Toni Morrison's diary entries, early drafts and letters are on display at Princeton
Walking into Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory, a new exhibition curated from the late author's archives at Princeton University, is an emotional experience for anyone who loves literature. Dozens of pages are on display, most of them waterlogged and brown from burning.
"These are the fire-singed pieces from the house fire," explains curator Autumn Womack. "I wanted visitors to think about the archive as something that is both fragile but also endures."
Morrison's house accidentally burned down in 1993, the same year she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. A team of archivists saved Morrison's work. They wrapped every surviving page in Mylar. This exhibition includes diary entries, unreleased recordings and drafts of novels, such as Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved, as well as letters and lists dating back to when the author was a girl in Lorain, Ohio, named Chloe Ardelia Wofford.
"There's material where you can see her playing around with her name," Womack points out. "There's Chloe Wofford, Toni Wofford; then we get Toni Morrison."
Toni Morrison remains the sole Black female recipient of a Literature Nobel. The exhibition commemorates the 30th anniversary of that achievement. When Morrison was hired at Princeton — in 1989 — she was the second Black woman faculty in the university's history. (The first, Nell Painter, had been hired only the year before.) Now, Autumn Womack, who is also a Princeton professor of literature and African American Studies, works in Morrison Hall, a building named after her.
"There are over 400 boxes of material," Womack says of Morrison's archives. "I really do believe that archives and collections are always telling us new stories. The day before the show opened, I was still adding things and taking things away, much to the joy of the archivists."
Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953, earned an MA from Cornell, then worked as an editor for a textbook company before moving to the fiction department at Random House. She was the first Black woman to be a senior editor there. She played an influential role in the literary careers of activists such as Angela Davis and Huey Newton and the writer Toni Cade Bambara. (They signed letters to each other with the words "Yours in work.")
In March, scholars of Toni Morrison's life and career converged at Princeton for a conference related to the exhibit, co-organized by Womack and Kinohi Nishikawa. Among the archives' treasures, he says, are documents tracing a creative disagreement between Morrison and renowned opera director Peter Sellars about William Shakespeare's play Othello. He found it irrelevant. In rebuke, Morrison wrote an opera based on the play. Sellers wound up directing.
"It was called Desdemona," Nishikawa notes. "But by the time you come out, you do not even think of it as an adaptation of Othello. It is its own thing, with its own sound and its own lyrical voice. "
Toni Morrison's connection to film and theater is one of the revelations of this exhibition. It includes vintage photographs of her performing with the Howard Players and pages from a screenplay adaptation of her novel Tar Baby. McCarter Theatre Center commissioned performers to create works based on the archives. One evening features a collaboration between Mame Diarra Speis, the founder of Urban Bush Women, and the Guggenheim-winning theater artist Daniel Alexander Jones.
Diving into the archives of one of the best writers in U.S. history was a spiritual experience, Jones says. So was re-reading her novels at a moment when some of them are now banned from libraries and schools in Florida, Virginia, Utah, Missouri, Texas and more.
"She gave us codes and keys to deal with everything we are facing right now," he says. "And if you go back, you will receive them. There are answers there."
Answers, he says, that returned to one chief question: "How do we take the venom of this time and transmute it?"
Toni Morrison, he says, teaches us to face life — all of it — unafraid and willing to understand it through art. That, he says, transmutes venom into medicine.
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