can say is that I know of no more voluptuous use of language than Song of Solomon, and there is no more voluptuous critique of American letters than Playing in the Dark– Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, no more voluptuously piercing take-down of the canon than Unspeakable Things Unspoken But if one were to read only a single work by Toni Morrison, let it be her exquisitely raceless narrative of race and class, “Recitatif,” her one and only published short story, a tour-de-force text so carefully drawn, tightly told, and voluptuously emplotted that it needs no companion pieces to make the point that Toni Morrison is a master storyteller in any medium Toni Morrison, here’s to you, already much missed in all your voluptuousness [APPLAUSE] KEVIN QUASHIE: I’m Kevin Quashie I teach in the English department The gifts that Toni Morrison gave us are plenty and massive They are ideological, and philosophical, and aesthetic Massive, yes And they also exist on the level of the glide and grace of a sentence Here’s one example, from the narrator’s confession at the very end of her novel, Jazz, a confession which admits that even though the narrator had predicted enduring doom for Joe and Violet’s relationship, doom, in fact, didn’t last The passage runs a couple pages in the novel, but I’ll read and highlight just the last bit, which is a thesis on love and surrender Quote, “I envy them, their public love I myself have only known it in secret, shared it in secret, and longed– longed to show it, to be able to say out loud what they have no need to say at all, that I’ve loved only you, surrendered my whole self reckless to you and nobody else, that I want you to love me back and show it to me, that I love the way you hold me, how close you let me be to you I liked your fingers, on and on, lifting, turning I have watched your face for a long time now, and missed your eyes when you went away from me Talking to you and hearing you answer, that’s the kick “But I can’t say that aloud I can’t tell anyone that I’ve been waiting for this all my life, and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can If I were able, I’d say it, say, make me, remake me You are free to do it, and I am free to let you Because look, look, look where your hands are now.” That’s how the book ends I wish I could show you the passage on screen But let me repeat the part that I want to emphasize most “If I were able, I’d say it, say, make me, remake me You are free to do it, and I am free to let you Because look, look, look where your hands are now.” That gorgeousness is full of repetition which the poet Nikky Finney tells us is holy And it is a particular kind of repetition, chiasmus,

the rhetorical trope where words or concepts are exchanged, as in the iconic example, many of us might know from Frederick Douglass’s narrative, “You’ve seen how a man was made a slave You shall see how a slave was made a man.” Chiasmus is used in the Bible and in oral practices of telling because it enhances the capacity to understand One can readily remember the chiasmic utterance But I think chiasmus is also loved because it is transformative The word chiasmus comes from the Greek, or the Igbo, or Chinese, chi, or “kee,” as in “cross.” Chiasmus is a calculus of inversion where a thing is undone by its opposition, where a thing becomes abundant through incorporation and obliteration Chiasmus is magical, spherical, it’s pure magic itself It’s a spell in words It’s prayer, incorporation, and obliteration Like love, like “Make me, remake me You are free to do it, and I’m free to let you.” Toni Morrison knew the magic of this little technique of language, the way it appeals to the one telling the tale as well as to the one listening Toni Morrison, she who exemplified to us that words are magic Human beings know this, but modernity and coloniality have ruined our relationship to such knowing In the new world, then, it seems that it is writers and artists, black ones especially, who are trying to hold on to this knowing I want to say today that Toni Morrison was and is chiasmus She implored us to pay attention so we could be moved toward some understanding that is both of us and still bigger than us Just notice how that phrase from Jazz has a second kind of magic in it The narrator says, if I were able, I’d say it, an expression of the subjunctive and of a wish that the narrator in the very next sentence then manifests It’s pure magic I could say so much more about this passage, including the beautiful pressure that Morrison’s repetition puts on the words, free and look But I will say simply that Toni Morrison is chiasmus, that one of the gifts of Morrison’s work is not only this