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Awaiting Toni Morrison
The writer's path is rarely simple and direct. It twists and turns, tangles with desire and necessity, experience and exigency, hope and effort. For 1993 Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, that path started in her native Lorain, Ohio, where she began life as Chloe Anthony Wofford, the second of four "chidden," listening to folk tales from her father, a steel mill worker, who told his daughter stories that would later come to life in her fiction.
The path continued -- education at Howard University, where she became "Toni," then a six-year marriage to Harold Morrison, and the birth of two sons. For a time, it seemed that her career would turn toward distinguished publishing; in her career at Random House, she championed figures such as Toni Cade Bambara, AngelaDavis, Gayl Jones and Muhammad Ali. Then came "The Bluest Eye," in 1970, and the beginning of an acclaimed body of work that would include "Sula" (1973); "Song of Solomon" (1977), the first Book of the Month Club selection by an African-American writer, and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction; "Tar Baby" (1981); and then the breathtaking "Beloved," published in 1987, the shocking, beautiful tale of a slave named Sethe who would kill her 2-year-old child rather than have her face a life of slavery. "Beloved" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, was adapted for film in 1998, and in May 2006, a New York Times poll of critics named it the best American novel published in the preceding 25 years. "Jazz" (1992), "Paradise" (1998) and "Love" (2003) followed.
Along the way, Morrison distinguished herself as a thoughtful, challenging critic in such lectures as "Playing in the Dark" and "The Dancing Mind," offering her own provocative insights into American literary history, the seriousness of the life of literature. She would also adapt African folktales for children's books written with her son, Slade Morrison. Before her recent retirement, she was the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University, where she taught for 17 years.
Thursday night, Toni Morrison's path includes a much anticipated visit to Tulane University. Her reading here, some hope, will be a historic moment, an occasion for rebirth, the continuation of an interracial dialogue. Though she once wrote the lyrics for a musical called "New Orleans," in such works as "Sula" and "Paradise," Louisiana is a place you leave, not a place to come to. So it is rare that a writer has been on such a perfect collision path with a city: Morrison's great themes -- self-creation and self-destruction, community and home, the power of folk-wisdom and culture, the dangerous, transformative power of anger and violence and language -- all speak to the still desperate, hopeful situation of post-Katrina New Orleans.
. . . . . . .
The path of a reader, like that of a writer, is never a simple one either. For Ada Bidiuc, a junior English major at Tulane, Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" was part of a shared friendship and a life-changing experience.
The place was Washington, D.C., where then-16-year-old Bidiuc, a Romanian immigrant, found herself, with her blue eyes, a minority student. A friendship with an African-American student, Alana Scott, she says, literally saved her life, by giving her the experience of "living as a minority inside another race." Scott's friendship offered Bidiuc both insight and protection during a violent time at their school.
Bidiuc, who shares her love of the novel with her friend, has taken to heart the message of "The Bluest Eye," in which young Pecola Breedlove, dreaming of blue eyes and acceptance, descends into madness.
"Alana would laugh if I said she saved my faith in myself, in the culture in this country, and in the possibility of all Americans choosing not to act in violence or to betray each other's faith -- faith in themselves and in each other," she said. "It's easy to discard ethics if you can't empathize with another person's race, culture or ethics. It's far harder to do so when you know yourself, know the truth and know the consequences -- suspicion, violence, betrayal, sadness. This is why there is no redemption in 'The Bluest Eye' -- because the writer serves as the prophet.
"But if Toni Morrison is Ezekiel," she continued, "then Alana is a Gospel, and there is hope as long as the world exists and is laid on paper, as long as institutions and generous men give so that younger people who aren't hard yet can see how courage looks like in person -- courage in the face of ignorance, fear, distrust, perpetual disappointment and personal loss. As long as resilience perseveres, as long as books are opened and read."
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