April 16, 2014

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Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison speaks about growing up in Lorain

In honor of the Toni Morrison Society opening their headquarters at Oberlin College, Toni Morrison came to Finney Chapel Friday night to speak to a full house. Here Morrison laughs as she is introduced to a cheering crowd. KRISTIN BAUER | CHRONICLE

In honor of the Toni Morrison Society opening their headquarters at Oberlin College, Toni Morrison came to Finney Chapel Friday night to speak to a full house. Here Morrison laughs as she is introduced to a cheering crowd. KRISTIN BAUER | CHRONICLE

OBERLIN — A Nobel Prize-winning author joked Friday that Oberlin College was “too close to home” for her to attend as a young adult.

Toni Morrison spoke to a full house at Finney Chapel, discussing her writing process, being a Nobel laureate and her life growing up in Lorain.

Morrison, whose best known works include “The Bluest Eyes” “Song of Solomon” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Beloved,” answered questions from Oberlin College students, President Marvin Krislov and associate professor of English, Gillian Johns.

Morrison’s visit came on the heels of controversy surrounding her 1970 novel, “The Bluest Eye.”

Ohio School Board President Debe Terhar called the novel “totally inappropriate” during a state board meeting Sept. 10. Terhar said the book should not be included on a suggested reading list for Ohio high-school students, but she did not specify why she opposed it, saying only that it is inappropriate for the school board to “even be associated with it” because it “sends the wrong message.”

“I bought it because I have received emails from people saying that it is totally inappropriate. I bought the book. I read it myself, and I guarantee you, I don’t want my grandchildren reading it and I don’t want anybody else’s kids reading it,” she said.

Terhar declined to comment on her statements when contacted Friday, but she said the comments had “absolutely nothing to do with the author.”

“The Bluest Eye” is set in 1940s Lorain, where Morrison grew up. The fictional novel tells the story of a young black girl, named Pecola Breedlove, who longs to have blue eyes and light skin. In the novel, Pecola is raped and impregnated by her father.

Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said Morrison’s book touches on a number of important, complex issues, such as child and sexual abuse and racism. She said the book can be an important teaching tool, if directed to the right age group.

“No one is suggesting that a young child read it,” she said.

Link criticized Terhar’s statements, saying that the comments were out of line, given Terhar’s role in education.

“We were very deeply disappointed to see her comment. A person who’s supposed to be a leader in education should be very careful not to censor any book,” she said.

Morrison did not discuss Terhar’s comments during her question-and-answer session Friday, but she did say her novels were not initially intended to be for students when asked if any of her novels had a message for young people.

“It’s not a young person’s book, even though it’s about young people,” she said. “I don’t know what people think when they assign these things. I remember my sister who lives in Lorain didn’t want her children to read it until they were in high school.”

Zachery Williams, associate professor of African American history at the University of Akron, brought his two young children — Zion, 6, and Zipporah, 2 — to listen to Morrison. He said he plans to introduce them to Morrison’s work in high school.

Morrison’s novels touch on the challenges of race, class, gender and resolving conflict, he said.

“It’s teaching these things that help us,” he said.

Morrison grew up reading everything that she could, and it was her experience as a reader that propelled her to write “The Bluest Eye,” as well as her other novels.

“I wrote ‘The Bluest Eye’ because I never read a book, ever, in which a fragile, female, black, poor person was ever taken seriously, ever,” she said.

“I wanted to read a book I could not find. I couldn’t read it, so I thought, maybe I’ll write it so then I can read it.”

The 82-year-old author was born in Lorain after her father and mother moved north.

Morrison’s mother worked on a small farm in Alabama. Her father fled from a small town in Georgia after seeing three businessmen who were lynched there, Morrison told the audience.

As a black woman, Morrison said she encountered some racism growing up, but she said “that was the way America was.” She also encountered criticism from a Caucasian reviewer who critiqued whether her novel and the work of two other African-American authors were an accurate depiction of life as a black person — something Morrison said she still remembers today.

Morrison attended Howard University where she received a bachelor’s degree in English. She jokingly told the audience that she nearly attended Oberlin College but decided she needed a change of scenery.

“When I graduated from high school, there was a suggestion that I enroll at Oberlin. I thought that was probably a pretty good idea, except it was so close to home. And I said I don’t want my mother to call me up and say, ‘Can you get in here and wash these dishes?’ ” she said, laughing.

Morrison’s speech ended as an excited Lorain resident rushed up to the stage.

“I just wanted to say hi. Do you know who I am? I’m a Spencer. We came up on the same street,” she said, waving to Morrison.

Morrison, whose face crinkled up in confusion, smiled suddenly in recognition.

“Spencer? How you doin’?’ ” she said, laughing. “Look at her!”

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com.

  • Ray Venn

    Again she fails to visit the school named in her honor…

    Surprise!!!

  • oldruss

    She was being hosted at Oberlin College in Oberlin, which is not Lorain on so many levels. Did anyone from the Lorain Board of Education or did the principal of Toni Morrison Elementary School, Lorain, Ohio make a special effort to invite the Nobel Laureat? As a PK through 6th Grade school, it is doubtful that any of the students attending Toni Morrison Elementary have any sort of awareness of who Ms. Morrison is. Certainly, they will not have read any of her works as yet. Aside from the school getting 15 minutes of fame, what purpose would be served by Ms. Morrison making a visit to the school?

    • Pablo Jones

      To put a face and personality to the person who your school is named after. No one can say I went to George Washington Elementary and met George Washington. But they could say they met the Nobel Laureat that their school was named after. If Lorain was such an inspiration for better or worse for her you would think she would want to do something to give back to her home town.

      What purpose would be served? She could talk to them about the importance of education and to stay in school. That they can do whatever they want as long as they work hard towards achieving those goals. She doesn’t just have to talk about her books. Maybe hearing from her could light the fire in some future writer.

      • oldruss

        And who would be paying for her time? Giving a lecture or speech to a gym full of PK – 6th Graders should not be expected to be done gratis. This lady is a Nobel Laureat, and doesn’t do laundromat openings for free. Maybe that’s not understood in Lorain.

        • Pablo Jones

          I really doubt she would need to talk to the pre-k kids. Maybe just the 5th and 6th graders. As for paying her, since she was a former educator you would think she would be willing to help encourage education. But I guess it is all about money. It’s funny how those that say more needs to be done to help the less fortunate are driven by money and those that many say only care about money are the ones that donate the most money and time to those that are the less fortunate.

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