CLEVELAND (WJW) – February 18 is Toni Morrison Day in the state of Ohio, and what would have been the award-winning author’s 92nd birthday.
In her honor, local writers, poets, and readers are celebrating Morrison’s literary impact and Northeast Ohio roots.
“Toni Morrison is one of the most important American novelists. Not black novelists, but American novelists,” said Michelle R. Smith, Literary Cleveland’s Programming Director.
Morrison has the awards to prove it.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison is not only the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.
She also won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Writing in 1988, and in 2012, then-President Barack Obama awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive.
Awards or not, Smith told Fox 8, Morrison should be celebrated for what the author called “deconstructing the master narrative.”
“The idea that black people only, sort of, exist in meaningful ways in relationship to white people was problematic, and she wasn’t interested in that. She wanted to write about Black people for Black people, and she was unapologetic,” Smith said.
“Critics would say to her, ‘Well, you know, when are you going to talk about the reality of Black life in America?’ And her answer was always that, that’s exactly what she did.”
From “The Bluest Eye” to “Sula” and “Song of Solomon,” Literary Cleveland is partnering with Third Space Action Lab to host a community reading of Morrison’s works.
For Third Space, it’s an event that aligns with the racial equity consulting firm and bookstore’s mission.
“To create a safe place for these kinds of conversations,” said Harry Atwell, Third Space Action Lab’s Community Manager. “As Michelle mentioned, a lot of her, Toni Morrison, books have been banned. So, this is a great, I think, safe zone to have those kinds of conversations around those books that were possibly trying to be, you know, pulled from shelves.”
Many of the books, and their dialogue, are also inspired by life in Ohio and explore themes of identity, history, race, and the depths of love.
“Like “Beloved,” where Sethe was a fugitive slave, and when she realized that her master had come to reclaim her, her thought was to protect her kids by killing them. She was like, ‘I would rather that they were in heaven than back in slavery,'” said Smith. “It’s a hard version of love for us to, you know, imagine or understand, but it is the kind of love that parents in that time had to have.”
Morrison was also a high-powered editor for Random House and a college professor. She died in 2019 at age 88.
When asked to reflect on the author’s legacy, Smith said Morrison leaves behind several legacies, including her genius ability to write, her talent for telling the history of the United States of America through the lens of Black people, and her commitment to achieving her goals, despite challenges.
“Toni Morrison was a single mother,” said Smith. “So, in order to write “The Bluest Eye,” she was getting up a couple of hours every morning, every day to work a 9 to 5, still trying to make this dream happen, and it didn’t happen until she was 39.”
Perhaps most important to Smith, Morrison’s achievements prove that Ohio births great writers.
“I think it’s important for people to know that even if you don’t grow up in California, or New York, or one of those more glamorous places, Atlanta, Chicago, you can be here in Lorain. Small town, right? And still, become one of the most important writers in the history of the world,” said Smith.
The Toni Morrison Community Reading is free and will feature special tributes, followed by an open mic. Registration is not required. Click here for more information.