Rutgers professors reflect on Toni Morrison's impact in literary world, University

<p>American novelist Toni Morrison has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album and most recently the Thomas Jefferson Medal.</p>


American novelist Toni Morrison has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album and most recently the Thomas Jefferson Medal.

Renowned American novelist Toni Morrison, who won numerous literary awards for her work, died earlier this August at 88 years old. She has not only made an impact on the literary world, but also on the Rutgers community, as she was both a professor and commencement speaker at the University. 

Her last award was the Thomas Jefferson Medal awarded by the American Philosophical Society last year. She was also nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children in 2008 for “Who's Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? The Lion or the Mouse? Poppy or the Snake?”

At Rutgers, she has continued to make an impact since her work is the focus of many courses.

Maurice Wallace, a professor in the Department of English who teaches the course “Black Women Writers," said he was teaching a class solely about Morrison because she was a significant figure, and it was very infrequent that students got an opportunity to read more than two of her texts in their undergraduate years.

“I want the students to have a fuller, more expansive encounter with Morrison,” he said.

Wallace is also interested in having students develop new sensitivities to language, reading with their ears as well as their eyes and imagining what it is like to be a Black writer who is confident and comfortable with their own ethnicity, despite some readers not being pleased. 

He is currently teaching the novel “Paradise,” which is about mythologies of paradise, as well as the prejudices and violence that are historically waged against marginalized or stigmatized people like Black women.

“We think of paradise aspirationally, but we never consider the high costs that are paid by non-privileged people,” Wallace said regarding the book.

The goal of his course is for students to develop the capacity to see the world through the eyes of some of Morrison’s characters, which include a Black girl who desires blue eyes, an ex-slave mother who would rather kill her infant daughter than return to slavery and a young man with the desire to fly. 

Cheryl Wall, a professor in the English Department and literary critic who has previously taught courses on Morrison’s novels, said that Morrison’s impact on the world is “extraordinary” because her work was translated into multiple languages.

“Her work speaks to our modernity, what it means to have some sense of home but for most people to be somewhat disconnected from home whether geographically, socially or culturally and trying to keep in tune with the values of home. At the same time, we navigate a very complex, sometimes alienating, reality,” she said. 

One of Wall’s favorite novels by Morrison is “Sula,” which focuses on a Black woman who refuses to conform to expectations such as marriage and having children. The novel was also set during the 1920s, a time when there was not space for Black women to act that way.

“She is unlike any other character I had encountered in fiction. She’s so careful in terms of her word choice and how sometimes the words would be deeply allusive,” Wall said.

A Rutgers professor herself, Morrison taught at the University in the 80s for a year while she was writing “Beloved." In 2011, she also gave a commencement speech to the graduating class, which Wall attended. 

In her speech, she addressed the value of education, as well as its rights and responsibilities, and the importance of higher education.

“It was just a glorious occasion, and one of the things that I vividly remember is her call for us to think of ourselves as citizens rather than consumers. She had a real sense of what it meant to be a citizen," Wall said.

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