Upon accepting the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison told a story of children who visit an old blind woman, an American daughter of slaves. Endeavoring to test the blind woman’s reputation for being clairvoyant, they ask her whether the bird in their hand is dead or alive. When she answers that she doesn’t know if it’s dead or alive but does know that it’s in their hands, a deep silence follows. The annoyed children plead: “You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names.”
This seminar is an opportunity to study the literature of Toni Morrison by reading her work, deeply and widely, while considering what Morrison’s “language alone” offers. We will read novels that span Morrison’s career, including The Bluest Eye (1970), Beloved (1987), and A Mercy (2008). We also will read selections of Morrison’s essays on literature and politics as well as her play Desdemona (2011), which imagines the relationship of Othello’s doomed wife with her “Barbary,” or African, nursemaid.
Morrison’s work is not for the faint of heart. When reading Morrison we will face the ugliest aspects of America’s history and the human capacity for cruelty and evil even as we are reminded of the human capacity for creativity, resilience, and goodness. In The Source of Self-Regard Morrison observes, “Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination” (ix). The brilliance and generosity of Morrison’s writing, especially when read and discussed in the community of a seminar, will help us to sharpen our moral imaginations and will give us the courage to do so.
Students will read closely and regularly, participate in and lead class discussions, and respond to Morrison’s work in analytic and fiction writing of their own.
Semester Course (Fall) - 2 credits