Toni Morrison in front of purple background

Written in Stone: Toni Morrison Transcript

Season 2 Episode 12

Ben Binversie (00:04):

Plato, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Emerson, and now, Toni Morrison, the Nobel Laureate and esteemed author takes her place among those great thinkers, but on her own terms.

Ben Binversie (00:17):

This is All Things Grinnell. Im your host, Ben Binversie. On todays show, we commemorate the life of Toni Morrison and discuss her legacy around the world and at Grinnell.

Ben Binversie (00:44):

Shanna Benjamin brings Toni Morrison into the historical framework of black womens literature. Johanna Giebelhaus gives us an inside personal look into Morrison through the documentary she produced and edited. And then President Kington wraps up the episode by discussing why he chose Morrison as the first name to adorn the walls of the new Humanities and Social Studies Center.

Ben Binversie (01:06):

Thats coming up next after I remind you that the information and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the individuals involved and do not represent the views of Grinnell College.

Ben Binversie (01:18):

Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. Like all of us, she was the hero of her own story, the center of her own universe, but she also wrote stories about others, about black experiences. She imagined a new literary world beyond the white gaze, one that didnt need to appeal or explain anything to white audiences.

Ben Binversie (01:42):

Morrisons first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Her novel, Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. She went on to publish 11 novels, as well as childrens 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, where she amplified other black voices as the first black female editor in fiction.

Toni Morrison (02:11):

Navigating a white male world was not threatening. It wasnt even interesting. I was more interesting than they were. I knew more than they did. And I wasnt afraid to show it.

Ben Binversie (02:27):

In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, of which Angela Davis says ...

Angela Davis (02:34):

It was an extraordinary turning point in the history of this country and I would say the history of the world, because she urged us to imagine people who were slaves as human beings, individuals with subjectivity, who also loved, who also had imaginations, even as they were subjected to the most horrendous modes of repression. We can never think about slavery and the same way.

Ben Binversie (03:13):

Morrison gained worldwide recognition when she received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Morrison died at the age of 88 in August of 2019. But her legacy will carry on. Grinnell recently acknowledged and honored that legacy by announcing Morrisons name as the first to be inscribed onto the walls of the new Humanities and Social Studies Center.

Ben Binversie (03:43):

So, what a perfect time to reflect on this literary giant and what she means to this country, the world and Grinnell College.

Ben Binversie (03:52):

Shanna Benjamin is a professor of English here at Grinnell. Shes a literary critic and biographer who studies the literature and lives of black women. Recently, shes been working on a biography of another giant in black literature. Black feminist foremother and coeditor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Nellie Y. McKay. She came back to campus to give a talk about Toni Morrison and why the placement of her name on Grinnells walls is radical and significant. She talked about Morrisons place in the history of the development of black womens voices in literary and cultural spaces.

Shanna Benjamin (04:29):

I think that were at a point now, I marvel at the fact that Zora Neale Hurstons Their Eyes Were Watching God is taught in high schools. When my adviser came into the professoriate, it was out of print, and they passed around photocopies.

Shanna Benjamin (04:51):

So, I think theres a sense that black womens literature has been a part of the conversation. And thats not true at all. It took a lot of effort and a lot of sacrifice to create a space for black womens voices, not just in academic spaces, in literary spaces, when it comes to prizes and awards, being recognized, when it comes to what we like to call citational praxis that is who you credit for their intellectual labor. I think that black women are consistently overlooked in a wide variety of contexts and not cited appropriately for their foundational work in different arenas.

Ben Binversie (05:39):

So, were inscribing Tonis name on the walls of our newest academic building. And shes a radical departure from the names that are etched into Carnegie Hall, Shakespeare, Plato, Homer, Michelangelo, and the like, where does she fit and how does she relate to them?

Shanna Benjamin (05:55):

Well, I guess I dont 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 refuse to see her experience or her focus on the experiences of black women and girls, her attention to black communities, the way she deployed black language and orality in her novels. Folks asked her if she found it limiting to be identified as a black writer, let alone a black woman writer. And she absolutely rejected that notion because she understood that her experience was vast and deep.

Shanna Benjamin (06:46):

And so, I dont think about her in relation to these other folks. But I think that what she brings to the conversation is a focus on how a singular experience can be transformative, that by mining the details of your life and of the lives and the images that move you, that surround you, the stories that are not being told, the books you want to read that havent been written, for me, thats what she offers. That if it doesnt exist, make it so.

Ben Binversie (07:32):

Yeah. When I was thinking about that, she is a radical departure from all those names and thats precisely why it is significant and why she is significant. But she is as all writers are kind of like drawing from this larger literary tradition that weve been telling stories since we could tell stories, I was curious about where Tonis entrance into the literary world like shaking things up, like what did that do?

