SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
MARGO CRAWFORD: Welcome everyone to the Department of English's Wendy Rosenthal Gellman lecture on modern literature. We are delighted that this year's lecture is focusing on Toni Morrison, and we are truly delighted that Farah Jasmine Griffin is delivering today's lecture.
When people know that Farah Jasmine Griffin is coming to town, they get excited. They get really excited. One colleague told me, quote "why is everything that she writes so beautiful?" Another colleague, same week, shared anticipation, said, "you know, her writing has so much precision, style, and grace."
When I think about the work of Farah Jasmine Griffin, I think about Arthur Jafa's theory of flow, layering, and rupture. And I want to let you hear all of the titles so you can begin to think about that flow, that layering, and that rupture. Who Set You Flowin'? The African-American Migration Narrative. If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery-- in Search of Billie Holiday. Clawing at the Limits of Cool-- Miles Davis, John Coltrane.
And the greatest jazz collaboration ever, Harlem Nocturne-- Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II. Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends-- Letters From Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, an edited volume. Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, forthcoming very soon, co-edited. Uptown Conversation-- The New Jazz Studies, also co-edited.
I should also say, as many of you know, there's so much more, so many book chapters and essays. I don't think Farah sleeps. Her first book pivoted, pivoted on flow, Who Sent You Flowin'-- The African-American Migration Narrative, set an entire generation of African-American literature scholars in motion.
This groundbreaking text revealed the different shapes of the African-American migration narrative in literature, music, and visual art. Griffin refers to the quote "ancestor who is herself a migrant" end quote, as she makes readers imagine layers of flow and that which James Baldwin refers to as the deep water of black aesthetics.
The tension of flow, layering, and rupture in her work is partially the wonder-- the sheer wonder-- of the archival discoveries and the new interpretations of what we thought we knew, of what we thought we read. Farah Jasmine Griffin takes us to the deeper dimensions.
The title of her study of Billie Holiday comes from Canary, a poem written by Rita Dove. The final words in this poem are, "fact is, the invention of women under siege has been to sharpen love in the service of myth. If you can't be free, be a mystery." This study of Billie Holiday opens up the mystery of black feminist radicalism, the mystery of imagining the unimaginable.
We hear this mystery in the title of one of her very recent books, Harlem Nocturne. The study of Pearl Primus, Ann Petri, and Mary Lou Williams is framed around the paradox of quote "forced confinement and forced mobility." She offers this tension between movement and constraint as a verily of understanding the complexity of black aesthetics.
Trailblazing scholars such as Griffin push us forward. They take us higher. She is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University. She is also the Program Director for the Schomburg Center Scholar in Residence Program. Her work is situated in American and African-American literature, music, history, and politics. It is a sheer pleasure to welcome Farah Jasmine Griffin.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Thank you so much, Margo. That was just-- you know, there are certain people you like hearing about yourself through their language, right? It makes you sound good. I hope that was recorded so I can share it with my family.
I want to thank everyone who made this trip possible, especially Sarah, who has been so wonderful handling all the logistics and the different cancellations of planes and all of that and just really made this so easy and smooth. It's been a lovely couple of days here with the graduate students. Yesterday we had a wonderful seminar and getting to see my colleagues like Dag and Eric [? Chafitz, ?] who is a colleague from way, way back at the University of Pennsylvania.
When Professor Crawford wrote me, inviting me to deliver the 2015 Gellman lecture on the work of Toni Morrison, I was both honored and then immediately overwhelmed. Can you hear me? I have been reading Morrison for most of my life, it feels like. No writer has been as central to my own development as a thinker, a person, or a writer.
I now teach an advanced undergraduate seminar on her novel. So I spend a considerable amount of time reading and thinking about her work. But this is the first time I've really had the opportunity to write something in a sustained way. And so I'm very grateful for that opportunity. And what you hear today is very, very new, just pulling together some thoughts for today. So I'm grateful for this opportunity to put my thoughts on paper and to share them with colleagues whom I respect.
So I had this title. We Do Language. History, meaning, and language in the novels of Toni Morrison. And it's one of those broad and vague titles that one gives before your thoughts have fully formed. But while I cannot say that it will fully represent what I'm going to share with you, I will try not to disappoint anyone who has come here expecting to hear that talk.
Toward the end of a conversation held here at Cornell University, titled Reading the Writing, A Conversation Between Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky, which was held on March 18, 2013, Morrison says that the little town in her novel home is quote "beautiful because of the colors of the small gardens, not because of the grand houses, but also it's beautiful because it is safe." She goes on to say, "people may not like you, but they are not going to hurt you. Nobody is going to hurt you. That is home." End quote.
Morrison is most often thought of as a writer whose creative project has sought to call our attention to and dismantle racist language and to present alternative meanings and worldviews as posited in the languages of the marginalized and dispossessed communities who are most often the subjects of her fiction. She has done so by focusing on the ways those communities are shaped by and respond to white supremacy, without centering white people or writing in view of what she calls quote "gays" end quote.
Of late, she has also said that her project has included an effort to try and find a language for goodness. Literary language, according to Morrison, is most often devoted to the evil and the corrupt. In lectures at Harvard and Santa Cruz and even in the conversation here at Cornell, she has stressed this aspect of her literary project. Quote "writing and trying to find language for goodness is all I have ever done in the novel," which might surprise some of us. "Goodness, home."
What follows is a consideration of three spatial configurations to be found in her work. One, outdoors. A space that allows her to posit in ethics, a sense of right and wrong, understood and articulated by a poor black community. Two, the ruin, where she stages an engagement with literary history and her place in it. And three, home, an aspirational space she invites us to join her in creating, a space that strives to be outside of racist constructs of the language we call our own.
A tour of each site allows an exploration of Morrison's efforts to narrate the good, which Claudia Brodsky and the Cornell conversation defined simply as "altruism, selfless acts undertaken for others." End quote. Such a tour also enables us to follow her trajectory as a writer and to explore her aesthetic project.
Each site respectively allows for consideration of Morrison's exploration of language, history, and our responsibility to free that language so that we might imagine a different future. I have taken seriously the invitation to think about Morrison's body of work and attempt to read sections of three novels and one essay, all in the little bit of time that we have together.
