Toni Morrison left college in the District almost 60 years ago amid swelling racial tensions, but the Nobel Prize-winning author returned Wednesday to be honored for her work as a champion for racial equality.
“I’m delighted to be back in Washington,” Morrison said to a sold-out crowd at Lisner Auditorium. “I have some rather special feelings about this town.”
The celebrated novelist joined the community and members of the Toni Morrison Society to read from her upcoming book and participate in a ceremony commemorating the desegregation of the auditorium in 1947.
Associate professor of English Evelyn Schreiber, who is vice president of the society, led the dedication of a bench as part of The Bench by the Road Project, initiated in 1993 to mark the history of slavery in America through a series of memorials.
“A bench is such an un-decorative, easy-access place,” Morrison said. “You don’t pray there, you don’t stand there and look. It’s not awe. It’s just a place to sit down.”
After the dedication, Morrison took questions from the audience and discussed obstacles she faced as a struggling young writer.
With nine critically acclaimed novels, Morrison has not been deterred by previous attempts to censor the controversial subject matter of her work.
“She pushes us to think about the jagged edges of our experience, to reflect and to recollect on the nastiness and beauty of life.” Terri Harris Reed, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, said.
While reading excerpts from her book, Morrison stressed the importance of maintaining an open dialogue between writers and readers.
“My feeling is that people should read anything and everything,” she said. “You can’t be frightened by dirty words.”
Despite historic strides in civil rights, Morrison believes that racism persists as a relevant theme in her literature.
“It never occurred to me that racism disappeared just because they elected Barack Obama,” she said.
At 80 years old, Morrison still finds the energy to wake up before dawn to hone a craft she continues to find fulfilling.
“I’m very happy when I’m writing,” Morrison said. “It sort of fills me together, intellectually and spiritually and in every way.”