Autumn Womak walks with her student across campus

‘Reading’ Toni Morrison: Exploring Princeton’s literary icon from page to screen

May 10, 2019 10:06 a.m.

This semester, two courses are immersing students in the works of writer Toni Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, and a Nobel laureate. Pictured: Autumn Womack, assistant professor of African American studies and English (right), walks with her students in the undergraduate course “Toni Morrison and the Ethics of Reading” across campus to meet with the students in “Toni Morrison: Texts and Contexts,” a graduate seminar taught by Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies.

Students in two spring courses were immersed in the literary world of Toni Morrison — from her papers, which are housed at Princeton, to learning about her life in the new documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” which opens July 12 at the Princeton Garden Theatre.

While books by Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, are included in a wide range of courses at Princeton, this is the first time two single-author courses on the Nobel Prize-winning writer have been taught simultaneously. The undergraduate course “Toni Morrison and the Ethics of Reading” was taught by Autumn Womack, assistant professor of African American studies and English. The graduate seminar “Toni Morrison: Texts and Contexts” was taught by Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies.

Both classes viewed the new documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” — which delves into her time teaching at Princeton — at an April 10 preview screening at the Princeton Garden Theatre, which was also open to the public. Associates of filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders did considerable research for the film at Princeton using the Toni Morrison Papers.

One afternoon, Womack’s students considered lines from the opening of Toni Morrison’s 2008 novel, “A Mercy:” “One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?”

The opening is narrated in the voice of Florens, a young slave, who is taught to read and write in secret by a kindly minister. Florens spends her nights scratching her own story onto the walls of a half-finished plantation house, abandoned after the death of its owner, and wondering if they will ever be read by anyone.

These lines confront readers with an ethical challenge, Womack said. “How, exactly, is Morrison asking us to read? And what does it mean to read responsibly?”

Morrison came to Princeton in 1989 to teach literature and creative writing. During her 17 years of teaching, she played a key role in expanding the University’s commitments to the creative and performing arts and to African American studies. In 1994, she founded the Princeton Atelier, which brings together undergraduate students in interdisciplinary collaborations with acclaimed artists. In 2016, the Princeton University Library announced that the major portion of the Toni Morrison Papers, which had been part of the permanent library collections since 2014, were open for research to students, faculty and scholars worldwide. In 2017, the University dedicated the naming of Morrison Hall, formerly West College, in her honor.

Two students present a slide showing one of the students meeting Toni Morrison herself

Senior Devin Kilpatrick (right) shares an anecdote about meeting Morrison at Princeton, shown in the image behind the students. Kilpatrick was giving a presentation with juniors Rasheeda Saka (left) and Pamela McGowen (not pictured) on Morrison’s novel “A Mercy.” 

‘Words and ideas’: Morrison as writer, reader, editor

“I am challenging students to think about Morrison’s status as literary icon, and really, Princeton icon,” Womack said.

The syllabus includes novels, nonfiction and plays by Morrison, as well as literary criticism.

“I had students attend to the conflicted reviews that ‘The Bluest Eye’ and ‘Beloved’ received in the press. Thinking about the long and varied responses to Morrison has been illuminating for students,” Womack said.

Womack wants students to consider Morrison’s own status as a reader. “I’m also challenging the class to think of Morrison in relation to a broader network of intellectuals, writers and thinkers,” she said. “We really tackle this when we discuss Morrison’s role as an editor at Random House and the books that she worked on, like Gayl Jones’ ‘Corregidora.’”

“This class has been a wonderful experience,” Perry said. “Teaching [graduate] students from a range of disciplinary areas, who all find deep meaning in [Morrison’s] work, reveals how vast and deep her body of work is, both as literature and as social criticism, history and philosophy.”

Perry said she returns again and again to Morrison’s works in the classroom and in her own scholarship.

“As someone who has been reading her work consistently since I was around 12 years old, and as someone who has grown as a thinker and as a creative person through her words and ideas, it is personally as well as intellectually meaningful to devote a semester to her work,” Perry said.

Imani Perry and Autumn Womak teaching a class

Imani Perry (left) and Autumn Womack lead a discussion with their undergraduate and graduate students, drawing connections between Morrison’s works.

The stuff of novels: Finding literary clues in the Morrison Papers

Womack, who joined the Princeton faculty in fall 2018, developed her Morrison course as a senior seminar at the University of Pittsburgh. At Princeton, she retooled the course to take advantage of the Morrison archives.

“I wanted to frame Morrison as a theorist in her own right, as well as someone who actively shaped the 20th-century literary landscape,” Womack said. “The Morrison Papers at Princeton University Library have been central to this. Each week students have been able to see firsthand the myriad ways that Morrison theorizes her writing, other’s writing, history, race, time, etc.”

For their April 3 presentation on “A Mercy,” senior Devin Kilpatrick and juniors Pamela McGowen and Rasheeda Saka found an early proposal Morrison had handwritten on lined notebook paper. They also used a typewritten chronology of historical facts from the novel’s mid-17th-century time period interspersed with facts about the novel’s characters.

Before the presentation, Womack and the students reviewed the many complexities of the novel, including how each chapter is voiced by an interchanging number of narrators. At the beginning of the novel, Florens is sold to Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch trader, in lieu of a debt owed him by a wealthy Virginian plantation owner, d’Ortega. Newly married to Rebekka, a bride shipped from England, Vaark is building a plantation in Maryland with a crew of slaves and laborers, including a free black man working as a blacksmith; Lina, a Native American whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; and Sorrow, whose past reveals the horrors of Barbados-bound slave ships.

McGowen, an English major who is also pursuing certificates in African American studies and teacher preparation, told the class the early proposal suggests a completely different plan for the book.

