By Laila Nasher
Acclaimed author Toni Morrison passed away in a hospital in New York on Aug. 5. Over her career, she took readers on countless journeys—from the exploration of the devastating effects of racism and sexism in “The Bluest Eye” to the narration of the extreme psychological effects of slavery in “Beloved.” She won numerous honors and awards—the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Barack Obama’s Presidential Medal of Freedom—as well as the hearts and tears of millions across the world.
From 1989 to 2006, Morrison was a professor at Princeton University, and her classes were some of Princeton’s most sought-after courses. Students from all majors would compete to be selected.
One of these students was journalist Elena Sheppard, who graduated in 2009. Sheppard was ecstatic when she found out that Morrison, who had retired in 2006, decided to teach a class her senior year. “I was so bummed that I’d graduate without having been taught by her … I always loved her work. Even when I was 15 or 16,” Sheppard said, “she brought me into this enthralled mental space that I couldn’t get anywhere else, and she just made me want to be a writer.” The realities of that class, called “The Foreigner’s Home,” far exceeded her expectations. One of the biggest lessons Sheppard took away from the class was the importance of writing untold stories of your community, and that lesson has inspired her to begin writing her own book.
Sheppard also wrote her senior thesis on Morrison’s most famous book, “Beloved.” For her thesis, she had the opportunity to interview the authorherself. After building up the courage to ask her for an interview, Sheppard was surprised when Morrison agreed. “She didn’t have to teach the course or do the interview. Yet she still came to Princeton three times a week to pass on her knowledge. It was humbling to see someone of her status want to pass on that knowledge,” Sheppard said. Morrison gave Sheppard a solid half hour for questions. “Just sitting in the same room as her, hearing her knowledge and that she was willing to help me was amazing. It’s my favorite memory from Princeton. When I found out she died, it was just a gut-punching feeling.”
Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an associate professor of classics at Princeton who graduated in 2006, had the opportunity to be lectured by the iconic author during his freshman year. Peralta’s professor Cornel West invited Morrison to speak to his class in the spring of 2003. Before the discussion, Peralta wasn’t too fond of Morrison’s work. “At the time, I had these received ideas about what constituted rich, textured, novelistic writing. And these received ideas or ideas that have been formed by exposure to texts authored by white men—it was incredibly difficult for me, especially on an initial reading of ‘Beloved,’ ‘Sula’ and ‘Song of Solomon,’ to get myself in the kind of mental space that would enable me not just to read Morrison, generously, but to feel that she was truly speaking to the experiences of those communities of womenfolk and menfolk that have shaped my own life.” But his mind quickly changed when he listened to her speaking.
“I was mesmerized from beginning to end,” he said. As a person of color at majority-white Princeton, Peralta understands the hardships and self-doubt it can cause. Watching West and Morrison converse was an inspiration to him. “It was one of the first times where I saw two folks like me, who could take an academic space over by the force of their conversation, their dialogue and their sheer presence, and not feel in any way like I had to perform to some preconceived standard of white male academic status.”
Morrison’s name will forever be etched in the minds of readers across the world—and on a 181-year-old building central to Princeton’s campus: Morrison Hall, dedicated to the author in 2017.