I will talk about some of the work in relation to the work of other artists as well. So hold on. Put on your seat belts. This is going to be a very fast ride through a lot of work. So I want to start with something that might be a little counter-intuitive. Let's see. And yes, that is a picture of Lupita on my desktop. I have an intellectual reason why it's there, and you can ask me in the question and answer. But first--
[MUSIC - BILLIE HOLIDAY, "I LOVE MY MAN"]
I love my man. I'm a liar if I say I don't. I love my man. I'm a liar if I say I don't. But I'll quit my man. I'm a liar if I say I won't.
I've been your slave, baby, ever since I've been your babe. I've been your slave ever since I've been your babe. But before I'll be your dog, I'll see you in your grave.
My man wouldn't give me no breakfast, wouldn't give me no dinner. Squawked about my supper, then he put me outdoors. Had the nerve to lay a matchbox on my clothes. I didn't have so many, but I had a long, long ways to go.
I ain't good looking. And my hair ain't curled. I ain't good looking. And my hair ain't curled. But my mother, she give me something, it's going to carry through this world.
Some men like me 'cause I'm happy, some 'cause I'm snappy. Some call me honey. Other's think I've got money.
Some say Billie, baby, you're built for speed. Now, if you put that all together, makes me everything a good man needs.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: I open this section of my talk, not with Morrison, but with another great 20th century creative genius, Billie Holiday, Lady Day. I start here for a number of reasons. First and foremost, you can't go wrong when you play Lady Day. It puts everybody in a good mood. But also I think this song resonates with Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970, but set during the Depression.
The song was first recorded for Columbia in 1936 in the middle of the Depression. Billie's blues was one of Lady Day's most famous songs and one of the rare formal blues that she ever saying. She also wrote it. And between 1936 and 1956, she recorded at least five versions of the tune with slightly modified lyrics. This was a 1944 version.
"I love my man. I'm a liar if I say I don't. But I'll quit my man. I'm a liar if say I won't. I've been your slave, baby, ever since I've been your babe. I've been your slave ever since I've been your babe. But before I'll be your dog, I'll see you in your grave. My man wouldn't give me no breakfast, wouldn't give me no dinner, squawked about my supper, and then he put me outdoors. Had the nerve to lay a matchbox on my clothes. I didn't have many, but I had a long ways to go. And then there's the refrain about I ain't good looking, ending with it makes me everything a good man needs."
I read these lyrics along with Morrison's Bluest Eye, first to show some of the similarities between the two. The song is a blues of the conventional my man done me wrong sub-genre. Here is Claudia, the narrator of The Bluest Eye, talking about her mother sing the blues.
"My mother would sing about hard times, bad times, and somebody done gone and left me times. But her voice was so sweet and her singing eyes so melty, I found myself yearning to be a grown woman without a thin dime to my name. I look forward to the delicious time when my man would leave me, when I would hate to see that evening sun go down, because then I would know my man has left this town. Misery, colored by the greens and blues in my mother's voice took all the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet."
The song referenced there is the St. Louis Blues by WC Handy, but I'm less concerned with the specificity of the song and more with his performance, as described here. Morrison, through Claudia, tells us that the sound of the singing is as important, if not more so, than the lyrics. The meaning in the sound is where we go for interpretation.
The words tell of pain, but the sound is so sweet, we get a much more complex understanding of male-female relationships, painful and sweet. For those of you who know the novel, it's in contrast to what the Hollywood movies feed to the people who watch them, which is a much more kind of sentimentalized version of romantic love.
The blues teach Claudia to listen for multiple dimensions in the meaning. Earlier in the narrative, she talks of listening to her mother's conversation with other women. "Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance. Sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters, but it is upstaged by still another. The two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals.
Other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm pulsed laughter, like a throb of a heart made of jelly. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Frieda and me." Frieda is her sister. "We do not, cannot, know the meaning of all their words, for we are 9 and 10 years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre."
Truth in timbre. Here, language is active. It moves, it dances, it is athletic. It takes its rhythm from the consistent beat of a heart. It throbs. It shakes. It's something you do. It requires engagement, attentive listening, and it is done in the context of expressive faces, hands, and feet, which contribute to the meaning. It is of the body, even as it transcends it. It is within an interior and outside in public. It is an act of communion with others.
Timbre is defined as the qualities of a sound that distinguish it from other sounds of the same pitch and volume. Claudia is the text storyteller, the narrator, the writer of this tale. And she is the one who is most invested in language and its meaning.
Let's return to the Holiday song momentarily, specifically the third stanza. "My man wouldn't give me no breakfast, wouldn't give me no dinner, squawked about my supper, and then he put me outdoors." The stanza relates to the individual and collective abuses suffered by black people in America. It is a litany of dispossession, homelessness, and hunger. It records an act of a man against a woman, but also an act of America against its black citizens.
We turn here to the blues, because it both captures the language and the worldview of black Americans during a particular moment in our nation's history. Here, in the Depression, were acts of eviction, of land loss, and theft, set a people adrift, a people who have a long history of dispossession and homelessness.
Billie's blues records words and phrases and gives voice to longings, desires, and perspectives. Put me outdoors is an instance of the blues recording the black vernacular. I do not know when it enters into the lexicon, but surely by the Depression era, it is there, and its meaning is recognized. Outdoors is a word in the English language, and all speakers of English recognize it. It's understood by most speakers of the language.
On one level of meeting, he made her leave home. He refused to provide food, clothing, or shelter. He put her out of doors. Out into the open air is how the dictionary describes it. Consequently, he has denied her protection. He has made her vulnerable. Outdoors is part of Claudia's linguistic inheritance as well.
Morrison records the language, not only by putting it in the mouths of her Depression-era characters, but also by shedding light on its meaning. Morrison allows Claudia to translate it to readers across culture and time. Just two pages after Claudia has instructed us to listen closely for meaning in sound, she defines outdoors in a manner that will help us better understand Billie Holiday's condition-- the persona of the Billie Holiday song's condition.
Claudia says, "Outdoors, we knew was the real terror of life. The threat of being outdoors surfaced frequently in those days. Every possibility of excess was curtailed with it. If somebody ate too much, he could end up outdoors. If somebody used too much coal, he could end up outdoors. People could gamble themselves outdoors, drink themselves outdoors.
Sometimes mothers put their sons outdoors, and when that happened, regardless of what that son had done, all sympathy was with him. He was outdoors, and his own flesh had done it. To be put outdoors by a landlord is one thing-- unfortunate-- but an aspect of life over which you had no control since you could not control your income. But to be slack enough to put oneself outdoors or heartless enough to put one's own kin outdoors, that was criminal."