“Her proposal shows that initially, she planned to write the book in three parts that covered a year in the 2000s, 1660 and 1930,” McGowen said. “This intrigued us because it implies that Morrison had a direct reason for writing about a pre-racial, pre-nation state America in 2008, a supposedly ‘post-racial’ time. Viewing this proposal made us consider exactly how Morrison thought about time and the bridges between time periods in ‘A Mercy.’”

A graduate student adds to the class discussion

Margarita Rosa (center), a graduate student in comparative literature, comments on how notions of land ownership in “A Mercy” are intertwined with themes in other Morrison’s novels. Also pictured: Junior Rasheeda Saka (left) and Lindsay Griffiths, a graduate student in English (right).

On the typewritten chronology, Kilpatrick pointed to the curved arrows Morrison drew in pencil on the page connecting historical facts to things that happen to her characters, such as an arrow drawn from “1690: Vaark dies, mistress ill, Florens goes to fetch the Smithy” to “1691: Catholics forbidden to teach, hold office, etc.” “She inserts her characters within actual historical events,” Kilpatrick said. “She’s not writing about historical events but what happens ‘in between’ them.”

The group said they also found pages and pages of factual information on farming techniques. Kilpatrick said his experience working with the archive “made me appreciate Toni Morrison's meticulous approach to writing historical fiction — she wanted to get every detail right, from how a character would milk a cow to specific geographic details of her novels' settings. … After reading her handwritten notes and edits I came away with a more nuanced understanding of the novel as fiction and as a sociocultural critique of modern-day attitudes on race.”

Perry said for her graduate students, “Having the archive available has been invaluable, as we have spent a good deal of time thinking about Morrison in intellectual and artistic communities.”

Womack said she has learned new things about Morrison’s novels from experiencing what her students have drawn on from the archives.

“One of the things that I’ve learned is how invested Morrison was in space and architecture,” she said. For example, the students who presented on “Beloved” shared a floor plan Morrison had drawn of the house in which the novel takes place, mapping out where each scene occurs. “This shifted my understanding of the novel,” Womack said. “Seeing the charts and maps that accompany her writing notes sheds new light on works that seem so familiar.”

Students sit at a table discussing the works of Toni Morrison

Filling a fast 90 minutes, students from both courses participate in a lively discussion of “A Mercy,” navigating topics ranging from otherness — racial, national, religious — to the experience and voices of women characters, and the genre of magical realism often associated with Morrison’s novels.

A seat at the table: Graduate students join undergraduates in discussion

Twice during the semester, the classes met as a group.

“Once Imani and I realized that we were both interested in teaching a single-author seminar on Toni Morrison, we immediately decided to coordinate our classes,” Womack said. “It’s been wonderful to see the students learning from one another. [They] approach each other as academic peers, and this has been truly exciting to witness.”

On April 3, after their own energetic 90-minute exploration of “A Mercy” in a classroom in McCosh Hall, Womack and her students walked across campus to meet with Perry and her graduate students in a seminar room in Stanhope Hall, home to the Department of African American Studies.

Filling another fast 90 minutes, the lively discussion of “A Mercy” continued as the group navigated topics ranging from otherness — racial, national, religious — to the experience and voices of women characters, and the genre of magical realism often associated with Morrison’s novels.

The professors and students nimbly drew connections between Morrison’s works.

Margarita Rosa, a graduate student in comparative literature who gave a guest lecture on “The Bluest Eye” in a fall 2018 undergraduate course “Introduction to the Study of African American Cultural Practices,” suggested how notions of land ownership in “A Mercy” are intertwined with themes in other Morrison’s novels.

“In the introduction to ‘Home,’ an unnamed poet asks: ‘Whose house is this? Whose night keeps out the light in here?’” Rosa said. “In ‘A Mercy,’ Morrison writes that Jacob, in building a home, had built a ‘monument to himself.’ This monument, unlike his children (who died early) would be the one thing to survive him. In ‘Paradise,’ Morrison again takes up questions of home, legacy, belonging and race.”

Rosa, whose dissertation is titled “The Enslaved Womb: Enslaved Women, Roman Law and Reproduction in Brazil,” said her research connects to Morrison’s works.

“In ‘Beloved,’ when Sethe takes the life of her [infant] daughter … Morrison asks us to ponder whether Sethe was simply saving her daughter from a life under slavery. In my dissertation, I trace the historical development of the idea that the child of an enslaved woman is always born a slave … ‘Beloved’ was inspired by the records we have on a particular enslaved woman named Margaret Garner. My research has shown that countless enslaved women across the Americas took their children’s lives in order, as ‘Beloved’ might suggest, to save them.”

Kilpatrick said, “I am always impressed by the graduate students' ability to situate Morrison's novels in academic context and to connect themes from one Morrison novel to her other works.”

This is Kilpatrick’s first literature course at Princeton. A sociology concentrator who is also pursuing a certificate in Latin American studies, Kilpatrick is a student member of the Committee on Naming and met Morrison at the Morrison Hall naming ceremony in 2017.

“I entered [this course] with background on Toni Morrison's influence on Princeton, but admittedly knew very little about her work,” he said. “Professor Womack's course has helped me to understand Toni Morrison as a literary icon and cultural influencer, which has led me to further appreciate my role on the committee.”

McGowen said one of her biggest takeaways from the course “has been learning about how Morrison writes to deconstruct and expose the ‘master narrative’ that has dominated history, language and storytelling."

The semester-long engagement with Morrison’s works offers a sweeping lesson, said Womack, noting how it “changes how we read not just books, but bodies, time, race, history and ourselves.”