During this year’s Clifford Symposium, we at Middlebury will read Morrison’s most recent book, The Origin of Others, and engage one another in conversations about “the human project—which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others.”
Toni Morrison’s gaze is intent—whether looking at who we are or where we have been, where we are going or who we might become.
This year, we will follow Morrison’s searing gaze into enslavement and its enduring consequences, and the use of color to define and demean. We will see her at the Vienna Biennale standing “face to face, unspeaking, looking into the eyes of the other” and experiencing an extraordinary intimacy. “Accepting each other—one to one.”
Morrison’s voice is as intent as her gaze. So we will also listen to her reading from her novel The Song of Solomon while teaching at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 1977. And we too will read aloud from The Origin of Others, her novels, and a short story adapted for the stage—attuning our voices to hers in an effort to grasp the richness of her prose and reach deeper into her story.
Toni Morrison’s imagination is vivid yet deeply informed. She spins stories that move back and forth in time, place, and perspective, never letting her readers settle long before forcing them to consider the issue at hand from another point of view, allowing them “an opportunity to be and to become the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination.”
The liberal arts at its best.
2018 Clifford Symposium Schedule of Events
Thursday, September 20
Professor Larry Yarbrough
President Laurie Patton
Professor J Finley
Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others begins a conversation on the nature and shape of American racism, and how violence and brutality have become its daily doings. This talk takes as its starting point “Garner,” a shared surname spanning 158 years, between Eric Garner, who was viciously murdered by the NYPD in 2014 while selling loose cigarettes outside a beauty supply store, and Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who murdered her daughter rather than see her enslaved when the family was caught—the inspiration for Morrison’s novel Beloved. The notion of haunting and ghosts can be manifested in many different ways. While the specter, Beloved, haunts her family as a tangible presence—“a speaking, thinking dead child whose impact—and appearance and disappearance—could operate as slavery’s gothic damage,” the ghost of Eric Garner haunts the nation in ways that can seem central and peripheral all at once, summoning us to reckon with black men and women murdered in ghastly acts of racist violence.
Beyond a shared name, what do the stories of Margaret Garner and Eric Garner have to tell us about guilt, explicit or otherwise, in the perpetration of racial violence? This discussion will open the 2018 Clifford Symposium by beginning a frank conversation about race, Strangers, and Other ghostly matters Toni Morrison addresses in each chapter of The Origin of Others, specifically touching on several of Morrison’s most poignant and dangerous questions: “Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another? Why should we want to close the distance when we can close the gate?” Furthermore, how are unspeakable acts rendered mundane?
Keynote address II
Professor Will Nash
In her essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Toni Morrison powerfully illustrates the importance of knowing the past as one looks to the future. In The Origin of Others, Morrison herself speaks as the ancestor; we do well to listen in this moment to the wisdom she has channeled, accrued, and generated over five decades. Keenly attuned from the start of her writing life to the importance of speaking truth to power and chronicling and easing the pain of her community, she has consistently called her readers to account as makers of the American racial landscape.
Always aware of the larger movements of history, Morrison stands equally focused on the impact that individual actors have on that history and on their peers. In our current cultural moment, when the escalation of racist thoughts and actions threatens to further rend the social fabric of our communities, when people stay silent out of fear of misspeaking or being misunderstood, when individuals believe themselves powerless in the face of “what has always been,” Morrison’s bold exploration and explanation of these questions offers us much-needed guidance toward deeper understanding and mutual respect.
The Foreigner’s Home is a feature-length documentary film that explores the vision and work of Toni Morrison through The Foreigner’s Home, the 2006 exhibition she guest-curated at the Louvre. Morrison invited renowned artists whose work also deals with the experience of cultural and social displacement to join her in a public conversation that she had been pursuing for years through her own research and writing and in her teaching at Princeton University. The film expands that conversation, combining exclusive and unreleased footage of the Nobel Laureate in dialogue with artists—first, in Paris in 2006 and then, in 2015, at her home in New York state—with extensive archival film footage, music, and still images to present a series of candid and incisive exchanges about race, identity, “foreignness,” and art’s redemptive power.
Post-screening discussion led by the producers. For further information, see www.theforeignershome.com.
Friday, September 21
This workshop will feature Oberlin faculty members Rian Brown and Geoff Pingree. It will be coordinated by members of Middlebury’s Film and Media Studies faculty.
Organized by Shatavia Knight ’20, Nia Robinson ’19, and Oratory Now Director Dana Yeaton. Middlebury students will read and respond to excerpts from The Origin of Others and Morrison’s other works. They will then open the floor for wider conversation in a variety of formats. The session will also include audio of Toni Morrison reading excerpts from The Song of Solomon, recorded live at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 1977, just before it was published to great acclaim.
Friday, September 21
Created by Middlebury faculty members Michole Biancosino, Christal Brown, and Matthew Taylor, this performance treats the story of two girls who become friends despite the racial and social differences of their mothers. As they grow into women and mothers themselves, an old memory comes back to haunt them.
Immediately following the performance, the creators and performers will open a discussion of the challenges of staging Morrison’s unexpected treatment of race, color, and the coded language we use for both.
Saturday, September 22
In “Narrating the Other,” Morrison writes that the inspiration for Beloved came from a short clipping of a news story about Margaret Garner. Using the “origin” of Beloved as the jumping-off point for this workshop, participants will use the creative process to imagine their own lives in relation to the lives of strangers—the mundane stuff of everyday life that connects us all.
Saturday, September 22
Jazz and other musical forms play a prominent role in Toni Morrison’s novels; Jazz is the title of her 1992 novel set in Harlem of the 1920s—“The City,” she calls it. Morrison also refers to the influence jazz improvisation and performance has on the way she structures her writing.
In this workshop, Matthew Evan Taylor, assistant professor of music, explores these aspects of Morrison’s work, comparing them to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” written in response to pivotal moments in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Larry Yarbrough presents “Pulling It All Together”
Engaged Listening conversations over lunch will pick up on the morning’s workshops and conclude with previews of events that will take place through the year to take up and develop the symposium’s themes.