Toni Morrison, the late Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor, will be honored with a new months-long exhibit this year at Princeton University, the institution where she spent much of her later career.
The school has announced that “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory” will run from February 22, 2023—the week after Morrison’s birthday—until June 4 in the Firestone Library’s Milberg Gallery.
Part of a larger project at Princeton seeking to amplify and build upon the work of Morrison, the exhibit will feature rare manuscripts, correspondence between Morrison and other Black women, and unfinished projects from her storied writing career.
The exhibit was conceived by Dr. Autumn Womack, a professor of African American Studies and English at Princeton who teaches on Morrison, and was first announced by the school in late 2021. It takes its title from an essay Morrison penned in 1995, wherein she speaks of a “journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply.”
The school’s library previously hosted a smaller display of Morrison’s papers and rarities shortly after her death in August 2019. The new effort, curated by Womack, will expand upon that framework, also using the school’s Morrison collection.
“Rather than offer either a sweeping overview of her career or an in-depth look at her best-known works, this exhibit follows the route mapped by the collection itself as it illuminates previously unknown aspects of Morrison’s life and practice, and reveals new ways of understanding seemingly familiar texts and events,” Womack said in October.
“Without such incredible archives here at Princeton, an in-depth exploration of Morrison’s creative process would not be possible.”
Princeton also has plans to combine the exhibit with an interdisciplinary exploration of Morrison’s legacy, including advanced courses on her work, a multi-day symposium, a lecture series, and theatrical works inspired by her 1983 short story “Recitatif”—which she later adapted for the stage. That work, long out of print, was published for the first time as a standalone text early last year.
Morrison is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking bestseller “Beloved,” published in 1987 to critical acclaim and for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year. She had previously won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her third novel, “Song of Solomon,” and took home the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993—a first for a Black woman.
She is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers—and Catholic writers—in American and world history, and was compared positively by Dr. Cornel West to her co-religionist Flannery O'Connor in 2012.
Though controversial even in their own time, a number of Morrison’s novels have come under renewed scrutiny in recent years for their explicit scenes of sexual violence, among other concerns. They are frequent targets of book bans, especially amidst conservative backlash to the nation’s landmark racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd.
As such, like many onlookers, Womack says the legacy of important Black writers like Morrison is needed now more than ever.
“The exhibition celebrates an archive of Black life and history that was curated on its own terms, a project that has never been more urgent,” she said.
The Morrison exhibit will be one of several honors to grace the legacy of Morrison since her death, including her posthumous induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2020, and the proclamation of an annual “Toni Morrison Day” on her birthday in her home state of Ohio. Later this year, the US Postal Service will also honor Morrison with a commemorative stamp.
Upon opening in New Jersey, “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory” will be available to the public Monday through Friday from 10am to 6pm ET and Saturday and Sunday from 12 to 6pm. Further information is available on the Princeton University Library website.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).