by Bill Batson
A new exhibition at the Historical Society of the Nyacks offers an intimate glimpse into Toni Morrison’s creative process. According to its curator, the novelist Brenda Ross, “visitors will learn how Morrison approached her writing, and fearlessly mastered her craft. All while raising two sons alone.”
Toni Morrison: A Retrospective is the inaugural exhibition at the Society’s new museum. Formerly located on the ground floor of the historic DePew estate at 50 Piermont Ave, the museum is now housed on the first level of the same building, with large windows overlooking Memorial Park and the Hudson River.
Some things you will learn at
Toni Morrison: A Retrospective
- Who was Chloe Wofford (Morrison’s birth name)?
- She once taught Stokely Carmichael before she became an editor.
- She was an editor for many years and published a number of famous people including Angela Davis, Mohammed Ali, Huey Newton, June Jordan and many other well-known Black writers.
- She authored a number of children books with her son Slade, now deceased.
Toni Morrison: A Retrospective opens on Opening Saturday, May 8 and is on display every Saturday through July 1-4pm
Historical Society of the Nyacks is located at 50 Piermont Avenue – Use the Library parking lot entrance.
Reservations required. Go to www.nyackhistory.org to schedule a visit.
“Because Morrison valued Black lives and struggle enough to put them center stage in her work, often painfully so, she’s piqued my interest enough over the years that I wanted to know more,” said Ross. “And now, I’m even more in awe of this deservedly famous woman. My hope [is that] the esteem that others have for her will grow as well.”
Morrison as Hometown Heroine
With her 11 novels and sundry essays translated into 20 languages, Morrison’s impact is global, but as a resident of neighboring Grand View, she was very much our hometown heroine. One of her last public events was held in Memorial Park on May 18, 2015, where she dedicated a monument, in the form of a bench, to abolitionist Cynthia Hesdra.
The project to reinterpret the ordinary park bench as a place to ponder public history began with a turn of phrase. In her 1989 acceptance speech for the Melcher Book Award, Morrison spoke about the inspiration of her novel Beloved, telling the audience:
“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to.”
The compelling comment became a call to action for the Toni Morrison Society. In 2006, the Bench by the Road Project was established and the metaphor was made real. There are now 25 Toni Morrison inspired benches located around the world, at significant locations of the African Diaspora.
When Nyack Said Farewell to the Queen of Words
Following her death, Nyack Library organized a year of programming entitled “The Black American Culture and Arts Series: The Legacy of Toni Morrison.” Developed by the head of adult services Tracy Dunstan, the series recently received the Joseph F. Shuster Library Excellence Award from the New York State Regents Council.
At Nyack Center on August 7, 2019, days after her death, residents read passages of Morrison’s work in the author’s honor. Village of Nyack Trustee Donna Lightfoot-Cooper recalled the affection the author had for the Nyack Library. Trustee Cooper described ways that Morrison found to support the institution during the completion of their annex in 2011.
Here are some of the passages selected by those who gathered to honor Toni Morrison’s memory by reading her words to each other.
From her 10th novel, Home, published in 2012
Whose home is this?
Whose night keeps out the light
Say, who owns this house?
It’s not mine.
I dreamed another, sweeter, brighter
With a view of lakes crossed in painted boats;
Of fields wide as arms open for me.
This house is strange.
Its shadows lie.
Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?
Excerpt from her 1992 Nobel Lecture:
“The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation.
Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed.
It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”
From a conversation with Oprah Winfrey:
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’
This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn’t matter to me what your position is. You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain. This is no time for anything else than the best that you’ve got.”
Bill Batson is an artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: ” Inaugural Exhibit at Historical Society’s New Museum Features Toni Morrison” © 2021 Bill Batson. To see more, visit billbatsonarts.com