Shanna Benjamin (08:04):

Black writers have always immersed themselves in these so-called classics, if you will. And I say that with a question mark.

Ben Binversie (08:13):

Yes, I could hear the question.

Shanna Benjamin (08:17):

In part because there was a lot of recovery work yet to be done when it comes to black writers. And so, writing about Faulkner, so many scholars wrote about Faulkner in their dissertations or masters theses and such. And I think that having a connection to those writers and being able to both read for the quality of the prose, the craft, but also for the gaps and for the spaces that you see yourself filling with your own narratives just opens up a whole new world of possibility.

Ben Binversie (08:57):

So, can you explain the idea that Toni Morrison wasnt necessarily fighting against but wanted to kick to the side of the road of the white gaze in literature and how Morrison subverted it and ran away from it in her work.

Shanna Benjamin (09:17):

Yeah, one of the things that my adviser noted in the syllabus that she put together. This was years and years ago. First of all, scholars of that generation werent trained as African Americanist. They were trained in American literature. They were trained in the classics and all of that. But after that, they began training African Americanist, which means that they also, at the same time, they were teaching the literature, they were teaching strategies for understanding it for being able to access it.

Shanna Benjamin (09:53):

One of the things that she notes in her syllabus is that black women are at the center of their lives, at the center of their worlds. I think that theres a great misconception that our focus, our energies are always directed outward toward fighting against or rejecting white supremacy. And that hasnt been my experience as a black woman. And so, I think that what Morrison reflects in her fiction, as well as her nonfiction, as well as in her essays, the centrality of that perspective and vision. And theres a wholesale discounting of how to frame or reframe, or to explain certain details related to black life in culture for a white audience, because she does not presume that they are the primary focus.

Ben Binversie (10:51):

Yeah. Thats not who shes writing.

Shanna Benjamin (10:52):

Thats not who shes writing for. Thats not who shes writing for.

Ben Binversie (10:57):

When did you first encounter Toni Morrisons work and were thinking whole legacy for you.

Shanna Benjamin (11:06):

I got a story for this. So, when I was an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith University, which is a historically black college in Charlotte, North Carolina, I was what was then called a Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellow, MMUF. And as a Mellon Fellow, we had to identify a research project. And I decided to investigate the use of fairy tales in Toni Morrisons fiction.

Shanna Benjamin (11:39):

And so, that was my primary introduction to the work of Toni Morrison. And I realized later even though I was framing it in terms of fairy tales, I had just always been deeply invested in the power of myth and myth making thinking also about Song of Solomon and The Flying Africans. And I think that there are lots of techniques, lots of tropes that link back to broader themes in black culture. And so, the role of myth and storytelling of these really extraordinary scenes and images, where its centered in reality, but there is kind of a mythic world of possibility. I think thats what always enchanted me about her work.

Ben Binversie (12:30):

Just from a literary sense, its profound, but also in terms of being a black woman, when you extrapolate that out to society, its also meaningful. What about her work beyond the books that she wrote? Because I was previously unaware of the extent of her other work as an editor and a teacher, and the voices that she amplified, not just her own, but bringing other people into the mix and publishing other voices that were not being heard.

Shanna Benjamin (13:02):

Yeah. I mean, I think that especially with the documentary, her work as an editor at Random House is becoming more and more well known. The way that she gave black writers a platform for their work. But I also want to say something about an organization that I dont think has been getting enough light and credit in the midst of all these conversations about Morrison and that is the Toni Morrison Society and Carolyn Denard, in the way that she realized that there was no society devoted to the study of Toni Morrisons life and work.

Shanna Benjamin (13:42):

And she organized the Toni Morrison Society years and years ago. Theres a website that details its origins and its an active organization and Toni Morrison was a regular participant, but this was about black women saying, "We see you, Toni." Its not just black women who are participants, but these were the folks who founded this organization. And from what I understand, Toni Morrison always had a very close relationship to that organization and was really supportive of its efforts.

Ben Binversie (14:19):

Yeah, thats cool. I will make sure that I throw a link to that on the webpage.

Shanna Benjamin (14:23):

Yes, please do. Please do.

Ben Binversie (14:26):

So, beyond you personally and beyond what Morrison has meant to many readers and other fellow writers in thinking about Tonis legacy moving forward now that her physical body has left us but her words will remain for a long time. What does it mean for you that Grinnell is inscribing her name in the walls? Im sure that Tonis not going to be thinking about this on par with the Nobel Prize that she received but it does mean something and I want to know what it means to you.