Outdoors, we knew was the real terror of life. The sentence signals that there is more to the word than the dictionary definition. The phrase "we knew" asserts a knowledge held by a particular group, the two sisters Claudia and Frieda, black residents of Medallion, black people in America. The sentence is a signal to the reader to be attentive to a deeper meaning.
Outdoors is not only an inconvenience, it constitutes a terror, intense fear, or dread or that which causes it. There is also the suggestion of violence or the potential of violence. Outdoors is a condition imposed from without and from within. Those who are put outdoors require our sympathy. Those who put someone outdoors are judged.
It goes against Christ's dictum in Matthew 25:31:46 that we are to provide food, clothing, and shelter to those from whom it has been denied. What he calls the least of these. To put someone outdoors is to lose honor in the eyes of the Lord. This is the only basis in the Gospels for a final judgment.
To put your kin outdoors is the ultimate sin. It is not illegal by the law of the state, but a judgment passed by a community. Evictions are common and beyond one's control, therefore not a judgment on your character. But to impose this condition on oneself or upon one's kin is an act against humanity. In the first paragraph, if the first paragraph defines outdoors, the second uncovers the philosophical implications of the term.
"There was a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you were put out, you go somewhere else. If you were outdoors, there is no place to go. The distinction was subtle but final. Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition.
Being a minority in both caste and class, we move about anyway on the hymn of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment. Our peripheral existence, however, was something we had learned to deal with, probably because it was abstract. But the concreteness of being outdoors was another matter, like the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Dead doesn't change, and outdoors is here to stay."
Claudia, the writer, interprets meaning here. Note the words irrevocable, final, concrete. It shares this sense of finality only with death. The term, the terror of outdoors, exacerbates and underscores their social condition.
Here Morrison takes a common word from the vernacular and, in translating it, reveals the depth and dimension of language, a throwaway phase containing a people's worldview of fear that could be universal, an ultimate dispossession, rootlessness, a tearing asunder for which there is no remedy. It causes a psychic scarring.
To have been put outdoors is to have experienced a major trauma from which one never fully recovers. You may endure, but you have been put outdoors, and that is forever a condition of your existence."
So when Billie sings "he put me outdoors," she is identifying an act of betrayal beyond the end of a romantic relationship. It is a physical act that instills a psychic wound. It is metaphysical and transcendent.
No one in The Bluest Eye is more outdoors than the child, Pecola Breedlove. She is outdoors in relation to everything and everyone surrounding her. The blues sing about a condition in order to gain some control over it, to narrate it, and therefore contain it within the blues women's own narrative. It is then given to the listener like a sacred text, a tool to help build endurance, to help find the sweetness and humor in the midst of the terror.
But Pecola has no blues song. She is not socialized into this alternative universe, except as its victim and its scapegoat. Her father twice puts her outdoors, first by burning up his house. When she arrives at Claudia's family's home, quote Claudia says, "she came with nothing. No little paper bag with the other dress or a night gown or two pair of whitish cotton bloomers. She just appeared with a white woman and sat down. She doesn't even have a black mother or aunt to accompany her."
Charlie, her father is quote, "beyond the reaches of human consideration," end quote, because he put his family outdoors. And it is this trauma that contributes to the stripping of the child's self, which makes her completely vulnerable to the others that follow, the harassment about her color by others in her community, which places her outside the circle, undesired and unloved.
Goodness, the good, is implied in this passage. It is the opposite of putting one outdoors. It is taking them in. Claudia's family, the McTears, quietly take Pecola in. She says, quote, "Frieda and I stopped fighting each other and concentrated on our guest. Frieda and I stopped fighting each other and concentrated on our guest, trying hard to keep her from feeling outdoors."
The two sisters agree, together, to take care of Pecola. They enact an ancient hospitality by treating their guest well, making her comfortable, giving her a sense of home, in this case, in order to counter the trauma of being outdoors. They make her laugh and feed her graham crackers and milk. Goodness here does not call attention to itself. It does not ask for anything in return.
The young girls grow in their effort to comfort and care for Pecola. Pecola is put out by her father and her community. When the middle class Geraldine finds her inside of her beautiful home, she yells, get out you nasty little black bitch. Get out of my house. The language is violent, cutting, destructive, and hateful. Combined with other acts, they contribute to the child's destruction and vulnerability and prepare the way for her ultimate victimization, the act of incest, which finally destroys her.
Our final images in the novel of Pecola find her outdoors among garbage and weeds. Morrison writes, quote, "the damage done was total," end quote. It is final. She is forever broken. Death would be more humane. Pecola is the victim of her community's internalized racism. She is their victim, and she is them. She lives among quote "all the waste and beauty in the world, which is what she herself was." End quote.
Recall the opening of The Bluest Eye, which opens with the Dick and Jane house of the children's primer. This is a book through which many American children learn to read. And it uses language to indoctrinate us into ideologies that privilege white, heterosexual, property norms. It is a text through which children learn they do not meet the most desired norm.
The primer and Morrison's text open with a house from which black people are already excluded. Outdoors. Similarly, in 1970, when the novel is published, on the cusp of an era that would bring us a bevy of gifted black women writers, Toni Morrison enters into literary history from the margins, from the hem of the garment, as a black woman writer.
With the publication of Song of Solomon seven years later, she will move quote "up into the major fold of the garment," end quote, as a black woman writing. And no, I have not yet thought through this distinction clearly and invite you to join me in doing so. But I think there's something there.
No longer outdoors, let us now turn our attention to the second space, the ruin. Part two. If black Americans have been put outdoors, from what have they been expelled? What if the house, not the home, but the house is in fact a ruin? Throughout her body of work, Morrison has a number of big palatial houses, some of which are ruins or on their way to becoming so. Here I'm thinking especially of the Butler Plantation in Song of Solomon and Vaark's unfinished house and A Mercy.
Monuments and temples to greed, ego, and power, they are now crumbling, inhabited only by women who had been servants to the families that lived or almost lived there. The only place for black people inside the palace is a servant. The ruin is usually a space in the narrative that allows Morrison to interpret the history of the West and the United States and to engage questions of writing and tradition.
Here, language is the site where she meets and engages her literary predecessors. Song of Solomon is one of Morrison's most ambitious works. With it, she established her reputation as a major figure in American literature. She self-consciously wrote herself into its tradition. And while her portal was African-American literature, she brought with her a text rich and deep in allusions to the African-American vernacular tradition, 20th century American literature, and the Western classics. And in form, she seemed also to correspond with Latin American writers of magical realism.
