Tuesday, March 26, 2019
March 26, 2019: NeMLA 2019 Recaps: My Toni Morrison Panel
[This past week we held the 50th Anniversary NeMLA Convention in Washington, DC. It was a great time as ever, and this week I’ll highlight a few of the many standout moments and conversations for me. Lemme know if you’d like to hear or chat more about the NeMLA Board, the American Area, next year’s convention in Boston, or anything else!]
Out of my initial proposal “African American Literature and the Ironies of Freedom” came two great panels—here’s a quick recap of the four wonderful papers on the first, which ended up focusing on Toni Morrison’s novels.
1) Laura Dawkins: Laura got the panel off and running with a multi-layered comparative analysis of Morrison’s Beloved (1987) alongside Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016), a novel that echoes and extends Morrison’s classic in numerous ways. Besides making a great case for how literary legacies can help us read and understand individual texts, Laura’s talk also engaged with both novels through an impressive balancing act: focusing on the traumas and horrors (of but not limited to slavery) that both feature; but arguing at the same time for how narrative provides a fraught but crucial vehicle for countering such traumas in both books. Like all seven papers across these two panels, Laura’s talk offered a bracing and an inspiring start to our conversations!
2) Theresa Desmond: In the panel’s second talk, Theresa offered an excerpt from her recently defended dissertation on 20th century reframings and revisings of images of single womanhood. In particular, her talk drew from a chapter on Morrison’s Sula (1973), and linked that novel’s title character and its other central women to the stereotypical images of the mammy, the jezebel, and the sapphire. I had never heard of the third stereotype, and that context both reframes Morrison’s novel and offers new windows into considering those other two types and the limited range of images presented to mid-20th century African American women. But Theresa’s readings of how the two characters of Sula and Nell engage with these various images and their own trajectories also adds compelling to our understanding of both this particular novel and to other mid-century texts and contexts such as Betty Friedan’s “The Problem That Has No Name.”
3) Shari Evans: Shari’s talk shifted our thematic focus a bit, using three Morrison novels (The Bluest Eye , Paradise , and A Mercy ) to consider the limits and possibilities of moments and processes of becoming for individuals, communities, and the nation. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t had the chance to read A Mercy yet, and Shari not only reminded me that I need to do so ASAP, but made a compelling case for what that book helps us understand about the nation’s fraught origin points. I was particularly struck by her multi-layered reading of the novel’s images of communities and their multi-generational identities and stories, as exemplified by an oven that is transplanted from one town (where it serves its original utilitarian purpose) to another (where it stands in the center of town as a memorial to that past and how the community has moved beyond it). Yet that memorial is then defaced by younger residents, highlighting how stories and images of the past likewise continue to evolve with each generation and perspective.
4) Rachel Schratz: Rachel finished up this great quartet of papers with an extended reading of another Morrison novel I haven’t had a chance to read in full, God Help the Child (2015). Her extended analysis of colorism in this most recent Morrison novel added important contexts to a social and cultural conversation that has become prominent in recent months (thanks in no small measure to the January Black-ish episode on that theme). Yet as with each of these four great papers, Rachel’s analyses went well beyond both one theme and even her focal texts, considering such vital topics as the duality of othering and sympathy and how both relate to the ironic but shared quest for freedom on which the panel’s title and through-lines likewise focused. As with all the best panels, these four papers staked their own claims but related to and build upon each other quite strikingly, creating a broader conversation that could have continued well beyond our allotted time.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. NeMLA reflections to share?