One month after the death of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Associate Professor of English Linda-Susan Beard, who has taught the course “Toni Morrison and the Art of Narrative Conjure” for a quarter century, reflects on the author's passing.
Toni Morrison is/was a consummate teacher. That is not because of, but in spite of, her holding prestigious appointments at elite and historic universities or her garnering an incalculable number of world literary prizes. She was an educator who negotiated the Maginot Line between lay and academic readers. The complexity of her narrative conjuration both delighted and perplexed these two audiences who came to learn, in the midst of seemingly simple storytelling and elaborate wordspinning, a host of lessons.
Morrison was teaching us how to read anew with the recognition that words simultaneously could engender whole communities and destroy psyches. She exhibited in her only published short story, Recitatif, our addictive dependence on racial categorization in our attempts at interpretation. Morrison, the epistemologist, relentlessly exploded our assumptions about knowing and being known and insisted on judging judgment itself. She deliberately frustrated causal analyses and eluded answers to the question “why?”. In a nation with an amnesiac commitment to ignoring its checkered past, Morrison was unforgiving about connecting the historic links forged by time and memory.
In the quarter century that I have been teaching an English and Africana Studies course at Bryn Mawr called “Toni Morrison and the Art of Narrative Conjure,” the metaphor of “variations on a theme” described the recurrence of many of her interrogations amid changing keys and registers, whether her touchstones were the Ur texts of the King James Bible or her beloved play with contemporary literary and meta-historical theory. We read all the fiction in publication order with caveats about developmental assumptions. In the earliest days it was possible, given the size of her body of fiction at the time, to read each novel twice during the course. Each re-reading yielded a new experience and students wrote about the differences between encounters. Last spring there were not enough weeks to read each work once.
I often teased students at the end of a Toni Morrison semester that I should provide shirts that read enigmatically: “I survived Toni Morrison.” The journey through the work was arduous, often frustrating, and painful, but always intellectually exciting and transformative. Recent notes from former students tell me how much the work was a catalyst for personal metamorphosis on many levels.
Associate Professor of English Linda-Susan Beard negotiates between and among the worlds of African American, South African, and post-colonial literatures. She teaches courses on post-apartheid literature, literary and historical reimaginings of transatlantic slavery such as "Toni Morrison and the Art of Narrative Conjure," as well as introductory courses in English and African literatures which examine the dynamics of canon formation.