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Public Affairs : Toni Morrison visits West Point

West Point welcomes Morrison to Class of 2016 lecture

Story and photos by Mike Strasser

Assistant Editor

WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 28, 2013) — Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the eighth female author among its recipients, honored the U.S. Military Academy and the Class of 2016 as its guest lecturer March 22.

The occasion was the 36th Sol Feinstone Lecture, hosted by the Department of English and Philosophy, which has presented an eclectic range of authors like Carl Sagan, Elie Wiesel, Milton Friedman and Tom Wolfe among its speakers.

Col. Scott Krawczyk, head of the Department of English and Philosophy, introduced Morrison to the stage at Robinson Auditorium for a standing ovation from a standing-room-only audience inside Thayer Hall.

Krawczyk referenced a rich lifetime of her work that includes fiction, children’s books, a libretto and essays. He described “Playing in the Dark,” as one of the most influential pieces of literary criticism written in the 20th century.

“Through that book Toni Morrison has allowed us to see that the meaning of freedom in America and American literature is always mediated by the material fact and long, long shadow of slavery,” Krawczyk said.

Morrison’s latest novel, “Home,” was read by the Class of 2016 earlier this semester in its literature course.

The protagonist in “Home” is a Korean War veteran suffering from post traumatic stress, a subject Krawczyk said Morrison examines repeatedly in her work, which is “not the sole province of the Soldier.” The trauma of slavery is captured in the literature of Morrison as a defining condition of the African-American experience.

“The novel, which was read by all cadets in EN102, forces us to confront moral ambiguity, an absolute imperative for the development of our cadets,” Krawczyk said.

He said cadets study literature for more than just the leadership lessons embedded within the pages of authors like Morrison.

“We also study Toni Morrison at West Point in order to become better citizens,” he said. “More informed members of society who are deeply conscious of our nation’s past as we move forward together into the future; striving alongside each other, military and civilian, to shape that future.”

This was Morrison’s first visit to West Point. Residing in Grand View-on-Hudson, though, she considers herself a neighbor, with only the rare occasion where she passed by the academy—once by boat.

Morrison read three passages from “Home” and then answered questions from cadets in the audience about the characters in her book, modern-day racism and race relations. Morrison said racism can be seen as a substitute for something else ... “for feeling bad.”

“Can you imagine how little and how low they must feel about themselves? How cowardly ...,” Morrison said.

On the subject of “Home,” Morrison said she became interested in writing about the 1950s and Korean War because it was an era in which the national narrative had become “scabbed over and veiled” with time.

Later in her discussion, she hinted an interest in writing a more contemporary story, given her affinity to writing on stories set in decades past. She also mentioned the play she collaborated on called “Desdemona,” based on Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

Her inspiration for that was simple.

“I would only do it if I could take out Iago,” she said, of Shakespeare’s villain.

She also spoke of the Nigerian-born novelist Chinua Achebe, whose death was reported the same day as her visit.

She described him as a writer of real consequence who inspired her deeply. Morrison said as Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky became the literary voice of Russia, Achebe served as the definitive voice for his country and an inspiration for African-American writers.

Morrison, a Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Emerita at Princeton University, said her favorite part of any appearance is taking questions from students.

“After years and years of teaching at Princeton, it’s the give-and-take and the queries, I enjoy that,” Morrison said.

Class of 2015 Cadet Katherine Bullard, the cadet-in-charge of the African-American Arts Forum, joined Morrison on stage for a moment and presented her with a bouquet of flowers and a hug.

“To share the stage with such an accomplished, powerful and confident woman as Professor Toni Morrison, was extremely humbling,” Bullard said.

Bullard also sat with Morrison and other club members for lunch at the Cadet Mess.

“In our short interaction, she explained that her writings illustrate the melodic rhythms that have touched her throughout life,” Bullard said. “We discussed artistry and how music such as jazz, poetry and other art forms intermingle as they are linked to the same rhythm that touches the essence of one’s spirit. When we capture these emotions, feelings and passions produced by this rhythm, in forms of art, we are released from ourselves through expression.”

Morrison said she rarely eats before a lecture, but made an exception given the unique opportunity to explore the inside of the historic dining hall.
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Toni Morrison read from "Home" and answered questions from Class of 2016 cadets at the 36th Sol Feinstone Lecture, hosted by the Department of English and Philosophy March 22 inside Robinson Auditorium.

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The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the eighth female author among its recipients, Toni Morrison honored the U.S. Military Academy and the Class of 2016 as its guest lecturer March 22 inside Robinson Auditorium.


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Following the lecture, Toni Morrison received a line of fans extending well outside Cullum Hall and almost to the West Point Club during the book-signing event. 

 
“That was very impressive. First of all, that hall is astonishing. It’s the kind of place you want to tour when no one is there,” Morrison said. “There’s something about being there that made me hungry. I had a good time there.”

Class of 2013 Cadet John Miele was unable to attend the lecture but managed to be the first cadet in line afterward for the book-signing appearance at Cullum Hall. In his hand was a copy of Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” which he said offered some guidance on transitioning to adulthood.

“I read this when I was a senior in high school, and I feel like it really added to my final preparations of leaving my hometown and coming to West Point,” Miele, a Harrington Park, N.J., native, said.

Miele, a future infantry officer, didn’t prepare any questions or comments for Morrison.


“I just want to tell her how appreciative I am that she is such a great author who helped me in my life,” Miele said.

The line stretched outside along the sidewalk and nearly to the West Point Club. For a short spell, Class of 2016 Cadet Thomas Hinds was at the end of the line.

“I was very impressed with her lecture. We were talking beforehand about how amazing it was when William Faulkner came to West Point 51 years ago,” Hinds said. “I was just thinking how Morrison’s visit will be compared in the future.”

Soon, others joined him. Tammy Bongi from the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School’s Department of English was teaching at the time of the lecture. The new dean there gave her permission to get her book signed and she brought along a cadet candidate.

“I’ve read a lot of her books before but I haven’t read the new one yet,” Bongi said. “‘The Bluest Eye’ is one of those experiences that you can’t forget because it has such universal themes and everyone can connect with it at some level.”

That evening Morrison was hosted by the Association of Graduates at Herbert Hall with a dinner and entertainment. Cadets read excerpts of her novels. Class of 2015 Cadet Krystal Onyema sang “He Is By” from the opera “Margaret Garner” for which Morrison provided the text.

“It was an unforgettable day, and a priceless experience,” Bullard said. “The experience of being able to attend the lecture, validated to me, how powerful words are. I had never seen someone be able to command the attention of so many for so long by just reading from a book. The sound of 1,000 pages turning voluntarily at the same time while following Professor Morrison’s voice was breathtaking. I was truly inspired.” 
 
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