A projection of Toni Morrison’s face, lost in dreamy contemplation, filled the front wall of Cheever Room. Her quietly powerful gaze watched over the inhabitants of the room as they sat chatting and snacking on cake and berries. As people rapidly claimed chairs, others crowded near the doorway and on benches at the edges of the room, eager to celebrate the life and work of the acclaimed American author.
The Toni Morrison Memorial Read-in last Monday honored the author, who died on Aug. 5 of this year, with her own words. The Nobel Prize-winning author, known for works like The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved, among many others, was known for the vivid voices she gave to African American characters.
“She did a lot to bring the voices of African Americans and especially African American girls and women to the center. She was absolutely unapologetic about her centering of black people’s stories and lives and I think that was one of the things that was special about her,” said Jené Schoenfeld, associate professor and department chair of English.
Schoenfeld began the event with a poignant reading of a funeral scene from Song of Solomon that, for her, brought to mind feelings of familial love. As she sat to supportive snaps from the crowd, she invited others to the front of the room to read passages from Morrison’s work. “Come as you feel moved,” she said. There was a long pause, and then another reader came to the front, soon followed by a steady stream of people eager to share Morrison’s words.
Each passage held an important place in its readers’ heart. One reader read a passage from Bride that had helped her come to terms with her own identity as a “dark-skinned” woman. Another reader, sharing a passage from Beloved, explained how Morrison’s words had helped her to understand experiences different from her own.
Passages across the full range of Morrison’s work were at turns mournful, humorous and joyful. People read out of well-worn novels, photocopied pages and text messages from those who could not attend.
For those who did not speak or for those who had more to say, a green bowl and slips of paper in the back of the room offered the opportunity to further reflect on the loss of Toni Morrison by writing about the impact of her words.
The read-in was a collective effort, organized by Schoenfeld, Associate Professor of English Thea Autry, Assistant Professor of English Orchid Tierney, Visiting Professor of English Sara Pfaff and Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt.
The read-in format of the event was largely inspired by the Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka Read-in held at Kenyon and across the country on Feb. 18, 2018.
Upon Morrison’s death, those planning her memorial at Kenyon felt it would be best to return to the read-in structure as the best person to reflect on the significance of life and death was Morrison herself.
“She is simply a genius of style. She phrases things in a way I can’t imagine anyone else ever phrasing things,” said Schoenfeld. “It’s just a delight to celebrate her by reading her words.”