In this text, she figures literary history as a ruin, which she enters and from where she stages a conversation with her literary ancestors. This is her part of the talk, it's a little crowded, so I'll try to make it as clear as possible. There are a lot of folks in here. As milkman, the protagonist of Song of Solomon, approaches quote, "the biggest house he'd ever seen," end quote. It looks to him like a quote "murderer's house," which in fact it is. He says it is dark, ruined, evil. Within it, he encounters a woman named Circe.
A number of critics have noted Morrison's engagement of Greek and Roman literature. Tessa Roynon, in her book Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition, Transforming American Culture, is especially insightful in this area. A student of Latin throughout high school and a classics minor at Howard, Morrison is clearly well-versed in the literature of the Greeks and Romans.
And historically, the Greeks are so much more open and expansive in their acknowledgement of the world they inhabit, particularly in acknowledging the importance of Africa, their debts to Egypt, and their engagement with Asia. From Homer to Herodotus, Greek writers are aware of the diversity of their world and rank their so-called superiority in their Greekness more so than any modern racial categories.
Morrison's Circe takes her name from Circe the Enchantress from Greek mythology, who turns humans into animals. She's the daughter of the Sun god and in Oceanid, Percy, she is also the sister of the King of Colchis and Aunt of Medea, who herself is an other foreign priestess, maker of magic.
In Homer's Odyssey, Circe lives in a mansion on the Isle of Aeneas in the Far East. When Odysseus and his men on their journey from Troy to Ithaca-- how appropriate-- come upon Circe's beautiful home, it is surrounded by lions, wolves, and other tail-wagging beasts. The men hear Circe singing. She welcomes them into her home, drugs the crew, transforms them into swine, and eventually seduces Odysseus who will remain or with whom she keeps as captive as her lover for a year.
Upon his departure, Circe instructs Odysseus to go to Hades, the underworld, to consult with the spirits of the dead. At first Morrison's Circe seems to be in an enchantress as well. She possesses a seductive voice. She beckons Milkman, and as he approaches, he has an erection. However, Circe's appearance is witch-like. She is over 100 years old, and her face is a map of wrinkles. She is a midwife who lives in the ruins of a mansion, surrounded by especially bred dogs.
After the murder of their father, Macon Dead Senior-- after the murder of their father, Macon Dead Senior, Circe a servant in the Butler household, rescues, hides, and takes care of his two children, Macon, Junior and Pilate. She takes from the Butler's wealth, made by slavery and then by stealing the land of the Freedman to care for the orphaned children of one of their victims.
She feeds them, provides them shelter and love, hides them from harm and sends them on their way. She is kind but never coddling. Their problems become her problems. She says to them, "stay with me until we can figure out what to do. Find someplace for them to go."
Morrison writes, she would bring them, quote, "food and water to wash in, and she would empty their slop jar." End quote. Many years later, Milkman Dead, Macon's son, seeks out Circe in search of gold he and his father believe Pilate has buried nearby. Circe is a healer, a nurturer, a protector. She is skilled in the use of medicinal herbs and other natural remedies. Milkman thinks healer, deliverer. In another world she would have been the head nurse at Mercy Hospital.
As with Homer's Circe, Morrison serves as Milkman's escort and guide to the spirits of the dead, in that she fills in the story about his grandmother, the Native American Singh, and his grandfather the Freedman, Macon the First. She sends Milkman further south where he will encounter his ancestors.
Homer's Circe is other, probably Asian. She is not Greek, but she is also not mortal. Morrison suggests the Africanity of Circe, a figure who dwells between the world of the spirit and the mortal, a woman who practices medicinal arts as magical. In this way, she is like Romare Bearden's Circe. Bearden is Morrison's contemporary.
And I have always found it fascinating that these two artists produced epics of black life that build upon and revise Homer in the same year. Bearden's Circe appears as part of his black Odyssey series, which was exhibited for the first time in New York in April 1977. Morrison published The Song of Solomon in September of the same year.
Circe here-- Bearden's Circe-- is portrayed in ways reminiscent of Egyptian figures as well as those from sub-Saharan Africa. She is an African priestess royal figure, accompanied by birds, snakes, and a small dog-size lion. Enchanting, seductive, powerful, and very black.
Morrison's Circe is keeper of the past, that through which Milkman must go to reach his ancestors, his history himself. She marks the path. And with their large column mansion, the Butlers laid claim to a classical past. But Morrison assures that it is the enslaved whose roots are more ancient than Eden and whose progeny reach into the present.
Morrison questions the quest of the Odyssey with all of its plunder, booty, trafficking, women, slavery, and seeking a return that will re-establish the order of the patriarchy. She juxtaposes this version of the quest's narrative with a quest that will yield a suppressed history, that will narrate the lives of those who have been victims of the West and thoroughly question the patriarchy by insisting on a reconstructed sense of masculinity at the quest end.
But Song of Solomon, Circe also provides a moment of intertextuality with Falkner's Absalom, Absalom. Clytie, short for Clytemnestra, is the bi-racial daughter of the slave owner, Thomas Sutpen, in that novel. Throughout the text, Clytie is an all-knowing, almost silent figure, who maintains a sense of loyalty to the family of her birth until novels end, when in a final dramatic act, she sets fire to the plantation home.
Much has been written about Morrison's relationship to Faulkner, because she wrote her MA thesis here at Cornell in part on him. Speaking of similarities between Clytie and Circe, critic Nancy Ellen Batty notes, quote, "the remarkable intertextual resonance between Quentin's encounter with the Sutpen's house servant, Clytie, and Milkman's encounter with the Butler servant, Circe.
For Batty, they are drawn together by their classically inspired names, their wizened appearances, and their apparently extreme ages. Unlike Clytie, though, Circe has no biological relationship to the white family to whom she is enslaved, nor is she loyal to them. Whereas Clytie's defiance is to protect the family, Circe's is defiance is ultimately to protect the children of a man killed by the Butlers.
Circe is the subversive agent in the Butler household, undermining it from within. She has midwifed everyone in the area, yet she seems to oversee Mrs. Butler's barrenness. Under Circe's watch, there will be no further reproduction of the master class. But she nurtures the native black progeny.