Shanna Benjamin (15:03):

It means a lot. And she has this essay, Rootedness, The Ancestors Foundation. And she talks about the role of the ancestor in black communities but also within her novels. And I think that in particular cosmologies, the notion of the ancestor as a guiding force is vital. Its important. Its different than an Alder. An Alder is living an ancestor, someone who has transitioned.

Shanna Benjamin (15:36):

So, what I see is that inscription being a visual representation of her presence as ancestor. And so, thats not just about her work in literary domains, but also in the way that she talked about race indifference the way as you mentioned she talked about the white gaze.

Shanna Benjamin (16:03):

Of course, her essays Playing in the Dark, which Ive used in a course here at Grinnell, American literature, the 19th century, the way that she talked about literary whiteness and literary blackness, her keen insight and the way that she was able to link the language of racial difference as something that is woven into the very fabric of the way we use words and deploy description, and the way that we seem to want to differentiate and the codes, well, theyre not unspoken, but the linguistic codes that are used, I find all of that supremely important.

Shanna Benjamin (16:46):

And that inscription to me if used the right way, because it could just gather dust in the cracks and crevices and its the sort of thing that you see so regularly that it fades into the background. But I think that it would be missing out on an opportunity to imagine how that presence looks down and over that space. Is this inscription going to prompt folks to give black women credit for their intellectual labor, to consider greater diversity and the voices that are represented in the classes that are taught and secondary sources that are distributed to students as the scholars who are named and tapped as experts in the field? Will colleagues begin reading the work of their black women peers?

Ben Binversie (17:48):

Yeah.

Shanna Benjamin (17:49):

And have really serious conversations about the work. Will that inscription serve as a reminder that black femmes, girls and women need to experience a sense of belongingness here on campus? So, I think that its really ultimately what we make it.

Ben Binversie (18:14):

Yeah, it does strike me that her impact and her legacy could and should ripple well beyond the curriculum of the English department.

Shanna Benjamin (18:28):

Absolutely.

Ben Binversie (18:29):

Yeah.

Shanna Benjamin (18:29):

Absolutely.

Ben Binversie (18:30):

Well, thank you, Shanna, for talking about Toni and continue to do the work that you do.

Shanna Benjamin (18:36):

Mm-hmm.

Ben Binversie (18:38):

I appreciate it.

Shanna Benjamin (18:39):

Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Ben Binversie (18:42):

Shanna Benjamin is a professor of English here at Grinnell. You can check out links to her scholarly work on our episode webpage, where youll also find links to the Toni Morrison Society, and an interview of Morrison by the subject of Professor Benjamins book, Nellie McKay.

Ben Binversie (18:57):

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, an alum from the class of 1996, edited and produced the new documentary, Toni Morrison, The Pieces I Am. She came back to Grinnell for a visit and to screen the movie at the Strand Theater in town.

Ben Binversie (19:25):

We sat down to talk about working with Toni Morrison and shaping her story. Giebelhaus spent three years on this project, researching and editing and got to know Toni intimately through the process, from her personal papers, conversations with the people she impacted, and Morrison herself.

Johanna Giebelhaus (19:43):

Really 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. So, what an opportunity to have had. And Ive been working on the film over the last three years. Im one of the producers of the film and the films editor. But I also did all the research for the film, which I just love. That was just an incredible experience to have access to all of these archives around the country, Toni Morrisons personal archive and her papers at Princeton University.

Johanna Giebelhaus (20:26):

And I came to be involved in the project through the films director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and hes also a friend of Toni Morrisons for 40 years. They first met in 1981 and he was her photographer. So, they developed a relationship through his photography. And she and Timothy collaborated on a film called The Blacklist for HBO in 2008.

Johanna Giebelhaus (20:53):

And I dont believe that Toni ever wanted to do a biographical film about herself. I think shed been approached for many years by various biographers. She really resisted a biography. And she was not interested in talking about herself. And she was a quite a private woman. She had a very active and generous public life.

Johanna Giebelhaus (21:18):

But her privacy was also very important to her. So, her agreeing to participate in a documentary film about her was a really, really important decision. And thats something that she trusted Timothy to do as the director and then he trusted his team. I had worked on another film for HBO that he had directed. So, we had collaborated on a previous film, so thats how I got involved in this.

Ben Binversie (21:56):

Before you actually met her and started working on the project, what was your first maybe intellectual interaction with Toni Morrison, the author.

Johanna Giebelhaus (22:05):

Yeah. It was at Grinnell.

Ben Binversie (22:06):

Okay.

