August 9, 2019

When our circle of Black graduate students passed a paperback copy of "The Bluest Eye" to my husband and me, the slender novel was dog-eared and tattered from what must have been literally dozens of readers. None of us had heard of Toni Morrison. Her writing was a revelation, a language searing, almost brutal in its honesty, yet so unassailably true and so full of love for her people. We devoured her every word.

Then, "Sula" appeared in 1973. Never had I read a book as stark and uncensored as this fearless plunge into the nexus of gender, race and power. At the time, I was writing for an alternative newspaper, "The Syracuse New Times," and convinced the editors to let me write a review of "Sula." To this day, Sula Peace strikes me as one of Ms. Morrison’s bravest and most fully realized characters. With great fear and trepidation, I sent Ms. Morrison, a former editor of nearly two decades, a copy of the review. I could hardly believe it when she wrote back with kind and encouraging words. Since those graduate school days, I have been a devout Toni Morrison devotee.

Years after graduate school, I had the opportunity to invite Ms. Morrison to accept an award from the Studio Museum in Harlem, where I was serving as director and curator. The museum, described in its brochures as " the principal center for the study of Black art in America," in those days, was a loft over a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a liquor store. We were, in Ms. Morrison’s words, "unencumbered by other people’s expectations" and we thrived. That day, she cast a mesmerizing spell over the hundreds of admirers who packed the museum’s galleries to hear her speak.

When she won the Nobel Prize, my sister was so excited, she called me at 6 a.m. with the news. I was then dean at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. When I got to work that morning, I immediately dashed off an announcement of Ms. Morrison’s accomplishment to the entire Tisch community. It occurred to me that in a nation timid about cultural diversity, she had risen to become a national and global cultural authority writing about ordinary Black people. Her feat was something we should all have been celebrating.

This week, with the news of her passing, I feel the need once again to dash off a note to my community, this time the community of Spelman, to pay tribute to the special meaning of her legacy. Ms. Morrison, like Anna Julia Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Pearl Cleage, Stacey Abrams and many others, is one of the high priestesses of Black culture. Her gift to the students of Spelman is what Ms. Hansberry would call the gift of "sighted eyes, and feeling heart." Faculty at Spelman have been teaching Ms. Morrison almost every academic year; and every year, there is a growing number of devotees. What she teaches is unflinching fierceness in the face of truth. What she inspires is an unfathomable love.

I can hear the sound of her voice, as I read her words:

"I’m a believer in the power of knowledge and the ferocity of beauty, so from my point of view, your life is already artful—waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art."


Your president

Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.

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