Toni Morrison’s book on racism to spark discussion at college
MIDDLEBURY — How has violence become a daily part of American racism? Should we speak and risk being misunderstood, or remain quiet and believe we are unable to effect change?
Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison raises these and other powerful questions in her most recent book, “The Origin of Others,” a collection of essays that will be the subject of this year’s Clifford Symposium at Middlebury College Sept. 20–22. The book was also summer reading for the college’s incoming class. Symposium activities include lectures, a film screening, a student forum, dance performances, and workshops.
“Morrison explores topics in ‘The Origin of Others’ that are relevant to what we are experiencing right now in our society,” said J Finley, assistant professor of American Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, and one of three faculty symposium organizers. “She speaks with an intense voice of the racism of our ancestors and of the present, and asks: ‘Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another?’”
“We’re looking forward to engaging the Middlebury College community — faculty, staff, students, trustees and alumni — as well as members of the public in the Clifford Symposium at a new, deeper level,” said Larry Yarbrough, Tillinghast Professor of Religion and an organizer of the symposium. “During the new students’ orientation, more than 50 faculty members led discussion groups on ‘The Origin of Others’ with members of the incoming class. We’re making use of our own faculty’s valuable expertise for much of the symposium programming.”
Yarbrough noted that students are also leading one of the events — a student forum — where they will read excerpts from “The Origin of Others” and from Morrison’s other works. The students will invite comments and discussion based on the readings. The event is sponsored by a variety of student organizations.
On Thursday, Sept. 20, Finley will kick off the symposium with the first keynote talk, a frank conversation about race, titled “‘Yonder they do not love your flesh’: Ghosts, Strangers, and the Specter of Race.” She will draw connections surrounding “Garner,” a surname that two people share over a span of 158 years — Eric Garner, who was killed by New York City police in 2014 while selling loose cigarettes outside a beauty supply store, and Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who murdered her daughter rather than see her enslaved when the family was caught. The dead child is the inspiration for Morrison’s novel “Beloved.”
Will Nash, professor of American Studies and English and American Literatures and a symposium organizer, will immediately follow with the second keynote lecture, “Tending the Roots, Heeding the Call: Why We Must Read Toni Morrison Today.” Nash will discuss the importance that Morrison places on history as we look to the future. He will also look at her exploration of people’s fears to speak out during an escalation of racist thoughts and actions and how her work offers guidance toward a better understanding and mutual respect.
The first day of the symposium will conclude with a screening of “The Foreigner’s Home,” a documentary film that explores Morrison’s work through the 2006 exhibition by the same name that she guest-curated at the Louvre. Morrison invited renowned artists whose work also deals with the experience of cultural and social displacement to join her in a public conversation. The film expands upon that and offers exclusive and unreleased footage of the Nobel laureate in Paris in 2006 and at her home in New York state in 2015.
The film’s producers will attend the event to provide an introduction and to lead a post-screening discussion.
The symposium continues on Friday with a workshop on documentary filmmaking and the student forum. It closes with an arts performance based on an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif.” Middlebury faculty members Michole Biancosino, assistant professor of Theater; Christal Brown, chair of the Dance Department; and Matthew Taylor, assistant professor of Music, created the performance. After its conclusion, they will discuss the challenges of staging this short story that explores the conflicted ways society deals with race and color.
Saturday’s activities include workshops and discussions on “The Origin of Others,” as well as topics that have originated in the symposium sessions. Events wrap up with a second performance of “Recitatif.”
Published in 2017, “The Origin of Others” is based on Morrison’s 2016 Norton Lectures at Harvard University. In the text, she draws on her own life and novels, a wide range of American and African literature, and contemporary events.
The symposium is an annual event named after Nicholas Clifford, who taught history at the college from 1966 to 1993 and who, in his many years as a member of the faculty and administration, cultivated critical inquiry at Middlebury.
See the full symposium schedule online here.
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