Unlike Clytie, Circe doesn't burn the mansion. She outlives its owner, claims her place in it, watches it rot, and waits to die. Faulkner ends his novel with the Sutpen mansion in flames and with the Son of the South up north crying out, I don't hate the South. And as such, he questions any possibility for the region, given its racial hypocrisy and violence.
Morrison, however, makes Circe the gateway to a deeper South, one that is closer to Africa, one that holds the blood of the ancestors, as well as the stories and their history. And finally, Circe also speaks to the prologue of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Morrison's Circe alludes to the enigmatic elderly figure of the prologue.
Ralph Ellison was the most successful African-American novelist recognized and beginning to be canonized by the time of Morrison's Song of Solomon. Recall, if you will, Invisible Man in his whole, high on marijuana, descending into the depths of a Louis Armstrong solo. There, he cycles through black history and explores the nature and meaning of the relationship between black and white Americans. And he hears a quote "old singer of the spirituals moaning so he stops to question her." Invisible Man, I mean old woman.
I dearly love my master son. Invisible Man-- you should have hated him. Old woman-- he gave me several sons. And because I love my sons, I learned to love their father, though I hated him too. Invisible man-- why do you moan? Old woman-- I moan this way because he's dead.
I laughs too, but I moans too. He promised to set us free, but he never could bring himself to do it. Still I loved him. Invisible Man-- loved him, you mean-- Old woman-- yes. But I loved something else even more. Invisible Man-- what more? Old woman-- freedom. Invisible man-- freedom. Maybe freedom lies in hating. Old woman-- No, son. It's in loving. I loved him and gave him the poison, and he withered away like a frostbit apple.
Ellison's is an American tale of signifying blues tones story of ambivalence. Black, white, love, hate, slavery, and freedom. Like the blues, it is filled with both moans and laughter. It is a tale of a compassionate murder born of love, hate, a story where romantic love is thwarted by promises made, promises broken, and a transcendent love of freedom.
The old woman, Billie Holiday, I've been your slave, but before I'll be your dog, I'll see you in your grave. If Faulkner has the white master and black slave come together in order to give birth to a loyal biracial child who protects the father's house, Ellison gives us a mixed-race America born in violence and inhumanity, embodying a love-hate dialectic containing human ambiguity and driven by a quest for freedom.
Like Invisible Man, Milkman accuses Circe. He says, you love those white folks that much? Love, she asks, love? He insists that by staying in the mansion she remains loyal. But Circe has no patience for what she sees as his arrogance and his ignorance. She says, you don't listen to people. Your ear is on your head, but it's not connected to your brain.
Like Claudia, Circe instructs us to listen. She teaches him and us how to listen to a non-linear narrative, how to be an engaged listener, a skill that he will need as he furthers his journey. Circe explains, quote, "they love this place, loved it. They loved it. Stole for it, lied for it, killed for it, but I'm the only one left-- me and the dogs. Everything in the world, this world that they lived for, will crumble and rot." End quote. And what doesn't rot, she will allow the dogs to destroy. She says, "ha, and I want to see it all go, make sure it does go, and that nobody fixes it up." End quote.
There will be no romantic plantation tours at the Butler palace. Circe does not act out of love of whiteness or of loyalty. Neither does she act out of revenge. Instead, she lives for a patient sense of justice, a kind of divine retribution, and for the return of the black son.
She gains pleasure, not by killing them, but by watching that which they loved rot, by watching their monument to history decay from within and bearing witness to its ruin. Morrison doesn't assume a relationship of love, even one tinged by hate. Her Circe is more like Ralph Ellison's grandfather-- I mean, the Invisible Man's grandfather, who lives in the lion's den as a traitor, helping it to crumble from within. They both have a long vision.
Circe is a generative figure. She gives birth to literary daughters such as Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, another timeless midwife conjure-woman, or Marlon James's Homer and The Book of Night Women and others. Circe migrates through time and space, text, and context shaping, defining, refining all with whom she comes into contact. Her vehicle here is Song of Solomon, a work that challenges, speaks to, incorporates, deconstructs, and redirects a constructed tradition that can never again render itself white and male. She haunts the ruins of Western civilization.
In A Mercy, published in 2008, almost 20 years after Song of Solomon, Florens, the protagonist, enslaved black woman, writes in the ruin of the master's house. She narrates her own story on its walls and throughout the book. In writing she becomes, quote, "Florens in full." She constructs herself in narrative form, and her story is inseparable from the house.
One is here reminded of baby Suggs in Beloved who said, quote, "ain't a house in this country not full of the ghost of some dead negro." End quote. But Florens' presence is not that of a haunting ghost but of a black woman writing. There is no house of language without the language, the witness, of black people. And since Wheatly, there is no American literature without the voice of a black woman.
Florens writes on the eve of America's transformation from a space of flux where blackness does not yet equal slavery. It is on its way there, but throughout the novel, there is the indication that America could have made a different set of choices other than racialized chattel slavery, that this was a chosen path to ensure the stability of the elite.
Florens' narrative will not be read. She says, quote, "perhaps these words need the air that it is out in the world." End quote. Instead, they will be trapped in the ruin, much as the cultural and ethnic diversity of the ancient world is trapped in the ruin of our history, silenced by narratives that seek to homogenize the past.
Her language should not be entombed within the ruin. It needs to be out in the world in order to have meaning. In her own words, she writes, quote, "they need to fly up and then fall like ash over acres of primrose and mallow, over a turquoise lake beyond the eternal hemlocks, through clouds, out by rainbow, and flavor the soil of the Earth."
And in fact, they do, because we are reading them in the novel. Language is action. It is living. It needs air. It needs to be out, not outdoors, but outside of the prison house of racist intention. And it is this space that Morrison posits as home.
Morrison's essay that opens the collection, The House That Race Built makes an important distinction between house and home. She writes, quote, "language both liberated and imprisoned me. Whatever the forays of my imagination, the keeper whose keys tinkled always within earshot, was race." End quote.
She elaborates, quote, "I prefer to think of a world in which race does not matter as home. The term domestic case the racial project moves the job of unmattering race away from pathetic yearning and futile desire, away from an impossible future or an irretrievable and probably non-existent Eden to a manageable, doable, modern human activity, because eliminating the potency of racist constructs in language is the work I can do. I can't wait for the ultimate liberation theory to imagine its practice and do work." End quote.
