Read the summary, watch the video and answer the discussion questions on Toni Morrison below. You may want to turn on the “CC” (closed-captions) function and read along with the transcript here.
Toni Morrison, American author, professor and Nobel laureate, died on August 5, 2019, at the age of 88. Her Pulitzer Prize winning novels focused on the history and lives of African Americans. Morrison brought forth a black perspective to American literature that was unique, strong and loving. Some of Morrison’s most famous books that high school classes read throughout the U.S. include Beloved, The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, among others.
“I didn’t want to speak for black people. I wanted to speak to and to be among. It’s us,” Morrison said of her goals as a writer, adding, “So, the first thing I had to do was to eliminate the white gaze. Jimmy Baldwin used to talk about the little white man that sits on your shoulder and checks out everything you do and say. So I wanted to knock him off, and you’re free.”
Toni Morrison Discussion questions:
1) Essential question: Why have Toni Morrison’s novels made such a significant impact on American literature?
2) “I feel like Morrison provides us as Americans with a vocabulary for acknowledging and grappling with the effects, the ongoing effects of slavery upon all of us, no matter who we are,” said Tracy K. Smith, former U.S. Poet Laureate and professor at Princeton University. How does literature help readers understand the impacts of slavery in ways that textbooks are not able to do?
3) In the video, Morrison talks about eliminating “the white gaze” from her writing. (Ask them if they have heard of James Baldwin. Share some information about his writings and life and why Morrison might have quoted him.) What do you think she means? Why do you think this was freeing for her?
4) “Her work activates a beautiful human urgency that stems from the social conditions that her characters live in, are touched by,” Prof. Smith said of Morrison. What does Smith mean by “beautiful human urgency”? How can literature and art create change in the world?
5) Media literacy: Time is often of the essence when interviewing people, especially for broadcast. What additional questions would you like to have asked if you were the reporter? What are the benefits of hearing directly from the person about his/her life?
Toni Morrison Extension activity:
Have students read the article Lessons we can learn from Toni Morrison by Joshua Barajas, editor of Canvas, NewsHour’s new arts website. If you’d like to join in a conversation about Morrison’s literary works and life, check out Canvas‘ public Facebook page and respond to this post’s question: What books or quotes of Morrison’s stand out?