Johanna Giebelhaus (22:06):

Yeah. I was thinking and reading a little bit of Toni Morrison. But as a history major, I wasnt reading Toni Morrison in classes, but I had many friends who were reading her deeply. So, there were conversations around some of her novels.

Johanna Giebelhaus (22:24):

At that time, there are people I knew who had read The Bluest Eye and the novel, Jazz. But I would say my real intellectual interaction with her work really came from working on this film and at a much deeper way. And really spending time with the material, doing the research, all the backstory of her work on these novels and then also all the context of them was a real immersive experience. And reading and rereading the novels with that information was really quite an experience.

Johanna Giebelhaus (23:08):

Yeah. One of the places where I worked in the filmmaking was in Lorain, Ohio. Lorain, Ohio is where Toni was born in 1931. During the filmmaking, I went to Lorain and spent quite a bit of time working at the Lorain Historical Society and working at the Lorain Public Library and really working with some community members and trying to build the archival research of the context of Lorain, Ohio in the 30s and understanding Tonis context and figuring out ways we can represent that in the film. And so, then reading The Bluest Eye, which is set in Lorain Ohio, with that experience was just incredible. Yeah, really just like an even richer read, if thats possible.

Ben Binversie (23:56):

Yeah. Yeah, I imagine you got some very unique and deep insights into Toni Morrison throughout the three years of researching.

Johanna Giebelhaus (24:06):

Yeah. And also just an incredible honor to spend time with her during the process and spend time in her personal archives and scanning hundreds of photos in her home and at Princeton and in Lorain. It was just really like a hands-on experience.

Ben Binversie (24:29):

Yeah. How did maybe the Toni Morrison that you imagined while you were reading about her life or reading her books jive with the Toni Morrison that you worked with in making the film?

Johanna Giebelhaus (24:46):

I think its hard to put into words what a remarkable human being she was and her presence, to be in her presence was like something that Ill probably never experience again. And she was so generous in letting us in her home and turning her living room into a studio.

Johanna Giebelhaus (25:11):

But what just odd 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, which is not a combination that I have encountered a lot. Just such an authority on an expert on so many things, but also the sort of sense of being a real down to earth humble person, but incredibly, incredibly self-assured at the same time.

Ben Binversie (25:52):

Yeah, rare combination.

Johanna Giebelhaus (25:52):

A rare combination. Yeah. She was a very, very special, special and such a consummate teacher. Ive read so many anecdotes about people, former students who had her in classes and she was an adviser to so many and a teacher to so many. I mean, I can just imagine what a powerful teacher she was in the classroom.

Ben Binversie (26:14):

Yeah. So, from your position as producer and editor, how did you kind of approach the framework of the story in terms of how you wanted to capture this gigantic life and this amazing woman and distill it into a two-hour documentary?

Johanna Giebelhaus (26:32):

Yeah, that is such a good question.

Ben Binversie (26:34):

Daunting task.

Johanna Giebelhaus (26:35):

Such a daunting task. Oh, my goodness. We could have done a 10-hour series on Toni Morrison and it still wouldnt have been enough. I mean, in addition to her incredible biography, a biography where she wore so many hats as a writer, an editor, a teacher, a mother, a friend, I mean, theyre just so many important threads to her professional life. Then you have all of her work, all of her dozen novels and all of her nonfiction work and essays and lectures and speeches and you have really 50 years of an active public life.

Johanna Giebelhaus (27:25):

But the way the material is organized is thematically and that was really the way to approach the trying to get a handle on the structure of the film and distilling what was going to be included and what was going to be important, was really talking about what are the most important themes in her biography and the most important themes in her work. And from the perspective of her biography being a way to tell a larger story, a larger story of America.

Ben Binversie (28:01):

Are there like angles on Toni Morrisons life or parts of her that you feel are important to her story, but that you didnt get to really tell in the documentary because you left a lot of things on the cutting room floor.

Johanna Giebelhaus (28:16):

Yeah. There are so many things that were sadly left on the cutting room floor. It was painful to not be able to include everything and thats one of the hard things about being an editor and making decisions and these scenes, dozens of scenes, they become almost like your friends. But ultimately, the litmus test for those sometimes hard cuts is all about what is serving and strengthening the story the most, like what is really important here as far as propelling a structure forward and propelling these scenes forward.

Johanna Giebelhaus (28:58):

There was a scene, assembly of scenes actually that we all loved on Tonis relationship with Shakespeare. And she had a profound relationship and reverence for Shakespeare and it was just fascinating to hear her talk about that. And she went on and collaborated with the theater director Peter Sellars, and they did this wonderful work on Othello. But for Toni, she did her own telling of Othello about Desdemona and from the point of view of the women in the play.