Her challenge, our challenge, is how to quote "convert a racist house into a race-specific, yet non-racist home. Such a structure acknowledges, recognizes, and even values the multiplicity of our difference without deeming it something negative or setting up a hierarchy. Home is imagined as a space where quote, "race-specific, race-free language is both possible and meaningful." End quote. It is a space where we work to create together and for the writer, and I think for the reader as well, that work begins with language.
In her Nobel speech, Morrison insists that word work is sublime, she says, "because it is generative. It makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference, the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life, but we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." End quote.
Home is a space we can build together as a safe space, out of doors, but not outdoors. A space with an open door and windows which lets the sun in and fresh air but is not overwhelmed by them as is a ruin. In Morrison's novels, one approaches the space in those instances where good, simple and unadorned, triumphs. Where language and the people who create and engage in it do so, not as an act of violence, but instead as an act of caring for one another, simply because it is the right thing to do. Thank you.
I wanted to show you one more image that doesn't fit in the talk. I was trying to think of a way to make it fit in the talk but it doesn't. Pilate in Song of Solomon is probably the character who most embodies the good. I didn't talk about her. I would say she's the character who most embodies the good. And this is a Bearden collage that he did-- and there's also a print-- in 1979, two years after the novel was produced. That is Pilate. That's his version of Pilate. And I was trying to stretch it a little bit and figure out a way to make it fit with this talk. So bear with me. I think that house is home.
So questions? We have time for questions? OK. Comments. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I wish the discussion of Homer, that there's so much more that could be put into it. I was thinking about-- [INAUDIBLE] through the moment where [INAUDIBLE] is talking about her father sitting on the stool. [INAUDIBLE] Do you remember that [INAUDIBLE]?
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yes.
AUDIENCE: You see, I respond to that much more for gender reasons or what, but seem to be powerful. And that's defined home in a way that [INAUDIBLE]. But the one theme that you touched on but didn't really deal with in the same way that you did with home and outdoors and so on is the theme of freedom.
[INAUDIBLE] Morrison freedom in a powerfully philosophical sense [INAUDIBLE] beginning with the idea that she didn't quite do it justice, she says herself [INAUDIBLE] forward, to Pecola, she says that it just seemed like she was--
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Do justice to what?
AUDIENCE: To Pecola. She says I-- it's almost like she has no interior. And I recognize now, many years later, that I was a failure in my [INAUDIBLE]. And what she lacks is that capacity for freedom which cannot be taken away, even if you try to stamp it out. I think that's sort of what she's saying much later where the book is [INAUDIBLE]. Do you see what I'm saying or does that-- of course, Beloved is full of that. Real meaning of freedom as opposed to just being legally free. So I'm wondering if home and freedom are connected.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: So there is so much more to say about freedom-- I mean, about home. And yes, home and freedom are connected. I think that The Bluest Eye is full of images of home. It's that there's-- I don't want to bore people who don't know the specifics of the text, but when Claudia is little and she's sick, and she wonders if anybody loves her. And then she has this one way of remembering how she was neglected as a child.
And then she remembers, oh, but there was the hand on my forehead. There was the person who came in in the middle of the night to tuck me in. I think there are these moments of home throughout that text. And home is a place where people are cared for and loved.
And I do think that this aspirational home that I was trying to get at at the end, it's not a place we really arrive, because all of those homes are undermined. If you think about Beloved, that home is undermined. Even The Clearing is undermined. But that as we aspire to create that space that would be free of particularly a certain kind of way of language, of using language, that I think it would be freedom. It is a pursuit of freedom.
I don't think that she is entirely fair to herself by saying that she didn't give Pecola an interiority, because my thing with about Pecola-- the rest of the blues song is great, because Billie Holiday says my mama, she gave me something that's going to carry me through this world, right? She basically says, I don't meet white supremacy standards of beauty. I don't have-- my hair's not curled and all, but my mama, she gave me something.
Where is Pecola going to get that from? Like, there's nowhere-- I mean, I think that the reality is that there are people who don't make it. There are people who don't survive and thrive. And there are people who are destroyed. Claudia and Frieda have something that let them come up in the same world and thrive. And Pecola doesn't have that.
And I think to say that she doesn't have a sense of interiority, how old is she? She's a baby, and she doesn't-- there's nowhere that she's going to get it. But I do think that home and freedom could be linked more and that they're both something, they're both aspirational, absolutely. Thank you for that question. Yes.
AUDIENCE: So you talk about home as something that is aspired to, This we never quite reach in Morrison's work. And would you say that she sort of does the same thing with creating her language for good? That she gets at it sort of by making it something that is described by the opposite of what it is, that she details all of this violence and badness and pain and then the gap that she leaves next to that is where she finds the language for good?
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yeah. So I thought that too, especially with outdoors, because I thought, well, the good is the opposite of outdoors, right? And so if you haven't seen that conversation with Claudia Brodsky here, it's worth watching. And then I've heard her talk about this lately. It's what she talks about all the time, is about good.
And she says that in 20th century literature that evil and corruption are given the language. And they're dramatic, and she says they come in in top hat and tails. And she says that good doesn't need that. But what happens in literature is that good is rendered either mute or it comes from the mouths of people who we find stupid. And she tries to put it without the kind of adornment-- the language of adornment.
And so I started looking-- it's much clearer to me in the later work, the good. But I started looking for it, and I think that little moment with Frieda and Claudia is a moment of good. And Baby Suggs is full with good. And Pilate has a lot of good. And Baby Suggs gets to give a sermon that is about the good in some ways.
And then in a later novel, like home, she has a passage where she says there's this woman who thinks she's better than everyone. And yet the women in the community, who know she despises them and looks down on them, they take care of her anyway. And they take care of her, because when they meet their maker, and he says what have you done? They want to be able to say that they've done something in the world.
And you get it articulated more, I think, in the later works. But I don't think it's ever quite-- just like you say, I don't think it's ever as apparent as it's opposite. So yes, I think in some way-- I don't think it's as aspirational as home, because it does exist in concrete places and with people, but I don't think that it is as maybe flamboyant. And maybe it won't ever be flamboyant, but it will be articulated more in the later texts. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I wanted to follow up on that question and invite you to talk more about Pilate in this last [INAUDIBLE].
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: While you were talking about the good and [INAUDIBLE] my mind immediately went to, before you mentioned it, how she could fly without ever leaving the ground.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Right.
AUDIENCE: And that moment where the novel gives us an ethics of like that is different from Solomon's flight. But he left people behind.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Right.
