Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature and a 1987 Pulitzer Prize, spoke to the UM community about the importance of understanding the past and the world’s need for artists at the Convocation Center Tuesday. Morrison was the Robert and Judi Prokop Newman Lecturer for the Fall Convocation.
One of the world’s most prominent authors in both the international and African-American community, Morrison spoke about her own relationship with history as a writer-a relationship of both dependency and doubt.
“[There were] erasures, absences, silences that I took for censure. It seemed to me history was about them, and if I ever was mentioned in fiction or history, it was usually something I wished I had skipped,” Morrison said, referring to the place of African-Americans within American history.
These gaps in the past are what Morrison described as being “not enough,” leaving questions that led to her first novel, published in 1970, that came as a consequence of Morrison being tired of the dismissal of her population in history and literature.
“Vulnerable young black girls [were] absent,” she said. “When they did appear, they were jokes or instances of pity, but it was a pity minus understanding.”
For a writer, Morrison noted, the real excitement is present when there are gaps, areas of nothingness that become canvases for writers to fill.
“It’s like a tall door rises up for the author, but there isn’t any bell that you can push. And later at some odd moment, just sticking your hands in your pocket, you find a key that you know fits,” she said. “Through that door is a kind of freedom; sometimes it can frighten, but more important is the writer that steps though that door enters uncolonized territory which one can claims as one’s own.”
As Morrison spoke, members of the audience broke their silence only in moments of applause or to give her a standing ovation. Many were fans of her novels, such as Song of Solomon, Paradise and Beloved, her most famous work, which was published in 1987 and later adapted into a film. Others were student writers and artists who Morrison specifically addressed on the significance of their work.
“It’s important to know and always remember that art is knowledge,” she said. “Only artists can translate certain events and human emotion into meaning.”
“If you don’t think so,” she added, “watch who gets burnt, shot and censored first-you. It’s that dangerous to be that good.”
Morrison’s own work, which has often been censored and disapproved of for discussion in classrooms, deals with the issues of her community in both the past and present, addressing racial inequalities, the rights of women and their place in the women’s movement and freedom.
“Freedom is something that’s very hard to pin down in actual life. It’s a play between the overwhelming desire that humans have to be absolutely unique. At the same time, you really want to belong to something, so that the question of freedom is part of the human story,” Morrison said. “It’s an evolving story. Because you may just be, you know, alone.”
Students said they felt inspired by Morrison’s words.
“She opened my mind. It was like an electric shock,” Jedlyn Pierrilus, first-year medical student, said. “It woke me up, it inspired me to go further. What struck me was when she said ‘if something pains you, then you are the one to tell the story, to do something about it and facilitate the change’.”
Natalia Maldonado can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.