Acclaimed novelist, professor, and scholar Toni Morrison moved about her native Lorain, Ohio, with her family at least four times during her childhood in the 1930s. Many of those homes no longer exist, casualties of blight and or development.
Home to the 1993 Nobel laureate is therefore not so much a physical or geographic space, but one shaped by memories, companionship, and friends who share those memories.
This concept of home proved a fitting backdrop for her recent visit to Oberlin to dedicate a steel bench commemorating the country's legacy of slavery, and to deliver Oberlin College's final Convocation Series lecture of the year in Finney Chapel. And it resonated for each individual in the audience.
"Toni Morrison spoke to all different peoples and ages, as her theme was home, something that is common to us all," says senior religion major Anjali Harris. "Her advice to keep the memories we share with others alive was especially pertinent, as one student commented that while in college we are constantly transitioning, which makes it difficult to have a sense of where our home really is. Her talk was beautiful and elegant. Having Toni Morrison come to speak at Oberlin was one of the most exciting events of my time here."
A couple hundred children and adults assembled on the square patch of grassy land at the intersection of North Main and Lorain streets to help Morrison dedicate the second of 20 benches for the Bench by the Road Project, an effort spearheaded by the Atlanta-based Toni Morrison Society. Morrison, who just published her ninth novel, A Mercy, says Oberlin is an ideal place because the community represents an understanding of the relationship between blacks and whites.
"It wasn't only that the black ex, former, and escaped slaves made their way out with the help of other former slaves, it was that they arrived at a place where outraged white people ... white people outraged at slavery were there to offer them succor and to offer them hope and to provide them escape," she said during the dedication. "So that combination of commitment on the part of Americans is what's significant about Oberlin, Oberlin in particular."
Caroline Jackson Smith, chair of African American studies, along with artist-in-residence Adenike Sharpley, unveiled the new bench, as members of Dance Diaspora, accompanied on saxophone by faculty-in-residence Ralph Jones, performed. Art professor Johnny Coleman presented Morrison with a wood carving of a desktop-size bench.
President Marvin Krislov, who worked with the society to have Oberlin become part of the project, called the bench a practical and egalitarian object: It offers anyone who passes by a place to sit, rest, and observe the world. "It also bids people to recall Oberlin's history as a hotbed of abolitionism and a force for social justice," he said.
"There were few places in America in the decades prior to the Civil War where an escaped slave could find safe haven and assistance. Oberlin was one of them, and we take great pride in that."
Later than evening, thunderous applause greeted Morrison as she entered the Finney stage, set modestly with a leather chair, side table, and podium. She spoke to the capacity crowd about the idea of home, noting that the recent mass movement of people, brought on by factors such as military intervention, genocide, exile, poverty, ethnic cleansing, death, and shame, has fractured our concept of home and citizenship.
This constant flow of people, she surmised, is perhaps the largest movement of people in history. This relocation-both voluntary and involuntary-has caused problems beyond defining home and citizenship, she said. The way home is a return to decency and respect. And humans are the only species capable of bringing that about.
"Hearing Toni Morrison speak at Finney was a truly moving experience," says first-year student Alice Rhee, "especially since I want to be a writer, too. It's so easy to get star-struck by vaulted literary voices, but it'll be impossible to forget how warm, funny, and inspirational she was in person. During the Q&A session, when a high school teacher asked her what advice she could take back to her students from the author, Ms. Morrison replied 'Don't fail me.' I'll be keeping those words close to heart as well."
Morrison's visit to Oberlin has received national media attention; newspapers large and small, including USA Today, have run the story of Morrison's bench dedication, and local papers and radio and television stations, including the Plain Dealer, 90.3 WCPN, the Chronicle Telegram, and the Morning Journal, have published stories, interviews, and video chronicling her visit to Oberlin.