Toni Morrison, considered by many to be the greatest living American author, never intended to become a writer. “My real passion was reading,” she acknowledged, speaking to a small group of students at a Jan. 18 workshop organized by the Northeastern University Humanities Center. But because no authors had yet written the book she most wanted to read, Morrison started writing what would become her debut novel, The Bluest Eye.
“Little black girls were never taken seriously in books; they were always jokes,” said Morrison, the 82-year-old author of 10 novels and the winner of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “But I wanted to read a book where they were taken seriously, so I had to write it.”
Morrison also was the keynote speaker at “No Welcome Home: Remembering Harms and Restoring Justice,” an event hosted later that day by the School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and organized by Professor of Law Margaret Burnham. There, Morrison spoke frankly about the role brutal violence has played in the lives of African Americans throughout much of the 20th century.
She described those incidents as becoming so commonplace, they became “almost casual.”
“Each is a story of humiliation, of degradation, and—very often—of blood,” said Morrison. “To revive these stories, to put them on display, is almost as important as the original justice could have been.”
“Evil and violence need so much to call our attention. But goodness doesn’t need anything. If it says anything at all, it’s a whisper.”—Author Toni Morrison, during her visit to Northeastern
Her talk, however, focused largely on the idea of goodness, which Morrison described as a quiet force more powerful than violence or hatred. Afterward, she read from her book Home and fielded questions from a sold-out audience of more than 1,000.
Near the evening’s end, Northeastern’s president, Joseph E. Aoun, posed a final question. “You have been involved in academia for so long, speaking all over the world,” he said, referring in particular to her long tenure at Princeton University. “What are we doing wrong?”
Morrison was candid in her reply: “I think the academy is scared—of open access to information, of the Internet. Institutions of higher learning are some of the only truly free places we have left, and they have to stay that way.”