AUDIENCE: So I was wondering if you could just talk about that in context of the good and home and that possible impossibility.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: So that's great. You know, any one of these sections could be a chapter. Maybe they will be, right? So because I wanted to get to the literary history piece too, I didn't go to Pilate as much. But Pilate, I think, is really the good. She is very much the good. Her last words are, I wish I had known more people. I would have loved more people.
And I think that the home that she creates is a space of good, and it's an impoverished home. Someone called to my attention that sometimes the homes where the most love and most good things happen are akin to ruins, because they're almost dilapidated. But they're filled with human love and possibility.
So I think you're right. I think that the good in-- there are moments of good throughout the text, but that the person who embodies it most is Pilate, without question. And she is certainly-- it's not just kind of this quiet moment where it's articulated. It's in a way of being and living in the world, and she's able to do it largely because she's been so marginalized. That also helps create her as a person who embodies the good. So yes, Pilate is right. And that she is able to take an alternative form of flight, not without dying, though. Yes.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: I kept thinking what you were talking about [INAUDIBLE] and home and freedom and specifically about the Peace Household and [INAUDIBLE]
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] It seems to me that encompassed all [INAUDIBLE].
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] home and good, that it's all taking place. And I'm just wondering about the Peace Household in relation to The Bluest Eye household, like how those things are played out, if that's the extension of her writing or what do you see there?
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yeah. See? You ask me about it like-- but see, OK, so that question makes me feel good, because it means that you can take home and ruin and run with it into another novel. So that's good. It's a tool that might be useful.
So it's interesting. I rarely think about the Peace Household in relation to The Bluest Eye. I mean, I think about Sula in relation The Bluest Eye, certainly Sula in relation to Pecola. But when I think about the Peace Household, and you're right, it is all those things-- it is home, it is ruin, you know, if she doesn't put her son outdoors, she burns him. So that's worse.
But I think about it in relation to households in Morrison's corpus that are households of three women. So you've got the Peace Household with Eva and Hannah and Sula. And you've got the household and Song of Solomon and with Pilate and Reba and Hagar.
And then later on, what I find so fascinating, is that by the time you get to a Mercy, you have not three, you have four women, who create a family. And they're in a home. And there's a white woman, a Native American woman, a mixed-race woman, and the African young girl, Florens. And so I think about them as these sort of households-- I don't know what happened there-- do you want to look at Lupita the whole time-- as these households of three women and eventually, to me, the kind of culmination, even though it's earlier, is the convent. They're trying to create an alternative sense of home and an alternative space of possibility and freedom. And then the cost-- the price that they pay for that.
So I have to think more to think about in relation to The Bluest Eye, but I definitely think there's something there. And if you think about the convent, the convent itself is also on its way to being a ruin as well. So thank you for that, yeah. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for that. Just a brief comment, than a question. In the last book, when you were talking about home-- language as home-- it echoed for me Morrison's essay [INAUDIBLE] language. Of the three things that she gives him credit for, she says, forgive me language. She said, I'm gay to the English language so [INAUDIBLE].
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yes. Yes.
AUDIENCE: So the [INAUDIBLE] metaphors at home. But the question for me is, listening to this talk and also thinking about the [INAUDIBLE], I'm always taken by the kind of [INAUDIBLE] to theorize [INAUDIBLE]. So for instance, the reading that you just gave, how it extended this notion of outdoors. So then to have conceptual [INAUDIBLE] So I'm wondering if that deliberate intellectual position in [INAUDIBLE]
Yeah. So thank you. That Baldwin essay I think about a lot, because she also says-- I mean, what she says about Baldwin, I sometimes think about her. She says that he gave her language to dwell in, right? And so I feel that way too. So thank you for bringing that up. So yes, the theorizing from within for me is always deliberate. It's the starting point for me. It's the reading the text very closely with all this stuff that I bring to it.
And it's also my approach to the archive, that I have to start from within in order to figure out what the broader meanings are, rather than bring the broader meaning or a sense of the broader meaning to the thing that I'm reading or investigating. And so it's not a judgment, it's just that's the way I work. It's the way I think.
And so that reading closely something and then being able to come to a kind of more abstract meaning, what happens is that then certain connections get made for me. And I realize, oh, so this outdoors as a condition-- as a condition of being-- for black peoples, right, and that I'm very curious. But I always want to go back in. So now I'm very curious, is that when did that become part of a way of describing that? That's what Billie Holiday is doing. That's what the blues are doing.
Is that something particular to the Depression? Or is that something that folk were saying during Reconstruction, like what's the history of that way of defining that term? So for me, the impetus is always to go deeper in and figure out what it's saying about the broader and the larger. Yeah. And that's true of everything I do. Yeah, Margo.
AUDIENCE: So [INAUDIBLE] closely with the question [INAUDIBLE], I also am so moved here by what you're doing with the retentions in the sense that they're [INAUDIBLE], that they're so deeply entangled right now [INAUDIBLE] home. And so for mercy, and I don't know why, but for me what constantly continues to echo were the words Florens uses when she says, you say I am wilderness. I am.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Right? So I'm wondering with Florens is that particular moment and that I love so much your book that I had to seize on sort of question, that moment when you were bringing Florens in connection-- bringing Florens in connection with Baby Suggs. So this notion that what's really happening perhaps, when she says you say I'm wilderness. I am. Then you make us, of course, as you set up I think so well, the sense that we focus on the writing on the walls and what's happening in the home that she's, in a sense, reclaiming, right? [INAUDIBLE] I'm finished now. She's finishing, so to speak, with her words.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Right.
AUDIENCE: Right. But then also, I'm wondering with Baby Suggs, when we connected to Baby Suggs, this notion that Baby Suggs is telling, right, telling them to love your flesh and own it and so forth. If there's a certain way that you realize about these matters, is it the wilderness that in conversation with the flesh [INAUDIBLE]
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Wow. You know, my first impulse is to say that the wilderness-- Florens-- Florens strikes me as just very different from the figures that come before her. And part of it is the book doesn't end-- remember, the book doesn't end with Florens writing on the walls of the house. The book ends with Florens' mother talking, saying words that Florens would never hear, and basically explaining why she gave away her child while Florens is an orphan.
And she says, you know, it's one thing to have yourself taken. That's beyond your control. She says dominion, right? And the final thing she says, but to give dominion over yourself over-- I think that what that is is really redefining what freedom means, that freedom-- to be unfree isn't to be enslaved by chattel slavery, but to be unfree is to give dominion over yourself to another.
