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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

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