A new exhibit celebrates the life of Toni Morrison with a focus on the late novelist’s work as a University at Albany professor in the 1980s.
Faculty, alumni, and students at UAlbany unveiled the exhibit on what would have been Morrison’s 89th birthday Tuesday. It includes letters, manuscripts, and Morrison’s office chair. Morrison died in August after complications from pneumonia. She is remembered as one of the most revered writers of her time, becoming the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She wrote 11 books in total, in addition to children’s books and essays.
At UAlbany, she was Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities from 1984 to 1989. Paul Grondahl, director of the New York State Writers Institute, says she’s remembered fondly on campus for promoting and supporting black voices.
"She took on graduate studnets who were finishing books. She also did a three-day symposium, ‘The Birth of Black Cinema,’ where she brought Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Spike Lee and all these phenomenal African-American filmmakers [to campus]. And she also brought Ralph Ellison to campus," Grondahl notes. "And she did so much while she was finishing ‘Beloved’ right here in Albany.”
Morrison also premiered her play “Dreaming Emmett” at the Capital Repertory Theatre while in Albany, and “Beloved” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Morrison was celebrated for her prose and storytelling, but also for exploring the black experience in America – tackling slavery, racism, civil rights, and particularly the struggles faced by black women.
UAlbany graduate D Colin read a poem on her love for Morrison’s work at the exhibit’s opening. She says her introduction to Morrison came in the form of her first book, “The Bluest Eye,” in which the heroine descends into madness amid her desire to obtain blue eyes – and finally meet society’s (white) beauty standards.
“You know, I saw myself in those experiences, and I saw myself in some of the things that Pecola was feeling about herself," Colin explains. "And that was the first time that I had really encountered writing in a book, in a classroom setting, that reflected me.”
Those who met and worked with Morrison had kind words for her Tuesday. Grondahl interviewed Morrison for the “Times Union” in 1987, and while he says her status as a beloved author and editor made her seem a little intimidating at first, she was a fierce storyteller who appeared to genuinely enjoy her time at UAlbany and the Capital Region.
One of Morrison’s colleagues, Africana Studies Professor Dr. Leonard Slade Jr., came to the university shortly after Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize. In a poem he read at the exhibit’s opening, he describes how she immediately approached him with humility.
“You cultivated genuine friendship with me. You volunteered to give a free lecture in my African American literature class, and expressed regret that you would not be staying at the university to teach," Slade reads.
Morrison ultimately left UAlbany for a position at Princeton University in 1989, where she taught classes in African American studies and contributed to its creative writing program until achieving emeritus status in 2006.
The UAlbany exhibit is free and open to the public at the university’s Science Library for the rest of February.