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Toni Morrison Left Her Mark On Albany

Nobel Prize-winning novelist, essayist and social critic Toni Morrison has died. And she is being remembered warmly in Albany thanks to the years she spent at the University at Albany.

Toni Morrison’s publisher says the 88-year-old died in New York City Monday night after a brief illness. Morrison gained worldwide fame for novels like “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and “Sula.”

The first black woman to win the Nobel Prize, Morrison’s writing about America and race won her fans like Oprah Winfrey and President Obama. She is the subject of the recent documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”

After news of her death broke, many people on social media reposted her 1993 Nobel lecture.  

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Morrison went from Lorain, Ohio to Howard University. Later, she worked as an editor for many years before publishing her first novel, “The Bluest Eye.” Her association with the University at Albany began in the mid-80s when she came on as Professor and Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities.

“And she really did some impressive programming to get that authentic black voice to this city and to this campus and that was really important at the time,” Paul Grondahl says.

An interview with Paul Grondahl of the New York State Writers Institute.

Grondahl is now director of the New York State Writers Institute. He interviewed Morrison for the Times Union in 1987. Grondahl says Morrison spent several days a week on campus and “had a big presence,” working with William Kennedy and Suzanne Lance of the Writers Institute.

“There was a secretary in that office, her name was Ronnie Saunders, and she re-typed the manuscript for Beloved in the office, in the Writers Institute English Department office here on campus,” Grondahl says. “And then many months later, or a year later or so, Suzanne gets a call at the office from a reporter, might have been from the New York Times, saying, ‘Could Toni Morrison comment? She just won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved.’”

Grondahl recalls Morrison bringing black arts luminaries like Spike Lee, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Ralph Ellison to campus, while also working on a new play about lynching victim Emmett Till, and mentoring students.

“And she was really part of our Writers Institute early history. She actually was the second guest that we had in our 36-year history at the Writers Institute. The first was Saul Bellow, which was a huge event. We followed up with Toni Morrison, who packed our Campus Center ballroom – over 800 people came to hear her in 1985.”  

With her inventive prose style and storytelling, Morrison attained both critical and popular acclaim — plus attention from academia. 

“The work of Toni Morrison has done one thing,” says Professor Lisa Thompson, “which is allowed those who were not recipients of that ugliness and violence over the centuries to understand it and see how people have maintained their humanity and their beauty and their culture and dealt with their scars throughout their time here in the U.S.”  

An interview with Dr. Lisa Thompson of UT-Austin, formerly of UAlbany.

Thompson is associate professor in the African & African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas-Austin. Before that, she taught at UAlbany, including a semester-long Morrison survey that she still teaches. (Full disclosure, I took that course.)

Thompson says it was an honor to walk in Morrison’s footsteps at UAlbany.

“There is a great responsibility to take the mantle that she has passed on and to do – to continue to fill the amazing legacy that she has created in terms of showing the breadth and complexity and the beauty of African American life,” she says.

Thompson says while Morrison’s death is a sad day...

“It’s wonderful to be able to have a whole bookshelf of her work and to be able to share my students with her again and again and again.”

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.