Toni Morrison in suit with purple background

Written in Stone: Toni Morrison

Season 2 Episode 12

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

On this episode, we reflect on the life and legacy of the late, great Toni Morrison. Born as Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio in 1931, she left an indelible mark on the world by imagining a new literary space beyond the white gaze, one that didn’t need to appeal or explain anything to white audiences.

As Morrison said, "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." And so she did, time and time again. Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Her novel Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award  in 1977, and she went on to publish a total of 11 novels, as well as numerous children’s books and essay collections. 

While she was writing, she was also a single mother of two children, a professor, and an editor at Random House publications in New York City, where she amplified other black voices as the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for BelovedShe gained formal worldwide recognition when she received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, and she continued writing and teaching until her death at the age of 88 in August of 2019.

Grinnell College recently acknowledged and honored her legacy by announcing Morrison’s name as the first to be inscribed onto the walls of the new Humanities and Social Studies Center.

Toni Morrison's Place in the Literary World

Shanna Benjamin talks with colleagues and students
Shanna Benjamin, center, at the Toni Morrison ceremony

Shanna Benjamin, professor of English, is a literary critic and biographer who studies the literature and lives of black women. Recently she’s been working on a biography of another giant of black literature, black feminist foremother and Norton Anthology of African American Literature co-editor, Nellie Y. McKay through a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. She came back to campus to give a talk about Toni Morrison and why the placement of her name on Grinnell’s walls is radical and significant. Benjamin talked about Morrison’s place in the history of the development of black women's voices in literary and cultural spaces.

When asked how Morrison fits in with the rest of the names inscribed on Grinnell's walls, including Shakespeare, Plato, and Dante, Benjamin turned the question around: "I guess I don't think about her relating to them at all. I think that she is wholly singular and exceptional in the way that she claimed her space as a black woman and...her focus on the experiences of black women and girls, her attention to black communities, the way she deployed black language and orality and her novels."

Read Shanna Benjamin's essay: The Space that Race Creates: An Interstitial Analysis of Toni Morrison's "Recitatif"

Indeed, Toni Morrison stands apart as a radical departure from the names inscribed on Carnegie Hall. Her writings placed black voices at the center of the literary world, pushing against centuries of white dominance of the master narrative. As Benjamin says, "Black women are at the center of their lives, at the center of their worlds. And I think that there is a great misconception that our focus, our energies are always directed outward toward fighting against or rejecting white supremacy. And that hasn't been my experience as a black woman."

Read more about the Toni Morrison Literary Society

Read more: an interview of Toni Morrison by Nellie McKay, the subject of Benjamin's book project.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Documentary

Toni Morrison documentary poster with flower over Toni's eye
Movie poster for Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Toni Morrison told stories for a living, but she was often hesitant to tell her own, successfully thwarting attempts of biographers, but she did agree to tell her story in a documentary film shortly before she died. Johanna Giebelhaus '96 produced and edited the new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which debuted in 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival. For the film, Giebelhaus spent almost three years researching, compiling, and curating the story of Morrison's life. She says of the experience, "It was such an honor to work on this film. It was quite a profound–not just professional experience–but also personal and life experience."

Although Giebelhaus played a big role in shaping the story, part of the film's power comes from Morrison's voice as the central storyteller: "Toni's looking straight at you and she is telling her story. It's her word on her life, which I think is really wonderful."

Photo of Toni Morrison in gray sweater, black shirt, and black hairband

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

She came back to Grinnell for a visit and to screen the movie at the Strand Theatre in town. Giebelhaus discusses working with Toni Morrison and shaping her story. Giebelhaus spent three years on this project, researching and editing, and got to know Toni intimately from her personal papers, conversations with the people she impacted, and Morrison herself.

Johanna Giebelhaus in movie theatre seats
Johanna Giebelhaus at the Strand Theatre in Grinnell

Giebelhaus came away from the film with a deep appreciation for Morrison’s work, but she was equally impressed with Morrison as a person. “What just awed me about her is how she had this remarkable combination of being incredibly welcoming and generous and humble and self-assured at the same time.”

Read about the artwork from the documentary

Morrison’s Legacy at Grinnell College

In 1905, Iowa College, which would soon become known as Grinnell College, opened Carnegie Library. On the building are inscribed eleven names of great thinkers from many years past. It was while looking at those names, and with the new building in mind, that Kington got the idea for some new names.

As he recalls, “I remember walking past that building and looking at those names and thinking, you know, that it was interesting that these names were homogenous.” Indeed, they’re all white men. “But I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could add some names?”

President Kington laughs with Shanna Benjamin at the Toni Morrison ceremony
President Kington, right, enjoys the Toni Morrison inscription ceremony with Shanna Benjamin, middle, and Lakesia Johnson, left

So, as the new building was being constructed, Kington seized the opportunity to put a new name on Grinnell’s walls, and for him, Morrison was an obvious choice. As he saw it, “It’s hard to argue with her name being up there … and I thought it would be a good way to start the conversation.”

Kington sees Morrison as a perfect fit because “she was an intellectual who was grounded in real life and could make this link between real life and very deep thoughts, and I think that that’s an important message … that you don’t have to think of intellectual pursuits as being somehow separate from life.”

Kington hopes Morrison’s name will serve as an inspiration for continued conversation for years to come.

 

Morrison plaque on the walls of the HSSC
Watch the unveiling of Morrison's name on the walls of the Humanities and Social Studies Center

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