Johanna Giebelhaus (29:38):

So, the story of Desdemona and her relationship with Barbary, her slave, and its just incredible, but we were trying so hard to figure out how we could put this beautiful story and important story in the film but there wasnt room for it. So, that was a painful cut. But I think an important cut for the film, but luckily, thats in the bonus material on the DVD.

Ben Binversie (30:07):

Okay, nice. So, how did you approach trying to tell the story of this very important figure in black history without being a part of that community necessarily?

Johanna Giebelhaus (30:23):

Yeah. Thank you for that question. Well, the white gaze is a central tenant of what Toni was tackling and Id say what she broke through in her literature. And Tonis a commitment to writing beyond the white gaze, I mean, she says in the film that there was like Jimmy Baldwin would say, there was this little white man on her shoulder and what she wanted to do was knock him off.

Johanna Giebelhaus (30:57):

So, this idea of the white gaze was something that was very present for us in the film and wanting to be very conscious of that. Our film team was very diverse. So, we have a lot of diversity on our team. So, that was something that was really important to us. Its something that we thought about and really worked. to be conscious of and try to make a film that honored Tonis mission to go beyond that white gaze. But something, Id say that for white people, we all have to work really hard to do in this society.

Ben Binversie (31:37):

Yeah. How much of a role did Toni have in the structure of the film? I got the sense that she was maybe a little hands off and maybe a reluctant interviewee to begin with. So, I dont imagine that she was there deciding what was going to make the cuts, but I dont know. Tell me otherwise.

Johanna Giebelhaus (32:00):

Youre right about that. Youre right. Yeah, she was very hands off and was not involved in the filmmaking beyond her incredible generosity of sitting for two sets of interviews. And she didnt see anything along the way. And we kept her apprised of how things were going on a general way. But she only saw the film when it was done. And that was something that we really respected and were excited about.

Ben Binversie (32:37):

Yeah. What was her reaction to the film?

Johanna Giebelhaus (32:37):

When we took the film to show her, we were very nervous as you can imagine. You can only imagine how nerve wracking that was. Didnt quite know how she would feel. If she would want to watch it all to be honest. Its a two-hour film.

Ben Binversie (32:55):

Yeah.

Johanna Giebelhaus (32:56):

She watched every frame of it and every scene carefully and closely and she enjoyed it. And at the end of the film, she said, "I like her," talking about herself. So, we thought that was really something and that was a really meaningful moment for all of us.

Ben Binversie (33:19):

Yeah. Yeah. Thats cool. We dont all get the opportunity to have a documentary made about ourselves.

Johanna Giebelhaus (33:26):

Thats right. And were still mourning her passing.

Ben Binversie (33:31):

Yeah.

Johanna Giebelhaus (33:32):

And, as we have been reflecting on the filmmaking experience and so grateful for our time with her and her incredible body of work, were just so glad that she got to see it, when she was living and I think most importantly, that she got to tell her own story. So, the film is direct to camera, Tonis looking straight at you and she is telling her story. Its her word on her life. I think its really wonderful.

Ben Binversie (34:10):

Yeah. And that drives the film, but theres also a lot of other people that you interviewed. And what was it like working with people like Angela Davis and some of these other great figures and hearing about Toni in their words.

Johanna Giebelhaus (34:25):

It was really incredible. I mean, the assembly of Tonis peers and scholars, we called it sort of Tonis list. It was one incredible interview and incredible person after the next, Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Farah Griffin, Peter Sellars. I mean, Paula Giddings, David Carrasco. These are all just great thinkers and scholars and artists. And everybody who participated in the film, they were doing it for Toni Morrison and for the reverence for her work and the impact her work has had on them as intellectuals, as artists, and understanding that just the reach of her impact on so many was just really something.

Ben Binversie (35:25):

Yeah, yeah. How do you personally after spending so much time working with her and learning about her, what does she kind of mean to you in your life?

Johanna Giebelhaus (35:41):

The filmmaking and thinking about Toni and helping to tell her story has been literally a part of my daily life for three years. So, its super emmeshed and entrenched, I would say, an experience but the impact on my craft I think has been huge. I think I learned a lot as an artist from Toni. I would say, as an editor, what I came to really learn about her is she was the ultimate editor. She worked as editor professionally before she was a full-time writer. Shes editing at Random House.

