Story by Elizabeth Walztoni, News Editor
Photo courtesy Getty Images
Toni Morrison, the esteemed American novelist, Nobel Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, passed away on August 5, 2019. Her work is central to the English department at Aquinas College, and those touched by it mourn her passing.
“I would be embarrassed if we graduated English majors who had not encountered Toni Morrison,” said Dr. Michelle DeRose, English professor and head of the Irish Studies Program. World Literature, American Literature, and seminar courses at Aquinas all feature Morrison’s texts. DeRose called Morrison the the writer to most accurately understand America, with a role in the literary canon comparable to Shakespeare.
Morrison’s work is rich in history, detail, and significance —and still full of life. Reading her work delights and challenges students in equal measure, building community in the classroom through the experience. DeRose described times in seminar classes when students would gasp aloud in awe.
For example, when reading the 1992 novel “Jazz”, students noticed that the book itself was set up to read like a piece of jazz music. The start of each chapter continues the last sentence of the one before; flipping back and forth between pages imitates the sound of the transition between songs on vinyl; the closing line urges the reader to return to the beginning, and read again, like flipping over a record.
Students were at the same time made to confront their own hidden anger at others and at the dark parts of the American society. The content of Morrison’s novels can be deeply disturbing, not for shock value, but to expose the warped underpinnings of our nation. Her writing “faces into the wind,” said DeRose. “She can look anything, no matter how harsh or beautiful, head-on, and forces us to join her.”
The predominantly white makeup of the student body at Aquinas makes the study of Morrison’s work perhaps even more vital. In DeRose’s experience, it has been a struggle to engage white students in African American literature. Morrison seminar courses often have lower enrollments than comparable offerings do.
These students “often don’t believe that they are part of the audience for any black American writer,” she said. This is “heartbreaking, as she is speaking to us even more…we need to read this.”
If the role of literature is to show us lives beyond our own, who better to read than Morrison?
Former Aquinas student Jo Przybyla reflected that “I wanted more from her. I wanted to see where she would take me. I wanted her, in all honesty, to live forever; write forever; teach us forever….”
But when a character dies in a Morrison novel, DeRose said, it means something. Death can mean something in real life, too. “We find significance in the aftermath.”
Morrison’s life and work can continue to teach us–and, if the English department has any say in the matter, it will.