Remarks at the Occasion of Toni Morrison’s Visit to Celebrate the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University
Uta G. Poiger
Interim Dean, College of Social Sciences and Humanities
January 18, 2013
It is an immense honor and delight for all us at Northeastern to welcome Toni Morrison to our campus.
I would like to thank Margaret Burnham and the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project for inviting us to collaborate on Professor Morrison’s visit with the Northeastern Humanities Center, which is housed in my college. It is a special privilege to do so at the occasion of Martin Luther King Day.
Toni Morrison continues to have an immense impact on intellectual, artistic, and public life not just in this country but around the world. When we announced that Toni Morrison was coming, it was easy to identify at least seven classes in my college, the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, in which students are reading her work this year.
From her first novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison has been a pioneer. So often she has been the one to reflect on themes before others were able to articulate them. In The Bluest Eye written in the 1960s such themes included not only beauty and racialization, but also incest and sexual abuse. These topics made some want to ban the book from public libraries.
I myself, a historian, have taught Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in a class on beauty and the body. This class asks students to think about how modes of racialization intersect with notions of beauty. I can’t think of a better book with which to introduce these themes. The narrator’s statement in that novel that “romantic love” and “physical beauty” are “[p]robably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought” remains a highly productive provocation.
In ways that are so very compelling, Toni Morrison combines the representation of the singular—for example Pecola Breedlove’s destruction in The Bluest Eye-- with insight into the systemic--for example into racial and gender prejudice or poverty.
Toni Morrison is that rare combination of the artist who pioneers new aesthetic modes and who at the same time challenges us to think from new angles about the difficulties, injustice, and possibilities of past and present.
Earlier today I had the privilege of witnessing eighteen of our Northeastern students discuss The Bluest Eye with the Toni Morrison. The students had participated in a workshop with Professor Kimberly Brown from our English Department.
That conversation was such a powerful reminder why a Humanities education matters in our world today--why the humanities need to be a central part of the education of any student in any field—and why a Humanities education matters as we are working to educate responsible global citizens.
Now, you might say that it is easy to have a stimulating teaching conversation with one of the greatest living writers today. But the conversation was paradigmatic of what a Humanities education does.
The conversation revealed ethical reflection, it revealed critical thought, and it revealed recognition of difference. And these insights and skills are exactly what conversations about great literature can foster.
Each of us, I am sure, can come up with quotes from Toni Morrison that suddenly allowed us to see the world in a new light.
Let me give you a couple more that I find compelling. Toni Morrison is among so many other things a philosopher of language. In her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech one can find the following rumination. She describes “language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency - as an act with consequences.” Language as an act with consequences--that too is an insight that education in the Humanities and Social Sciences instills.
Finally let me cite a very different quote from Toni Morrison’s tenth novel Home where she describes older women tending to a sick woman.
"[They practiced what they had been taught by their mothers during the period that rich people called the Depression and they called life."
With such a concise sentence, Toni Morrison captures multiple dimensions of past and present.
Toni Morrison has the ability to tell us stories of devastation and hope, yet she always makes it clear that there is no simple individual pathology. Again and again she is able to make us think about the systemic through the singular.
Thank you Margaret Burnham and the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project for bringing Toni Morrison here, and thank you, Toni Morrison, for joining us today at Northeastern!