On Oct. 2, the Washington College community gathered in the Rose O’Neill Literary House to pay tribute to renowned author Toni Morrison. The event was co-sponsored by the Literary House, Black Student Union, Cleopatra’s Sisters, the “Collegian,” and Writers’ Union.
The event focused on the life and literature of the celebrated author and professor who passed away on Aug. 5.
Morrison is remembered not only for her vast critical acclaim — including the 1973 National Book Award, the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature — but as a champion of African American artists.
“[She is] the person I think of as the most important writer of the twentieth and twenty-first century,” Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and Assistant Professor of English Dr. James Hall said. “Her passing deeply affected me as a poet, as a writer, as a human being, as a citizen of America. She had really important things to say and keep saying.”
Morrison’s novels focused around the lives of African Americans throughout the United States’ history.
Through her work, she explored racism, the legacy of slavery, familial structures, gender expectations, and other deep-cutting themes that resonate with readers and challenge standards.
Oftentimes, she challenged those standards so thoroughly that groups tried to censor her work. Three of her novels — “Beloved,” “The Bluest Eye,” and “Song of Solomon” — all made the American Library Association’s Top 100 Most Banned Books for 2000 to 2009.
However, she refused to be silenced.
Through her writing about black people for black people, Morrison changed the face of American literature.
“I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central. And yet, the rest of the world moved over to where I was,” Morrison said in her 1998 interview with journalist Jana Wendt.
Morrison’s touch is present on campus. Not only does the broadside from her 1987 visit to WC hang over the Literary House’s mantel, but her words are emblazed in WC’s community members.
A mixture of 15 students and faculty read their favorite quotes from Morrison. Those quotes’ origins varying from prose, to essays, to lectures, to even her posthumously published poetry.
Students read about love, language, and loneliness. Morrison’s words touched on bodily autonomy and ownership, race relations, stereotypes, and beauty.
Each chosen quote was different and meaningful in their diverse themes.
Diversity became a central topic of the night. Dr. Hall identified racial, gender identity, and sexual orientation representation in art as being important to show.
The celebration of blackness attracted attendees like freshman Queen Cornish to the Morrison tribute.
She attended because of the “culture, students that look like me on campus that want to be seen,” Cornish said.
Morrison’s legacy materialized in calls to action to continue discussions about microaggressions and bias on campus, as well as wider issues of police brutality.
Students like senior Jocelyn Elmore, president of Black Students Union, said that people should not only celebrate inspirational figures when they have died, “but to do it while they are still here.”
“We need to do more to celebrate not only [Morrison], not only black artists and writers, but people who really inspire and want to make a change in this world,” Elmore said.