Skip to content
Topics
Stories

Toni Morrison speaks about ‘goodness’

World-​​renowned nov­elist Toni Mor­rison said that brutal vio­lence against African-​​Americans was so com­mon­place throughout much of the 20th cen­tury that it was almost casual how it came to shape their lives in that era.

“Each is a story of humil­i­a­tion, of degra­da­tion, and—very often—of blood,” said Mor­rison, a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-​​winning author. “To revive these sto­ries, to put them on dis­play, is almost as impor­tant as the orig­inal jus­tice could have been.”

Mor­rison was the keynote speaker Friday after­noon in Blackman Audi­to­rium at “No Wel­come Home: Remem­bering Harms and Restoring Jus­tice,” an event hon­oring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The event was hosted by the North­eastern Uni­ver­sity School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restora­tive Jus­tice Project in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Human­i­ties Center.

Mor­rison, 81, focused largely on the idea of good­ness, which she described as a quiet force more pow­erful than vio­lence or hatred. After­ward, she read from her book “Home” and answered ques­tions from an audi­ence of more than 900.

When asked why vio­lence is so per­va­sive in today’s society, Mor­rison explained that vio­lence is a spec­tacle that draws atten­tion, whereas acts of good­ness are too often overlooked.

“Evil and vio­lence take the stage—all of it. It needs so much to call our atten­tion,” Mor­rison said. “But good­ness doesn’t need any­thing. If it says any­thing at all, it’s a whisper.”

Fol­lowing two World Wars, the idea of good­ness nearly van­ished from lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture, Mor­rison explained; today, she said, it hangs on mostly as a topic approached with a great deal of irony.

“Now we have a cul­ture of spec­tacle,” Mor­rison lamented, “and the idea of goodness—real good­ness, from the people who don’t put their names on it—seems to have been com­pletely erased.”

Near the end of the evening, North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun posed a final ques­tion to Mor­rison. “You have been involved in acad­emia for so long, talking all over the world,” he told Mor­rison, who has served on the fac­ulty at Princeton Uni­ver­sity. “What are we doing wrong?”

Mor­rison replied, “I think the academy is scared—of open access to infor­ma­tion, of the Internet. Insti­tu­tions of higher learning are some of the only truly free places we have left, and they have to stay that way.”

The event also high­lighted the work of Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restora­tive Jus­tice Project, which pur­sues “per­pe­tra­tors of unspeak­able vio­lence, reviving cases long thought to have gone cold and pro­viding solace for fam­i­lies who had long ago given up hope for jus­tice,” said Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law.

The project’s suc­cess could not be pos­sible without the tire­less inves­tiga­tive work of CRRJ law stu­dents, who scour public archives, dig through court records, and inter­view sur­viving rel­a­tives and wit­nesses to bring jus­tice to long­standing wrongs.

“It is impor­tant that we ask com­mu­ni­ties what they want and what they need, and then we as a nation must find col­lec­tive and cre­ative ways to get it done,” said Kaylie Simon, a School of Law alumna who worked on the restora­tive jus­tice project as a stu­dent and is now a deputy pros­e­cutor in Contra Costa, Calif. “It is not just a shooting or a murder that affects a com­mu­nity, but also the response to it.”

“As we move on into the 21st cen­tury, leaving fur­ther behind the civil rights era, it serves us well to look back at what was accomplished—and what we have left unfin­ished,” added North­eastern law pro­fessor Mar­garet Burnham, CRRJ’s founder and the first African-​​American woman to serve on the Mass­a­chu­setts judiciary.

Ear­lier on Friday, Mor­rison par­tic­i­pated in a round­table dis­cus­sion with a small group of North­eastern stu­dents who had recently read her first novel, “The Bluest Eye.” The round­table was led by Kim­berly Brown, an assis­tant pro­fessor of Eng­lish, and hosted by the North­eastern Human­i­ties Center, a research center in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, which is led by interim dean Uta Poiger.

“Little black girls were never taken seri­ously in books, they were always jokes,” Mor­rison said. “But I wanted to read a book where they were taken seri­ously, so I had to write it.”

Reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of non­vi­o­lence, Mor­rison sug­gested that the Civil Rights era was about much more than the simple hope for a brighter future.

“Martin Luther King didn’t have any guns, he didn’t blow up any­thing, he didn’t lynch any­body,” Mor­rison said. “He trained boys and girls to just sit there and accept insults. That is a thing that is bigger than hope. It is sur­vival and it is resis­tance and it is triumph.”

Northeastern’s cel­e­bra­tion of King’s life and legacy con­tinued on Monday with the annual King Day of Ser­vice and Lead­er­ship, which drew sev­eral hun­dred North­eastern stu­dents and com­mu­nity mem­bers to campus to work on ser­vice projects that ben­efit local communities.

North­eastern will hold its annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Con­vo­ca­tion on Thursday at 12 p.m. in Blackman Audi­to­rium. This year’s keynote speaker is Setti Warren, the mayor of Newton, Mass., who will reflect on King’s lead­er­ship and its meaning in today’s world.

– by Matt Collette

More Stories

Photo of the Capitol Building at night

High stakes for politics, SCOTUS in 2018

01.04.2018
Photo of the crashed truck that was used in the October 31st attack in Manhattan.

Weaponizing Language: How the meaning of “allahu akbar” has been distorted

11.08.2017
Northeastern logo

Why I love studying Spanish

05.29.20
Uncategorized