Johanna Giebelhaus (36:23):

But she was a brilliant editor. I mean, I could feel that and see that in her interviews that she was consciously ... I felt like she was giving me breadcrumbs as an editor of like you can go this way in the edit, you can go this way, or heres a possible ending here, or heres a possible way to get out of that story. I mean, there were so many breadcrumbs of connections. As I said, there was a real thematic approach to the filmmaking. And there were pieces all throughout her interviews and layers just like her literature. Just so layered and expressive.

Johanna Giebelhaus (37:02):

It was a transformative experience to be in her company to spend so much time learning about her work and just being so deeply inspired not just by what she accomplished, but how she lived her life and her fearlessness and her career and just sticking to the work that she wanted to do, regardless of the pressures around her and the expectations and bigotry or whatever it was or sexism that she just stuck to her stories and did her work the way she wanted to do it. What a force and Id say just a genius in her work but just such a humanist.

Johanna Giebelhaus (37:52):

And I cant think of a more important and impactful voice in America and in the world other than her. And the impact that shes had on so many other writers and so many other thinkers and artists in the film, the film is infused with the art and music by I think there are over 55 artworks by African American artists, contemporary artists, some artists who have passed away.

Johanna Giebelhaus (38:31):

Charles White, Rashid Johnson, Kara Walker. The opening title sequence is done by contemporary artists, Mickalene Thomas. Lorna Simpson has worked in the film. And all of these artists all said, "I want to participate." "Yes, you have permission to use our artwork in the film." And they all did this because of Toni Morrison, because of the impact that her work and her voice had in their art.

Johanna Giebelhaus (39:01):

So, I think that the impact of her work and her legacy is just one that is so important to continue to recognize and talk about and to explore. And I hope that more people will be doing that exploration. Yeah, because her impact is just huge, important.

Ben Binversie (39:26):

Yeah. And its exciting for you, I imagine to be able to bring that back and show the movie here in Grinnell at the Strand.

Johanna Giebelhaus (39:33):

It is. Its just wonderful. I couldnt be more delighted to be here and honored, and just theres something really meaningful about coming back to Grinnell and being on campus and being in town and sharing the film with the community. I hope the film will help spark more dialogue here at Grinnell. And I think thats something that Toni kind of sets this stage for people to enter conversations around race, conversations around American history that really need to happen.

Johanna Giebelhaus (40:19):

And communities like Grinnell, big communities like New York, wherever it is that these conversations I think at a grassroots level are really important. And Im hoping the film can continue to be part of that.

Ben Binversie (40:34):

Yeah. Well, thank you very much Johanna for coming and sharing the film, and spending a lot of time working on it to make it happen and for talking to me and sharing it on the podcast.

Johanna Giebelhaus (40:46):

Thank you so much. It was great to be with you.

Ben Binversie (40:49):

Johanna Giebelhaus is a Grinnell grad from the class of 1996. The documentary, Toni Morrison, The Pieces I Am, premiered at Sundance last year is out on Magnolia Pictures and well be on the PBS master series program in June. You can find the trailer and learn more about the film, as well as see some of the amazing artwork that went into the film on our webpage.

Ben Binversie (41:12):

In 1905, Iowa College, which would soon become known as Grinnell College, opened Carnegie Library. On the building are inscribed 11 names of great thinkers from many years past, Caesar, Isaiah, Emerson, Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Plato, Michelangelo, Darwin, Goethe, Galileo. It was while looking at those names and with the new building in mind that President Kington got the idea for some new names.

Raynard Kington (41:42):

When I first came here, I remember walking past that building and looking at those names and thinking that it was interesting that these names were homogenous. And I dont think anyone necessarily would argue with any of the names up there in terms of people who had an impact, although Isaiah, Im not sure about.

Ben Binversie (42:09):

When I ran across that name, I was like, "That doesnt mean anything to me, Im not going to lie."

Raynard Kington (42:14):

And I will say also that ... I mean, I noted that they were all white men. Theres a caveat that some of those people lived before the current notions of race were even around. So, I like to put that little caveat there. But still, as we now define race and even gender, it was a pretty homogenous group there. And was probably an incomplete group in 1909 when it was done.

Raynard Kington (42:43):

But I remember thinking, wouldnt it be interesting if we could add some names? And I took ... I dont use executive privilege a lot. But I did this time in deciding that I was just going to choose the first name. Partly because I thought it was after Toni Morrison died and I thought, okay, hard to argue with her name being up there. And I thought it would be a good way to start the conversation.

Raynard Kington (43:20):

Many other schools are having these very difficult conversations about names coming down, names of buildings and engraving and programs and schools and lots of pulling off of names. And I like that that hasnt been the focus here. Maybe its a reflection of nice Midwestern understatement that we dont have a lot of names although we havent done a deep dive on all the names around. Im sure that if we look deeply, wed find unpleasantness.

