There is an interesting debate happening online about the future home of Toni Morrison’s historical papers.
If you haven’t heard, Princeton University has announced that an agreement has been made with the Nobel Prize- award winning and critically acclaimed author of such classics as Tar Baby and The Bluest Eyes to allow the University’s Firestone Library to permanently house Morrison’s “manuscripts, drafts and other papers.” According to Bloomberg.com, among these Morrison’s papers are “180 linear feet of research material documenting Morrison’s work, and include manuscripts and drafts of various novels such as “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and “Jazz.”
In a statement on the Ivy League’s website, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber said this of the honor:
“Toni Morrison’s place among the giants of American literature is firmly entrenched, and I am overjoyed that we are adding her papers to the Princeton University Library’s collections. This extraordinary resource will provide scholars and students with unprecedented insights into Professor Morrison’s remarkable life and her magnificent, influential literary works. We at Princeton are fortunate that Professor Morrison brought her brilliant talents as a writer and teacher to our campus 25 years ago, and we are deeply honored to house her papers and to help preserve her inspiring legacy.”
The announcement might appear like a no-brainer, considering the iconic novelist taught under the University’s creative writing program from 1989 until she retired in 2006. However, not everyone is applauding the decision, particularly advocates of HBCU who wonder why Morrison, a graduate of historically Black Howard University, did not leave her papers in the hands of the next generation of Black scholars?
More specifically the blogger Anti-Intellectual writes at in an open letter on his website, Young, Gifted & Ratchet:
“I ache not only as a student of your writing, but also as a fellow child of the HBCU (Florida AM University) experience. You arrived at Howard University in 1949, and it was Howard that allowed you to experience so many of the things that have inspired, and played heavily, in your professional and personal life. It was at Howard that you joined the Howard University Players, which allowed you, for the first time, to see the American south. You have spoken often about the role this experience played in your life, how moved and touched you were by the kindness and generosity of the Black women, the Black families, and Black churches that you encountered. How they took you and your peers in without hesitation, showing you all that fabled “Southern Hospitality.” This rememory of the south, afforded to you in your experience as a student at Howard has shown up in many of your works, Tar Baby, The Bluest Eye, and Son of Solomon, to name a few. It was also at Howard, then a professor, that you began to write your first novel, The Bluest Eye. It was in a writing group at Howard University that you began to develop the confidence to tell the tales, to share the “unspeakable things unspoken,” that had lain dormant in your mind until then. It was at Howard that you taught students like Stokely Carmichael, who would go on to have a profound impact on the Civil Rights Movement, a period of Black American life that has constantly shown up in your novels and writing. It was at Howard that you were invited to the “salon” of a prominent DC socialite, whose gathering of various artists inspired you to create the Princeton Atelier when you became a professor there. So much of who you are was shaped, molded, and fired at Howard University, at an HBCU. Princeton may have served as the collegiate space of your artistic and intellectual ending, but Howard served as your artistic and intellectual beginning. It would seem to me that you would have considered this when deciding where your papers would reside. At the very least, you could have split the materials between the two institutions. I simply cannot understand why none of them, not even the many notes and rough drafts of The Bluest Eye, which you started at Howard, would not be left to the university.”
Anti-Intellect also makes a great observation about the inaccessibility of Morrison’s historical documents to the Black community but more specifically young Black scholars at an institution, where the entire Black student body is around 7.8 percent.
If you are a fan of her work, which I know many of you all are, this is an uncomfortable criticism of the novelist. However I do believe a fair question, particularly for a writer, who has made Blackness such a central part of her writing. And these are particularly poignant criticisms considering how many HBCUs are struggling financially as of late. And as reported by the Institute of Higher Education, cuts to funding by the federal government, including a reduction in Parent Plus loans and Pell Grant, has negatively affected 85 percent of HBCU student body and has caused some institutions to see their enrollments drop as much as 10 percent. Some institutions have even closed.
Outside of financial woes, HBCUs have long struggled to overcome stigmatization, which paints Black colleges and universities as inferior institutions to HPWI (Historically and Predominately White Institutions). This, in spite of graduating, “nearly one-quarter of African Americans who earn undergraduate degrees.” Therefore a generous endowment from an acclaimed author to one of our most celebrated HBCUs might signify a vote of confidence in the future of not only these institutions but our Black scholars in general.
But not everyone is convinced that such a buy-in is necessary and in an counter-argument to the Anti-Intellect’s open letter, April V. Taylor, for Naturally Moi wrote:
“The truth is that many HBCU’s are struggling with enrollments at 1,000 or less and with recent tightening of eligibility criteria for Parent Plus loans through the Department of Education, the outlook for many HBCU’s, including Howard is not great. While Morrison’s papers may provide a rich cultural legacy for Black students of Howard to draw from, should Howard cease to exist as it is now, Morrison’s papers could wind up somewhere she did not intend. One reader who responded to the open letter put it bluntly stating, “Toni left her papers to a place that would further her legacy, and not pimp it out in times of financial struggles…Though she and I both went to Howard, we didn’t attend the same school (get it?) Perhaps the Howard University she went to is what Princeton is NOW and perhaps she left her papers to the school she feels closely connected to.”
I wish folks could make their points and hold each other accountable without using terms like “pimp.” Our institutions are not always perfect (no institution is) but they are not scams or criminal. And we deserve to see ourselves as legitimate as well. With that said, Howard University has some well-documented financial issues of its own, so the concern raised by Taylor, is too valid.
But still what kind of responsibility do our most notable Black figures have to give back to the Black institutions in the community, particular ones that raised and reared them? What say you folks?