When Michael Dango encountered Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye, the assistant professor of English was a college student himself. He recalls being struck by the novel’s beauty, “the rhythm of the sentences, the vividness of the imagery, the carefulness of its metaphors, but it was about something so ugly.” He said it was almost like Morrison was “using beauty as a way of heightening our attention to the violence before us.”
Sonya Johnson also read Morrison’s work as an undergraduate. At the time, the assistant professor of religious studies was one of only a few African American students at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She recalls feeling discouraged before a mentor pointed her to Morrison’s Song of Solomon. “I saw myself in the literature,” she says. “Not as a respondent or a backdrop but as a central character to the lives of people who reflected my reality.”
Morrison, the Nobel laureate and monumental American literary figure died last August at age 88. To honor her life, literature, and legacy, Beloit’s English department, members of which have taught Morrison’s work for decades, hosted a community round table in November. Panelists included Dango, Johnson, Debra Majeed, professor of religious studies, and Dawn Lemirand-Poepping, an award-winning Beloit Memorial High School teacher, now with the University of Wisconsin.
Lemirand-Poepping called Beloved “the single most important book of her life.” She recalled teaching it to high school students every year over 12 years, despite opposition from people who argued that high school-aged kids couldn’t comprehend Morrison’s challenging topics.
All four panelists talked about Morrison’s ability to tackle ambitious literary themes while never losing sight of her individual characters.
Majeed talked about Morrison as “a writer with a life well-lived,” someone who made direct links between morality and responsibility. During a Q & A, Majeed prompted students to think about how they might not only read, but also embody Morrison’s work. “When you think of tonight, what is it that you heard, read, or reflected on that might help you lead a life well-lived?”
Top three Toni Morrison books discussed at Beloit’s round table.
- Song of Solomon
- The Bluest Eye