Raynard Kington (43:54):

But I like the idea of adding, adding names. And I keep pushing this and well see whether that actually happens. Im hoping that we will intentionally leave some other spaces blank. Because the notion that any era or time is figured it all out is absurd. And I think thats important message to send to students. And your name might get up there if you do something worthy and I thought Toni Morrison would be a great conversation starter.

Raynard Kington (44:30):

At one point someone had suggested, I got into this conversation, discussion, argument about whether it should be her full name.

Ben Binversie (44:42):

Yup. I was just talking about this with someone today.

Raynard Kington (44:44):

And I said, "No. Darwin can be up there and his last name, then Morrison could be out there with her last name." And so, I think I won that argument.

Ben Binversie (44:55):

There you go. So, personally for you, when did you first kind of interact with Toni Morrison? When did she come into your world and what does she mean to you now?

Raynard Kington (45:07):

I think it was probably 1978. I was 18. I was in my equivalent first year of medical school, I was at Michigan, University of Michigan. And I was in the library of East Quad. And a friend, whos an American woman medical student, was reading The Bluest Eye. And for some reason, we ran into each other and I said, "Thats interesting title." And she just said, "Oh, yeah, you should know who this is." And Id never heard of Toni Morrison.

Raynard Kington (45:43):

And I should have, but because I was reasonably informed about literature, African American literature in particular. But I remember she told me about it and I bought the book and I started it and I found it too painful to read. I literally couldnt finish it. And I recently went looking because I dont throw away books. And I rarely give them away. And I went looking for the paperback. And I think I still have it somewhere in my house, that paperback.

Raynard Kington (46:18):

After that, I think I then read Sula. And then when I was in grad school, I was visiting a friend in New York, African American journalist. And he said, "Im going to see this reading of Toni Morrison. You should come." So, it was in a church, one of the big churches there. And I think she was reading from Beloved. And I remember thinking at the time that she seemed insecure, like she clearly was uncomfortable with the reading and was apologizing and hesitating and I didnt know anything bad or really beyond her books.

Raynard Kington (47:03):

And I thought, "Wow, thats interesting that shes insecure." And now I realized that that was a complete misread. Shes a perfectionist. And I think she wasnt finished and my guess is she made a commitment to this reading and felt obligated to do it, but was clearly uncomfortable reading from it. And knowing more about her from various sources now, I think my guess is shes probably just didnt think that it was ready to be read, but she felt obligated to read at least something.

Raynard Kington (47:41):

But yeah, so I saw her that one time in person and I never met her. But I did remember later, there was an interview of her in the New York Times Magazine. And I remember reading it and the title was something about how Toni Morrison was not her name. It was Chloe Wofford. And she told her how she have her name, all the other publications, Toni Morrison was there when that really just happened to receive I think one of our colleagues who was the editor knew her that way, so, put that name on and maybe may not have even known that that wasnt her first name.

Raynard Kington (48:27):

But what I remembered about the interview, two things I remember that were really important. The first thing was that she was talking about how like her mother had belonged to one of these book clubs where you get books once a month and how that was such an unusual thing. And that was a lot of money, but it she got these books that she read and she talked about how so much ... how influenced she was by great literature out there.

Raynard Kington (49:03):

And that the interviewer asked, "Well, how did you deal with racial stereotypes and all these pieces of literature?" And her answer was some version of well, I just skipped over those parts. These books were like, they transformed me but I just skipped over those parts. And I remember reading, thinking "Oh, so thats how you do it," because Ive been struggling with the fact that so often, youll be reading great piece of literature and when you get to something you go, "Damn."

Raynard Kington (49:41):

You hit the brakes, its like this crash. It was something I read recently, Agatha Christie, something on vacation I was reading. Again it was like youre tooling along reading this light mystery and then bam, this antisemitic and then bam, a racist. I mean, just you think, oh god, now to unpack all of that. And I liked her solution that you skipped over that. And that was really important to me.

Raynard Kington (50:12):

The other thing was that she was asked, "So how did you do all this work when youre raising kids, a single parent and all this?" And she said, "Well, I made a list of things that I had to do and things that were nice to do. The things I had to do were raise my kids and write. Everything else was secondary."

Ben Binversie (50:32):

Yeah.

Raynard Kington (50:33):

Which is pretty impressive.

