By: Sheila Foran
Acclaimed author Toni Morrison was greeted with a standing ovation as she prepared to deliver the keynote address at the Humanities Institute’s 10th anniversary celebration on April 8.
Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Professor Emerita in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. She has written numerous non-fiction books, as well as essays and children’s literature, but she is best known for her richly detailed novels that typically explore the African-American experience from a feminine perspective.
A Nobel laureate, and winner of the Pulitzer prize, the National Book Critics Award, and the Library of Congress Bicentennial Living Legend Award, among other honors, she emphasizes that she is not a feminist writer but rather one who chronicles the historically accurate experiences of her characters who happen to be female.
“People ask me why I write about the past,” she said, “and the implication is that I am ignoring the present … and I do write about the past … but [for instance] when I wrote Sula, which took place in the early 1900s, I was keenly aware of the current state of feminist discourse.”
“Freezing history in amber is dangerous,” she said, “and what has happened in the past and what is happening now are part of an arc towards the future. It’s virtually impossible to understand or to shape the present without some knowledge of what has come before.”
Morrison said her books are about values. We are living in a world where the pride of profit often drives public policy, she said, and this is narrowing the concept of citizenship.
“I remember being a girl and being called a citizen and this was important,” she reflected. “Sure I was a second-class citizen, but I was still a citizen.