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!”