Ben Binversie (50:35):

Yeah. I didnt know and didnt really think about her influence beyond the works that shes written. Like, as a great author, I understood Toni Morrisons impact. But the more that Ive talked to people, the more Ive thought about how her work extends so far beyond the realms of just literature and thinking about it in the context of like an institution like Grinnell and all other academia, bringing and highlighting black womens voices and making them a part of the canon, and I think Makeba Lavan at the talk yesterday was talking about how building a canon of scholarly work is like empire building, and its important to get those voices in and respected.

Ben Binversie (51:23):

So, what do you think is the importance to an institution like Grinnell of having Morrison not just as a name on a building, but kind of how do we access her spirit and channel that as we move forward?

Raynard Kington (51:41):

Well, I mean, one I think she was an intellectual who was grounded in real life and could make this link between real life and very deep thought. And I think that thats an important message. You dont have to think of intellectual pursuits as being somehow separate from life. I also think she just had tons of, lots of just great message. I love the fact like, and this is I think it was in the documentary where she was asked by Dick Cavett, "Do you feel like youre reduced when called a black writer?"

Ben Binversie (52:31):

Yeah, and a black woman writer.

Raynard Kington (52:33):

Shes, "No, thats what I am. What Im annoyed by is being asked the question, what Im annoyed about." But its interesting because some people say, "Oh, well in some cases, she didnt like being called the black writer, she was just a writer." But she also said, "Im okay being a black writer because I dont think thats a reduction. I dont think anyway Im limited. Thats what I am. And I dont see it as a reduction or constriction in some ways. So, I dont mind being called a black woman writer, because thats what I am." The problem is when you see that as being somehow reduction that is somehow being less than complete. Thats the problem.

Ben Binversie (53:13):

Yeah.

Raynard Kington (53:16):

I mean I love her Nobel Prize speech, have you read?

Ben Binversie (53:22):

No, I have not.

Raynard Kington (53:22):

You should read it. Its very short. Its beautiful. And theres a whole lot of just wonderful pieces in there about ... Like one section she talks about the Tower of Babel and raises this issue, so maybe the problem of the Tower of Babel wasnt that there were all these languages and there was this chaos of language. It was that no ones taking the time to actually learn those languages.

Raynard Kington (53:49):

And maybe if people had thought about that, then maybe you wouldnt have had to try to build this path to heaven. You could sort of maybe it would be down here with people. But no one figured out. No one paid much attention to trying to learn those other languages. She had remark ability to take ... That was a great example of taking something that everyones heard about and this whole sort of narrative.

Ben Binversie (54:16):

Yeah. You know what the story is.

Raynard Kington (54:18):

Yeah. And say, "Well, maybe we need to think a little bit differently about that." And so yeah, I think that ability of being engaged intellectual was pretty amazing. And the great thing about the documentary was that its just so apparent that she was brilliant. And anything like, how could anyone else doubted that?

Ben Binversie (54:51):

Yeah.

Raynard Kington (54:51):

But clearly, there were many people who didnt think that for a long time and didnt think that she was worthy and to read those and to hear those reviews, early reviews, its like nails on a chalkboard here. Too bad that shes restricting us out to black life. And it was so obvious and transparent you think God, what do those people think now?

Ben Binversie (55:21):

Yeah.

Raynard Kington (55:22):

Are they ashamed, embarrassed that they thought that way then? Maybe they were probably gone the glory.

Ben Binversie (55:30):

Yes.

Raynard Kington (55:32):

But the recent collection of her essays and theres the latest publication, the last one, in it theres her eulogy for James Baldwin. And she spoke at his funeral and she was a friend of his and theres a great little piece in there, which she said something about how he demanded that she have these high standards, these high moral standards, but that it had to be on this base of mercy. This tension between having high standards but also being forgiving. But the book is full of lots of great writings, including the Nobel lecture.

Ben Binversie (56:18):

Yeah. I will check it out and direct others to do the same.

Raynard Kington (56:21):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (56:23):

Well, thank you for taking the time to talk about Toni and her legacy and thanks for choosing her as the first person to adorn the new walls.

Raynard Kington (56:35):

Thank you for asking. I hope there are thousand conversations like this because of that.

Ben Binversie (56:43):

That was President Raynard Kington. You can read more about the inscribing of Morrisons name on the new building and see photos from the ceremony on our webpage.

Ben Binversie (56:55):

And thatll do it for this weeks episode. Music for todays show comes from Brett Newski and Podington Bear. The audio clips youve heard from Toni Morrison and Angela Davis come from the documentary. If youd like to contact the show, email us at podcast@grinnell.edu or check out our website, grinnell.edu/podcast.

Ben Binversie (57:15):

Make sure you subscribe to the show and drop review on there while youre at it. Thanks for listening. Im your host, Ben Binversie. Stay weird, Grinnellians.

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