attuned, exquisite writing that she left for us, but the generosity insinuated in the writing, it’s very magic The Jazz chiasmus is what Morrison asked us to be able to say of and to ourselves, to say, “Make me, remake me You are free to do it, and I’m free to let you Because look, look, look where your hands are now.” Dear Toni Morrison who remade the world for us, dear, dear Toni Morrison, who as an artist is chiasmus itself, dear Miss Morrison When James Baldwin died, you eulogized him, and the precision of your final three words, the three words you used then, I think, are perfect for now So I will borrow them Dear, dear Toni Morrison, you crowned us Thank you [APPLAUSE] SPEAKER 1: Fantastic So we have two more elements to this celebration memorial One is a performance by Akua Naru, who is going to perform her song, “Toni Morrison,” which is going to definitely be a life-affirming experience to say the least And then we will have an open dialogue, where everyone will be invited, led by Elmo Terry Morgan, to have what we call here in Rites and Reason and Africana, a folk thought discussion But first join me in welcoming the CSRA Artist-in-Residence, dear friend, and amazing poet and emcee, Akua Naru AKUA NARU: Thank you Can you hear me? All right, so I’m a little nervous, because we’re talking about Toni Morrison But I wrote a song about five years ago

because I wanted to celebrate Toni Morrison In the old church, we’d say, give me my roses now while I can still smell them And so I wanted to give her her roses I mean, we’ve given her so many, all of which she deserved and more But it was a question, basically, which sort of was running through the song, where I said, how could one hand hold a pen, one pen hold a people? And the answer to that question is simple– Toni Morrison So I’ll just hit you all with it like a chorus When I say, how can one hand hold a pen, one pen hold a people, the people say– AUDIENCE: Toni Morrison AKUA NARU: How could one hand hold a pen, one pen hold a people? The people say– AUDIENCE: Toni Morrison AKUA NARU: Hey How could one hand hold a pen, one pen holda people? AUDIENCE: Toni Morrison AKUA NARU: Oh, my goodness All right, you can play the music [MUSIC PLAYING] I’m going to try to– I’m going to try to do this Can you turn it up? Do you still wonder whose little girl am I? The fifth women this side banging Simone on mama’s old 45s Four score for the Bluest Eye Kept the yearn at tide Typical the brought that burden to mind Most vulnerable kind Black girl lost and confined Double conscious outlined Bout the boys in his prime Who heard us cry when the dawn told us black was a crime Arrest your walk wit sword in your spine Auctioned off, tragic victim of time Set to rewind the memory collective genetic took you to write that simile Inscribed the cage Find joy through the pain of Frankie Beverly trapped in a maze Made niggas as slaves [INAUDIBLE] and maids made to lay and made beds Spread legs sweet master’s entertainment Prescribed invisible lives till she reclaimed it Denied the white gaze another brush to paint with How can one hand hold the pen, one pen hold the people Y’all? AUDIENCE: Toni Morrison AKUA NARU: How can one hand hold the pen, one pen hold the people? Come on AUDIENCE: Toni Morrison AKUA NARU: Look, I say how could one hand hold the pen, one pen hold the people? Y’all? AUDIENCE: Toni Morrison AKUA NARU: Look, how can one hand– listen, if you forget the music, remember the words Now though the world was three-fifths and fractured, we’re whole main characters female protagonists, centralized blackness That tar baby, that jazz riff that came after, Shadraq trauma when war left us shattered A literary photograph capture born Before the womb it was you who knew our magic from the rain and thunder [INAUDIBLE] Showed us that the bottom was the top re-imagined E, i, u Write with the hands of God Layers facade Come poised Phylicia Rashad Reading your storm over resolve Mother and daughter bond greater than torn Or the [INAUDIBLE] Sula watched it burned from the front yard Mother a metaphor The height of Zeus be a lexicon Songs of Solomon songs Quran Our Pulitzer Nobel Prize in human form Delivered the dead She honored us all Because how could one hand hold the pen, one pen hold the people? Y’all? AUDIENCE: Toni Morrison AKUA NARU: Look, I say how can one hand hold the pen, one pen hold the people y’all? AUDIENCE: Toni Morrison AKUA NARU: Look, How can one hand hold the pen, one pen hold the people? Come on AUDIENCE: Toni Morrison AKUA NARU: Hey How can one hand hold the pen, one pen– Toni Morrison I can’t even finish the rest of the song I’m just so– oh my goodness One hand One pen One people Thank y’all so much