Community honors Toni Morrison with ‘Bluest Eye’ reading

A total of 122 readers, plus a number of Cornell musicians, paid tribute to the late Toni Morrison, M.A. ’55, on Oct. 8 during a marathon reading of “The Bluest Eye,” her debut novel, which was released 50 years ago.

Author Tayari Jones reads from “The Bluest Eye,” the 1970 debut novel by Toni Morrison, M.A. ’55.

The seven-hour virtual event, hosted by eCornell and organized by the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), featured readings by authors Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tayari Jones and Edwidge Danticat; U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo; activist Angela Davis; and music producer Mathew Knowles.

Also taking part were Morrison scholars from numerous universities; readers sharing sections of the book in other languages; Cornell staff members, students and faculty; and Ithaca community leaders.

The event was the first in a yearlong series, “Cornell Celebrates Toni Morrison” part of A&S’s Arts Unplugged program. Morrison died Aug. 5, 2019, at age 88.

“Cornell takes enormous pride in its association with one of the greatest writers of our time,” said Roger Gilbert, professor of English and co-organizer of the event. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1987 novel, “Beloved,” and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. “We’re honored to be presenting this and other events in her memory over the coming year.”

Morrison’s first novel “helped launch the new renaissance in black women’s writing that emerged in the post-civil rights era,” said event co-organizer Riche Richardson, associate professor of African American literature.

The event began with a recording of Morrison herself reading the first section of the book. Her voice also closed out the reading at day’s end.

Vanicleia Silva Santos of the University of Pennsylvania read an early section of the book in Portuguese, and David Cassasco of Harvard University (Spanish); publisher Dominique Bourgois (French) and Sabine Broeck (German) of Universität Bremen contributed other passages, illustrating the global impacts of Morrison’s work.

A total of 52 Cornell students took part in the reading, many of them members of a new course this semester focused on “The Bluest Eye,” being co-taught by Gilbert and Anne Adams, professor emerita in Africana studies.

“I first read ‘The Bluest Eye’ with my seventh-grade class and was blown away by its story of hope and struggle as it challenged my own perception of self and beauty as it has for millions of people,” said Lassan Bagayako ’22, a member of Black Students United, who took part in the reading. “I hope everyone takes a chance to read her amazing work … and let her voice live through her work for generations to come.”

Students in the Cornell Jazz Ensemble wrote and performed an original piece, set to lyrics from the book. Called “Poland’s Blues,” the piece was composed and performed by Kennedy Jean Baptiste ’21, Paco Rilloraza ’21, Steven Chin ’21 and Brian Caine ’21, and engineered by senior lecturer Paul Merrill, the Gussman Director of Jazz at Cornell.

Alexia Carey ’23, a member of the a capella group Baraka Kwa Wimbo, performed “Precious Lord,” which appears in a section of the book where one of the characters is listening to the song in church.

Activist Angela Davis reads from “The Bluest Eye,” the 1970 debut novel by Toni Morrison, M.A. ’55.

Other readers from the Cornell and Ithaca communities included President Martha E. Pollack; Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff; Ray Jayawardhana, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences; Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09; Rev. Nathaniel Wright of Calvary Baptist Church; Cal Walker, formerly outreach liaison in Cornell’s Office of Community Relations and a long-time community organizer; and Greater Ithaca Activities Center Director Leslyn McBean-Clairborne.

Event co-organizer Derrick Spires, associate professor of English, closed out the reading with a heartfelt thank you “to the incomparable Toni Morrison, for your gift of language and vision. Now, more than ever, your words breathe life into us, even as we continue to miss you.”

The next event in the series is a Toni Morrison Teach-In, from 4:30-6 p.m. Oct. 15. The event is open to the public; register here.

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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