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Scholars Convene in Charleston to Explore the Literary Works of Toni Morrison

Charleston, S.C.

Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Toni Morrison read to a packed house at the College of Charleston two passages from her forthcoming novel, A Mercy (Knopf), on Friday, as part of the fifth biennial conference of the Toni Morrison Society.

The conference, titled “Toni Morrison and Modernism,” was held July 24-27, and explored the diasporic notion of modernism through the fictional works of Morrison.

Morrison’s reading, a main highlight of the conference, allowed the audience a preview of her new book, which comes out in November. A Mercy recites the story of a slave girl living in 17th-century America who is sold away from her family.

“It was profound listening to her because it made an historical and distant story very present,” said Matthew Foley, education coordinator for Upward Bound at the College of Charleston who attended the reading. “The moral force of Toni Morrison’s writing reminded everyone how alive the issues she brings up in her stories are.”

The conference was attended by many well-known figures, including actor and Toni Morrison Society board member Phylicia Rashad and scholar Houston Baker. Held at the Francis Marion Hotel and sponsored by the College of Charleston, the conference coincided with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. 

One of the main events of the conference was the dedication of the Bench by the Road project, a community outreach initiative launched in 2006 by the Toni Morrison Society, which will oversee the placing of 10 steel benches at unmarked, yet significant sites in Black history, which are reflected in Morrison’s works. 

The first bench was placed on Sullivan’s Island, the biggest port of entry for enslaved Africans in North America, and secured by the National Park Service. Conference participants, dressed in white, stood by as witnesses. Participating in the ceremony and sitting on the bench were Morrison and Thomalind Polite, a direct descendant of a slave brought to Sullivan’s Island.

“The image of Toni Morrison sitting on that bench at Sullivan’s, with Thomalind Polite and her daughter, exemplifying the direct connection between contemporary African-Americans and those unknown Africans who were kidnapped and shipped here 200 and 300 years ago was incredibly affecting,” said Dr. Simon Lewis, conference organizer and professor of English at the College of Charleston. “It was fantastic to have an outside vindication of the significance of what we’ve been attempting here,” said Lewis, who is involved with UNESCO’s international education initiative, the Transatlantic Slave Trade Education Project.

Conference sessions studying aspects of Morrison’s work and modernism were held concurrently from Friday through Sunday. Fifty-nine interdisciplinary papers were presented; and session titles included “Morrison, European, and Black American Modernists,” “Narrating Slavery,” and “Modernism, Migration and Jazz.”

While most sessions examined aspects of Morrison’s work as it related to the concept of modernism, some examined broader topics like the impact of slavery in modern times. The well-attended session titled “Charleston, Race, and Re-memory,” for example, examined the historical legacy of a city marked by its connection to slavery and the challenges it’s facing in memorializing a painful collective experience.

In addition to attending scholarly sessions, conference attendees participated in a variety of special events, including an authors’ and editors’ luncheon, a boat ride, and an exhibit opening with a keynote lecture by renowned scholar Joseph Opala on Bunce Island, a British slave castle in Sierra Leone. 

The Toni Morrison Society, which boasts 600 members in 12 countries, plans to hold its next conference in Paris in 2010.

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