- Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for the publication of Paradise
- Toni Morrison will speak to a sold-out audience at Colorado College on Wednesday, Feb. 4.
Bad news first: The tickets are all gone, swept up in less than a day.
When Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison comes to Colorado Springs to deliver the annual Cornerstone Lecture, both Armstrong Hall and Shove Chapel will be packed with admirers of the great American novelist. Ms. Morrison's topic will be "Is Nothing Sacred?"
For Morrison, language is sacred. In her 1993 Nobel acceptance speech, she said: "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."
With her extraordinary gift for language, Morrison has carried readers to a world of grace and hardship, a world where white men define themselves as superior by the mere presence of blacks. And though her novels unflinchingly look racism in the eye and proclaim the power of the feminine, Morrison forcefully denies being someone who writes about racism, feminism or any "ism." Her subject is humanity and the quest for love, with all its tawdry desires, grandiose ambitions and glorious complications.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, a steel mill town on Lake Erie, Morrison was raised by working-class Depression-era parents who taught her how to work, how to rise above racism and how to laugh. Morrison left Lorain for Howard University, where she earned a bachelor's degree, and then to Cornell, where she studied literature and wrote her master's thesis on William Faulkner. In 1965, divorced and the mother of two young sons, Morrison went to work editing textbooks for Random House in New York City, stealing hours early in the morning to work on her first novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970. Of those years, Morrison has said: "I had no will, no judgment, no perspective, no power, no authority, no self -- just this brutal sense of irony, melancholy and a trembling respect for words. I wrote like someone with a dirty habit."
Self-deprecating as that may sound, it is not. It merely reflects the author's practical sense of her own life, making a living when she had to and finding a place for her art. In a 1981 Newsweek interview, Morrison neatly dismissed the mystique attached to women who manage to work, raise children and pursue art. "We are all traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores and obligations. I'm not sure we deserve such big A-pluses for all that."
Morrison followed The Bluest Eye with Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987), Tar Baby (1981), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998) and Love (2003), served as senior editor in the trade department at Random House until 1983, and is now a professor of humanities at Princeton University. She was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon, the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, and, in 1993, the Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work. She was the first African-American honored with that prize, one of only eight women Nobel laureates, and the first native-born American to win it in more than 30 years (John Steinbeck won it in 1962).
In her Nobel lecture, Morrison neatly distilled the role of a novelist:
"Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of a town that cannot bear your company."
Our town will proudly bear her company on Wednesday, Feb. 4. Count yourself lucky if you snagged a ticket. If not, why not enjoy a quiet evening with Song of Solomon?
-- Kathryn Eastburn