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Moving Morrison Beyond the Literary Classroom

Moving Morrison Beyond the Literary Classroom
Toni Morrison Society celebrates 10 years, encourages readers of all ages to know the author
By Robin V. Smiles

Mention one of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s seven critically acclaimed novels to a friend and you will most likely be met with a familiar protest: “Beloved? I just couldn’t get through it”; “Paradise? I never did figure out what was going on there.” Clearly, the word around town about Morrison is that her novels are just too complex and too difficult for the average reader to engage.

Yet, it is not just the “average” reader who finds Morrison’s works challenging. Just last month, to an audience of some of Morrison’s most respected admirers, Ghanaian novelist, poet, playwright and women’s rights advocate, Ama Ata Aidoo, confessed that even she has had “trouble” with Morrison. Aidoo, who has written several novels herself, recounted her reading experience with Beloved, picking it up during a hectic time in her life, putting it down, returning to it years later.
“Some books like Beloved refuse to be dealt with in the normal chaos of our lives,” Aidoo says. “They seem to be saying, ‘I am not here to help you unwind.’ “
The complexity of Morrison’s novels, however, should not stand in the way of readers of all ages experiencing the contributions of what many described as the most gifted writer of our generation, say members of the Toni Morrison Society. The society, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, along with the 10th anniversary of Morrison winning the Nobel Prize in literature, was founded in 1993 at the annual meeting of the American Literature Association. Last month, the society held its third biennial conference in Washington, D.C. The conference, titled “Toni Morrison and the Politics of Learning,” drew more than 200 scholars, students and lay readers all for a common purpose: to celebrate and praise Morrison’s works.
That simple, yet unique purpose makes the Toni Morrison Society conference standout among the many scholarly gatherings held each year.
“There isn’t the academic competition that is so typical of most academic conferences,” says Dr. Cheryl A. Wall, professor of English and department chairwoman at Rutgers University. “Instead, we’ve come together to celebrate Morrison on so many different levels … from the critical analysis to the celebratory aspect.”
Kimberley A. Turner, a conference volunteer, was impressed with the variety and interdisciplinary nature of the conference events. “There are so many ways to engage in a discussion of Morrison’s works, as opposed to someone just lecturing you,” Turner says.
One of the highlights for conference participants was the chance to listen in on a conversation among well-known artists and scholars, including Yale professor Dr. Hazel Carby, filmmaker Haile Gerima, journalist and poet Kevin Powell, Spelman College president Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum and Aidoo.
The conversation ranged from a discussion of the responsibility of the Black artist and the Black intellectual community to the politics of inclusion and exclusion in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action in college admissions.
Morrison’s often-quoted Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in particular, points to “the
importance of understanding other views, other languages, other narratives — how to create a space where all the voices are being heard. Morrison’s writing allows for that,” Tatum says.
Much of the conference centered on the ways in which Morrison’s works are being used or can be used outside the traditional college literature course.
“We want to show that texts by Morrison can have a long-term impact. We don’t want to limit her to being a ‘difficult to read’ person or contain her to a literary classroom,” says Dr. Maryemma Graham, vice president of the society and professor of English at the University of Kansas.
This year’s conference served also as the official launch of the society’s national service initiative “Language Matters,” which is designed to help secondary school teachers and young readers come to know Morrison.
The first part of the initiative began in the fall of 2002, when the society began a series of yearlong workshops with the teachers at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C., to assist them with strategies on teaching Morrison. As part of the Cardozo project, the entire student body of about 500 students read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye at the same time. Cardozo teachers at the conference talked of how discussions of the novel moved outside of English classes into other disciplines.
Other examples of moving Morrison beyond the college literary classroom included a presentation by two assistant professors in the graduate school of education at George Mason University. Dr. Gretchen Givens Generett and Dr. Mark A. Hicks demonstrated how they have used Morrison’s novels to re-energize and reinspire practicing teachers in Virginia’s public school system.
Generett and Hicks maintain that the current public school setting represents an “oppressive context,” and “far too many teachers lack the habits of mind and heart that are required to reorder their lives and teach for change.” Morrison’s novels, however, have helped them encourage the teachers to “read the world in alternative ways.”
For more information on the Toni Morrison Society visit the society’s Web site at .

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