At Home with Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison Society Event Draws Scholars from Around the World to Honor the Literary Legend
By Hilary Hurd
A pproximately 130 scholars from around the globe gathered for three days in Lorain, Ohio, last month for one purpose: to honor and celebrate Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and her work.
The second biennial Toni Morrison Society conference, Toni Morrison and The Meanings of Home, was held in this steel town on the banks of Lake Erie, which is Morrison’s birthplace and the setting of Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.
“Every time the Toni Morrison Society comes together it is a homecoming,” says Dr. Marilyn Mobley McKenzie, president of the society and an associate professor of English and African American studies at George Mason University in Virginia.
The conference, held at Lorain County Community College, explored the unique and numerous ways Morrison portrays the home in her novels and drew scholars primarily from the fields of American literature, African American literature and English.
Dr. Marilyn J. Valentino, the conference director, is a professor of English at Lorain County Community College.
During the conference, the Morrison scholars attended several sessions, such as “Mothering in the Novels of Toni Morrison,” and “Women’s Homes as Gothic Spaces in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” The last day of the conference, attendees had the opportunity to tour historic sites in Lorain — population 69,800 — and visit such places as the Toni Morrison Room at the Lorain Public Library.
“The society gives us a chance to come together at the same time, at the same place, and … exchange ideas about her work,” says society member Dr. Loretta Gilchrist Woodard, associate professor of English at Marygrove College in Detroit.
And the dialogue is not limited to American scholars. While U.S. academicians came from institutions as far away as California and New York, many of their overseas colleagues hailed from such far-off places as France, Japan and Portugal.
Woodard says she has noticed a growing interest in Morrison’s work among international scholars. “They are hungry for information, and this provides a forum for understanding. They want to make sure they are interpreting her work accurately.”
Graduate student Tessa Roynon, originally from Oxford, England, is completing her master’s in American Literature at Georgetown University in Washington. She says that since receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Morrison has become increasingly popular in England.
The conference opened with a jazz reception, and was followed by the video premiere of Toni Morrison & The Meanings of Home: A Portrait of Lorain in the Thirties and
Forties and a panel discussion featuring authors and scholars Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Marita Golden, Dr. bell hooks and John Edgar Wideman.
Quoting Morrison, Dyson said during the panel, ” ‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’ ” Dyson added that this quote truly embodies the author.
Dr. Wahneema H. Lubiano, associate professor of literature at Duke University, was the keynote speaker at a luncheon attended by Morrison. Morrison herself did not speak at the luncheon, but she made an unexpected visit later that day to a roundtable discussion for high school teachers on methods of teaching her novels.
Dr. Cornel West of Harvard University, who is a member of the society’s advisory board, compared the significance and impact of Morrison’s work to such literary greats as Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce and Franz Kafka.
“We probably won’t really realize the importance of Morrison’s work for another 30 or 40 years,” West says.
“To have Toni Morrison herself makes all the difference in the world,” West said about the author’s attendance at the luncheon.
The society has more than 300 members and is based at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where society founder Dr. Carolyn Denard is an associate professor of English.
The society, which meets every two years, was founded in 1993 at the annual meeting of the American Literature Association in
Baltimore. The Toni Morrison Society holds its conferences in locations that have special meaning in Morrison’s life and works. The
society’s first meeting in 1998 was held in
Atlanta, which is not only the home of the Toni Morrison Society but is also near Cartersville, Ga., the birthplace of Morrison’s father.
The third conference, set for 2002, will take place in Washington, D.C., at Howard University — Morrison’s alma mater, where she had a later academic career. One topic under consideration is Toni Morrison and the Politics of Learning, but the final theme will be announced sometime in the spring, says McKenzie, the society’s president.
Morrison is currently the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University in New Jersey. In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Morrison has received numerous literary awards including the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1977 for Song of Solomon and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 for Beloved. She also has written many books of essays and in 1999 co-wrote a children’s book, The Big Box.
For more information on the Toni Morrison Society, call (404) 651-2900 or visit www.gsu.edu/~wwwtms/.
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