And it's that same kind of moral and ethical reasoning that we have in outdoors. There's no judgment against you if your landlord put you out. The judgment is if you put your family out yourself. And I think that Florens' wilderness up there, she takes it and make something out of it, right? Yes, I am wild. I am wilderness.
This is the first time she claims something that she is. But I don't know that the novel itself settles on that being a good thing in the way that Baby Suggs' sermon about the flesh is, right? Baby Suggs is giving us a way of understanding the particularities of a people's condition. Out there, you're this, but in here you're flesh. I don't know, and I would be willing to talk with you. I don't know if wilderness is quite the same thing.
AUDIENCE: Also, I keep just wondering, because I think the moment that [INAUDIBLE] when you said that home then is called the safe space, out of doors but not outdoors.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yeah. Right.
AUDIENCE: So I'm wondering like--
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yeah, right.
AUDIENCE: But in wilderness.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Is that. Well, it's interesting, in the essays where Morrison talks about home, it's interesting when she talks about what that outdoor space is-- not outdoors, but outside space is-- it's never really described as a wilderness, right? It's interesting. It's not quite a wilderness. In fact, I think the wilderness might be more closely aligned with the ruin in some ways. But I'll have to think about that. Yes. There was a hand here. Was there a hand there? No. Back here, yes.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for the talk. Early on, when you were talking about listening, I was really interested in what you were saying there about timbre and the way timbre works, especially The Bluest Eye, because The Bluest Eye seems to be a novel that's so governed, obviously, by the gays, by looking at the kind of [INAUDIBLE] really on the novel.
So just wondering if you could say a little bit more about the ethics of listening in that [INAUDIBLE] in particular or across Morrison's work, how listening-- because you obviously do this great job of tying us-- giving us a chance to listen to Billie Holiday, that was nice-- but also showing how the words in that song help us get a deeper understanding of the words that Morrison is using, not necessarily the sound of that song. So I wonder if you could talk just more about that.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Sure. So yeah, that's great. So I think that in listening and the visual and the oral are really juxtaposed against each other a lot in The Bluest Eye and that there's a lot of emphasis on listening to the sound of what people are saying in order to get at a meaning there. Pecola almost never listens in that way. She's completely drawn by the visual, and the visual that surrounds her is a visual that basically defines her as lacking.
But there are moments where-- like, I took this out. This was actually in a footnote. If you remember, there were three horrors-- Poland, China, and the one that's named Magna Line, that they also-- it's interesting enough, there's good going on in that household too, again, three women. And they sing the blues to her. They also sing to her, and she talks about what that-- she almost can hear that. They try to provide her with an alternative to a world that bombards her with these images. So I think you're definitely onto something there.
The moment in the Billie Holiday song-- I talk at length about that song in my book on Billie Holiday. But the moment in that performance where you know it's not that you're being told to listen to the word-- I mean, listen to the music as well as the words-- I think you're also being told to listen to the conversation between Billie Holiday and the musicians.
So there's that line where she says, I ain't good looking. And then one of the musicians goes, yeah, I don't know about that. And there's all this signifying that even goes on with the instrumental in that music that tells a somewhat different story. Or sometimes they back her up, sometimes they provide, they play-- stop time. They just stop the music that provides a kind of emphasis and a punctuation on what she's doing.
And so, again, I think that it sort of mirrors Claudia's description of the conversation of the women, that you have to listen to them in relation to each other. It's harder to do that in a novel, but the moments in Morrison's text where there is music or where there is something about the way you listen to a narrative and what you hear, I think, are moments that where our attention should-- we should call our attention to it.
And I think that another thread throughout the work is a distrust of the look and a distrust of the visual. And I think that's true up until even this novel that's about to come out, that putting the emphasis on the visual is really-- almost tells you nothing or can be more self-destructive than-- more destructive than enabling-- in a way that sitting in community and engaging in conversation and listening is much more about kind of a feeding of oneself. So yeah. Yes. All the way in the back.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Can you hear me?
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yes.
AUDIENCE: OK. So I'm wondering if you could to the level and this idea of outdoors as a [INAUDIBLE]. So if the outdoors is a condition of being, what do you make of [INAUDIBLE] movement in space, starts off at 124. 124 describes [INAUDIBLE] and then she's pushed out by [INAUDIBLE]. She gets up on on the bow of the slave ship and comes up out of the water and [INAUDIBLE] young women and gets back from the house and helps to make the ruin of it. So kind of moving across space is different from any of the other things that Morrison wrote.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: So I was wondering if you could talk about that outdoors as it relates to [INAUDIBLE] maybe [INAUDIBLE]
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Yeah. So when I thought of Beloved, you noticed I purposely did not talk about Beloved. But when I thought about Beloved, and I thought about outdoors, it was that ethics that we get in that description, that you don't-- you take people in, and that's how Beloved gets in.
Remember, they're walking down the road, and they see this young black girl. And they think it's Sethe who thinks, oh, this is not good. Like, she's out here, this is dangerous. And so it's even being driven by that ethic of taking her in, because she doesn't take her in thinking this is my child. She takes her in, because this is a vulnerable young woman who I need to provide shelter and food and clothing and love for.
And Beloved is, I don't think-- the reason why Beloved isn't like any of the other women is because she's not human, right? I mean, she embodies all of those things, including the evil. She embodies both. She embodies all of it. And so I think that there's a different standard for the baby ghost, if we want to call her. The house is full of baby's venom.
And so that I think that it's-- maybe there's a different ethic that rules that kind of encounter or something. But that she-- it's the impulse to not see her outdoors that makes them vulnerable to letting her in, which I still think is-- I think the novel would say is still the right thing to have done. But those women come at the end, and they put her outdoors.
AUDIENCE: I know there are other questions, but we have a reception upstairs. Let's thank [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
In honor of Cornell's sesquicentennial, the English department recognized Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, M.A. '55, one of its most distinguished alumni, as the subject of the annual Wendy Rosenthal Gellman Lecture on Modern Literature. The lecture was given on March 5, 2015 by noted Morrison scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin.
Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University. She also serves as program director for the Schomburg Center's Scholars-in-Residence Program. Her primary interests are in American and African American literature, music, history and politics.
The lecture series was established by a gift from Wendy Rosenthal Gellman '81, who majored in English at Cornell, as an expression of her appreciation to English department faculty for instilling in her a lifelong love of learning and literature.