Next semester, the Department of English Literature will be offering a seminar on the life and works of Toni Morrison, taught by Valerie Smith, the president of Swarthmore College. The course will explore key texts in the Morrison canon, focusing on the ways in which her works of literature interrogate and reconceptualize the past and imagine future possibilities.
Although President Smith interacted with Toni Morrison’s work over the years, she felt it was more important than ever to disseminate Toni Morrison’s words and perception of the world.
“I’ve been inspired by Toni Morrison’s work for many years,” said President Smith. “ I wrote about Song of Solomon in my first book; I published an article on Beloved; and my most recent book was entirely devoted to her work. On several occasions I’ve taught Toni Morrison seminars — undergraduate courses at Princeton and graduate courses at the Bread Loaf School of English, the graduate program in English at Middlebury College. Those courses have been some of my most rewarding teaching experiences. Likewise, after Morrison passed away in August, a number of my former students wrote to let me know that those were some of the most meaningful and transformative courses they had ever taken … I wanted to honor Toni Morrison’s legacy and literary contributions.”
Professor Betsy Bolton, the current English department chair, echoed the necessity to honor and spread Toni Morrison’s legacy and contributions to the literary world, especially given the current circumstances.
“The use of fiction to disarm, to recenter, to emphasize responsibility, the capacity for care or damage — All of this seems essential for all of us to be thinking of and learning about right now.”
This notion of using fiction to convey socio-political messages and mobilize individuals will be one of the focal points of the seminar. Another, President Smith said, will be analyzing impact race has on one’s life through a literary lens.
“In this course we’ll read a cross-section of Morrison’s work, including most of her novels, some of her works of literary and cultural criticism, and some reviews of and critical studies of her writing. We’ll consider her novels as experiments in narrative form and explore how they contemplate the impact of racial and sexual trauma on individual lives, families, intimate relationships and communities. We’ll consider how they capture the emancipatory power of love and creativity. We’ll also read some of her non-fiction writing on race, literature, contemporary culture and the nature of writing itself.”
Swarthmore students seem genuinely interested in exploring the works of Toni Morrison.
“I was drawn to the class because as long as I have known of her, but especially following her death, I have been drawn to Toni Morrison and wanted to study her work more deeply. I think her wit, poeticism, and poignancy, as a Black woman and as an outstanding literary presence, are important, and I’d like to experience them in a classroom setting. Also, President Smith is one of the most recognized scholars on Morrison’s work,” wrote Faith Booker ’21, a Black studies major., in an email to The Phoenix.
For Veronica Yabloko ’22, her interest in the course stemmed from a different source.
“Ever since I first read ‘Song of Solomon’ in high school, I have been completely enamored with Toni Morrison’s writing. Her work has both incredible historical/sociological value and artistic value, with its reflections on the African American experience and her poetic, magical prose. I think that anyone studying English should dedicate their time to studying Morrison at some point, which is why I want so badly to take this class. As a prospective honors English major, I truly feel that my studies would be incomplete without an in-depth review of Morrison’s work.”
Mikayla Purnell ’22 , a prospective Black studies major, also deeply appreciates the work of Toni Morrison and wants to explore her work from a scholarly perspective.
“I have a deeply felt sense of reverence for the work that Toni Morrison has created, and this was the perfect opportunity to explore her word in an academic setting,” said Purnell.
The uniqueness of the class and Toni Morrison’s status in Black culture and modern literature was more than enough to convince Tristan Alston ’22 to consider taking the class.
“Toni Morrison is an instrumental individual in not only literature but also Black culture, and the opportunity to explore her works in a seminar setting and apply her teachings to real life is just too good and unique to pass up,” said Alston.
Purnell also believes this class offers a unique intersection between literature and Black studies.
“I really appreciate the opportunity to study other Black folx articulating themselves through verbal language about their own experiences and understandings of themselves. They provide useful insights that I like to apply to my own understanding of myself and of the world around me. Plus, I have always loved writing and being able to study writing that applies to me and my community, especially when I don’t typically get exposure to it unless I search for it in a very intentional manner,” said Purnell.
Aside from Toni Morrison’s place in modern literature, the fact that President Smith is teaching the class also seems to pique students’ interests.
“This class is being taught by a person who is both a highly acclaimed scholar of Black studies and English literature, [and] also the president of our school,” said Purnell.
Over the years, the Department of English Literature had repeatedly tried to have President Smith offer a course to the Swarthmore population. However, her administrative obligations hindered her from being able to teach a class full time. Next Spring is a unique opportunity for students and many are jumping on the opportunity.
“She is a major force in the field,” Professor Bolton said. “So instantly we said we would love to have you teach if you could possibly find the time to do so. There was an open invitation to teach”
Due to the overwhelming demand for the course, the English Department has released a form that interested students must fill out to register for the course, in order to facilitate the selection process. The form can be found on the course description.