Professor Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor for the Study of Latin America delivered the 2019 Convocation address “Toni Morrison Stories: Goodness and Mercy and Mexico.”
RAMONA PETERS: [SPEAKING WAMPANOAG] I'm from Mashpee. I'm a Wampanoag, the people of the first light. I'm here to welcome you, especially the incoming students. Young people are very important in our community. And we know that many of you are far away from home. And you're here for the first time on the east coast, on Turtle Island.
Indigenous people refer to this continent as Turtle Island as a reminder that it is a living thing, and that we have the privilege of living and walking upon it. What you'll be experiencing here will be first light. People of the first light from Wabanaki Wampanoag, all along the coastline, we experienced the first light of the day before everyone else on Turtle Island. It's an inspiration. People from all over the country, indigenous people, would travel to come here to experience the rising sun. And I can tell you what it has to offer is really what we consider the new thought of the creator in each day to remind us that a creation is ever-evolving and we are part of that.
The coastline is influenced heavily by the celestial bodies, the moon in particular. It's closest to us. So while you're here in the Cambridge area, you may feel it stronger than you ever have before. Be patient with yourself, and your neighbors, your classmates. It may affect you in different ways.
Living close together without your elders around or the children to look up to you may be really awkward at first. We would say, in our community, be sure to find an elder that you can trust and speak to while you're here. You'll be far away from your family.
I'm going to say that the coast in itself is dynamic. And as you find yourself going through hard and difficult changes, you may take a walk down on the Charles River and head eastward to where the brackish water is, where the fresh and the saltwater mix. And that is a very powerful place that you can offer yourself and open yourself to help make positive change. This part of the earth has many, many attributes that will help you as a student. Travelers from all directions come here, especially when they are seeking and walking a spiritual path. It is amongst indigenous people a well-known fact that the east will bring to you the enlightenment that you may need, especially as a young person.
So we, as Wampanoag people, have hosted many a traveler from far off lands who have come to find their own personal medicine and their spiritual medicine to help them grow. And they take that and go back to their homelands, bring it to their people. So I'm welcoming you here on behalf of the Wampanoag people in hope that you find your medicine.
DAVID N. HEMPTON: Thank you so much for your gracious welcome. So good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to Harvard Divinity School's 204th convocation. As dean of Harvard Divinity School, it's my privilege and honor to welcome you all today, colleagues on the faculty of Divinity, our colleagues from other schools and various departments at Harvard, fellow deans, emeriti, senior administrators, colleagues on the staff, guests, friends from near and far. And a very special welcome to our returning and incoming students. You're why we are here.
Today we celebrate, expectantly, the opening of a new academic year. But we are also celebrating this convocation with a very deep sense of grief and loss, as we are remembering two great and influential women whom we lost this past summer. One is our dear friend and valued colleague, professor Anne Monius, who passed away unexpectedly in early August. Among many other things, Anne was working on a book about Bob Marley and religion. And that's why she will be remembered with a Bob Marley song later in our program.
The other loss is our cherished friend and beloved author Toni Morrison, who passed away just a few days later. Toni Morrison visited HDS in 2012, and presented our 2012 Ingersoll Lecture in this very place on this very stage.
Our distinguished colleague and friend Davíd Carrasco will lead us in the memory of both these remarkable women with a focus on his friend Toni Morrison. Davíd tells stories about her quest to confront the evils of racism and place goodness and mercy at the heart of her writing and teaching. That's what she tried to do when she came here.
In his eulogy to Toni Morrison, Davíd writes, quote, "my friend Toni Morrison wrote, in her Nobel Prize lecture, 'we die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.'"
This convocation is indeed a celebration of life, of courage, of the language of freedom and new beginnings. Please allow me, just at the start, to say a brief word of thanks to everyone who helped put together today's festivities with words and music. I'm particularly grateful to the staff members and the office for academic affairs and the dean's office who have organized this year's convocation so beautifully together with colleagues from other parts of our school. Special thanks go to Margie Jenkins for pulling everything together. Thank you.
We are very honored by the presence and contributions of many people to this very special event who have already heard this wonderful blessing from Ramona Peters, the Wampanoag elder. Thank you so much for your warm welcome. We appreciate it.
