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Morrison proves to be moving and eloquent

Toni Morrison
The History of Beloved
and the Culture of Jazz.
Kresge Auditorium, April 16 at 8 p.m.

By Joanna Stone
Arts Editor

With a special address to the seniors surrounding her, Ellen Harris, associate provost for the arts, introduced one of the most moving speakers ever to grace the Kresge Auditorium stage -- Toni Morrison.

Morrison's lecture, entitled "The History of Beloved and the Culture of Jazz," spanned the spectrum -- from the humorous, such as Morrison's recollection of a high school teacher's personal complaint to her, `How could she be expected to teach her students Beloved if there weren't any Cliff's Notes?', to the painfully serious -- students have complained about the offensiveness of the explicit sex scenes in Beloved, Morrison recalled, but they take for granted the real obscenity, slavery.

Morrison put forth an initial thesis for the lecture: "The thrust of all education is to move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom." Throughout her talk, it was clear that Morrison had reached the last goal, as the wisdom of her words was both evident and inspirational.

In writing Beloved, Morrison said she had set out to "disentangle the grip of history while remaining in its palm." She based the story of Beloved on an article she came across in Harper's Weekly, a true story of a woman who attempted to kill all her children to keep them from enslavement. With that story, Morrison sought to "take artistic control away from the institution of slavery and give it to the individuals who knew it best." Those familiar with Beloved would agree that the protagonist, Setha, retained that artistic control. The children's murder could not be declared illegal, for the law did not recognize the relationship between a slave mother and her children.

This provided the skeleton for the novel, but Morrison said she needed more specificity of detail to make the work full and real. She found that specificity in the diaries of a slave owner. In an apathetic, note-taking tone, a slave owner recorded his daily activities: "Thursday, Jenny wore the bit ..." Morrison read from the diary, in which references to "the bit" were repeated over and over again. Morrison researched the bit, which was "designed to shut you up." Morrison said "the point became to reveal not what it looked like, but what it felt like."

Morrison showed a rare ability to poke fun at herself and trumpet her own brilliance in the same breath. As she searched through Beloved for the appropriate quote to highlight the use of "the bit", she excused the excess time it was taking her to locate the passage "since this book is not written in a linear, intelligible fashion ... she should have an index or something."

Later, she told of a time she read a passage to a friend of hers: "You really love your own stuff," he said. Her reply was: "But what you don't see is the seven or eight versions I threw out, so by the time you see it, it really is wonderful."

Morrison also addressed "the culture of Jazz". She said people will automatically make associations with jazz, "the music black people play and originated and shaped." She said the appreciation of jazz is one of the few places where a transcendence of race is possible. She noted that the jazz movement was the first sign of cultural change in America and a cultural affirmation for Afro-Americans.

Jazz tells the story of tragic love in Harlem in 1926. According to Morrison, the protagonist has achieved something in the act of being in love. It's irrelevant whether there is a happy ending, Morrison said, and there's no whining, because "the blues never whine."

Particularly moving were the comments made during the question-and-answer period which followed the lecture. Many of the audience members approached the microphone not simply to ask questions, but also to express their gratitude to Morrison. One woman said, "I went to school here and for much of my time here the only thing that made sense were words that you spoke and words that you wrote. Institutions often miss the truth, but you speak truths."

Another woman thanked Morrison for helping her daughter get through Brown University, saying Morrison had been her daughter's role model. She then handed Morrison her daughter's thesis, written on Beloved. "My daughter's in California now, and when I tell her this she'll say `Mom, you didn't!,' but I'm doing it."

Morrison took the thesis and the audience applauded. Morrison shined with brilliance, eloquence, and compassion, yet she maintained a certain down-to-earth humanity that many lose when placed out of reach on a stage. It was a joy to watch her and a special treat, especially for the seniors. Four years later, seniors were able to examine the literary nuances of Beloved from the author herself. One student asked about the `'birth-death-rebirth" significance of Beloved's nakedness in her first appearance in the story, to which Morrison responded, "She's naked because she's hot."