Prof. Badejo on Teaching the Literature of Toni Morrison: 'A Vision Toward Our Infinite Humanity'
August 13, 2019
Contact: Office of Government and Public Affairs
Diedre L. Badejo, professor of Comparative African and African Diaspora Literature, Women's Studies and Oral Historiography in the University of Baltimore's Klein Family School of Communications Design, writes about the impact of the writer and social critic Toni Morrison in this short essay. Morrison died Aug. 5.
In 1984, I joined students and faculty at Rutgers University Newark to hear an excerpt from a new novel being written by Toni Morrison. When Professor Morrison read the first paragraph, a sweep of silence fell over our gathering as she intoned words and images from her then unfinished work. After a Q&A, she entertained several individual chats. Then it was my turn to sit next to her on a sofa in a lounge where she read from what became Beloved.
"I hope you don't mind if I kick off my shoes." A recognizable ritual of comfort. We talked about the story of Margaret Garner and the enslaved woman's interior torment about such a decision. To paraphrase Ms. Morrison, "I wanted to explore what would drive a mother to kill her own child and what was the justification for so doing?" She concluded that the story could only be told from the perspective of the murdered child.
She also asked if I were a writer. Yes, both research and creative writing, I said, explaining that I'd just returned from living in Nigeria for several years with my family including three children. I was adjunct teaching African American literature at the Rutgers Newark campus while completing my UCLA dissertation on Yoruba theatre and the oral historiography of the Yoruba Goddess Osun.
"What are you curious about?" she inquired. I told her that I wanted to know who we were before we became who we are. She smiled that knowing "Toni Morrison smile" and said something that meant, "write your truth."
I read Beloved the week it came out. I was astounded by the echoes among the novel, Yoruba thought, African American narratives and maternal cosmology. But what intrigued me most was the embodiment of Beloved herself. For me, it was the mud tracks, the asthmatic breathing. It was Baby Suggs Holy in the forest. It was the sign under Sethe's mother's breast signaling a cosmological portal connecting endings and beginnings, death and life, rupture and repair that revealed the truth of Beloved's story.
For so many of us, Toni Morrison kicked open portals of vision, of language, of narratives belonging to an ancient literary heritage that still bears witness to our own infinite truths.
Teaching her body of works reveals a vision and voice guiding pathways toward our infinite humanity and truths. Her question to me lingers in us all: "What are we curious about?"; and who will continue to give voice to that curiosity and those eternal truths.