HDS music director Chris Hossfeld on the piano, Gary Gorczyka on the clarinet, my dear colleague Cornel West for an introduction and a blessing, Alexandria Danielle King for a performance of "What She Gave," our FAS faculty colleague and good friend of HDS, professor Arthur Kleinman, who holds appointments as professor of anthropology in the faculty of Arts and Sciences and at the Harvard Medical School. And he will introduce today's speaker Davíd Carrasco. We're glad also to have Grammy award-winning performer on the piano Danilo Pérez and his wife, Patricia, on the saxophone, for their jazz tribute to Toni Morrison.
So we're grateful for the many talents you will contribute today to make this an even more special convocation for our school. So thank you, everyone who's going to take part.
Naturally I am especially grateful to my colleague and friend-- as he says, [NON-ENGLISH], Professor David Carrasco, who holds appointments at Harvard Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. David was the driving force behind this event today. And he will share his experiences and stories of his friend Toni Morrison, entitled "Toni Morrison-- Stories, Goodness and Mercy, and Mexico."
On a program note, I need to inform you that we had to forego the question-and-answer session. But Professor Carrasco promised that he will answer any and all questions from everyone during the entire semester.
He's having trouble with his golf swing, so he needs this help.
Now it's my pleasure to call on my colleague Dr. Cornel West, who so eloquently and inspiringly presented a convocation address of his own, two years ago in 2017. Dr. West is a professor of the practice of public philosophy with a joint appointment in the Department of African and African-American Studies and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences here at Harvard. So he will now introduce Alexandria Danielle King, accomplished poet, songwriter, and actor. So now, without further ado, Cornel, please get us going.
CORNEL WEST: How sweet it is to come together once again, start a new year. And yet how bitter it is given the death of our two dear sisters, our dear sister Anne Monius and Toni Morrison, my sister-colleague, love warrior, friend. 40 years as a friend, over 20 years at Princeton, in Stockholm together, the Nobel Prize, precious memories in Grand View.
And at the same time, to zero in and focus on the grand artist Alexandria Danielle King, to transmit and bequeath the great tradition that Toni Morrison enacted and embodied, literary music in Tony's case and magnificent voice, body, intelligence, and style in the case of our dear sister King.
Toni Morrison, a black meta-physician that understood that if you want to understand anything about what it means to be human and what it means to be modern, sooner or later you're going to have to come to terms with the great tradition of a people who were enslaved, and Jim Crowed, and thoroughly hated, but taught the world so much about love-- love of wisdom, love of goodness, love of God, love of truth. I would like to take a moment to have the mother and the daughter of Alexandria Danielle King. Please stand. Where are you? Where are you? You're somewhere in the crowd. Let's give it up for them. Let's give it up for the family.
Give it up for the family. We salute you from Boston to Chicago. Degree from Tufts, right next door in Medford. Then on to Chekhov country, the Moscow Arts Theater School, the tragicomic sensibility that connected Tchaikovsky and Stanislavski, and at the same time enacted in who I would like to introduce to you today, the one and only Alexandria Danielle King. What a record, what a history already. And here to render a song that is so rooted in what Toni Morrison was all about, which was thoughtful and soulful kenosis, learning how to empty oneself, donate oneself, give of oneself in such a way that impact, the emotional magnitude of the impact, forces us to think critically, to live more courageously, and most importantly to love with great risk and challenge.
My dear sister King, we love you. Come forward.
ALEXANDRIA DANIELLE KING: (SINGING) Travel road come find me, oh-I. Travel road, come call me home. When my soul gets weary and my feet won't bear me, travel road come call me home.
(SPEAKING) Let her go? A son. (SCOFFING) Huh. And his smile the crooked smile. Let go of the woman you had been looking for everywhere. Just because she was difficult, had a temper, energy, ideas of her own, and thought back. Let go of a woman who was more than just a woman but a sound. All the music he had ever wanted to play. The world and a way of being in it.
Let that go? I can't, he said. I can't.
(SINGING) Through the window, past the way home, I see you and the way you move through me.
(SPEAKING) You probably don't know anything at all about what your back looks like, like whatever the sky holds, sunlight, moonrise. I rest there. My hand, my eyes, my mouth. The first time I see it, you were shaping fire with bellows. The shine of water runs down your spine. And I have to shock at myself for wanting to lick there.
I run away into the cowshed from stopping this thing from happening and of me. Nothing stops it. There's only you, nothing outside of you. My eyes, not my belly, are the hungry parts of me. There will never be enough time to look at how you move. Your arm goes up. You drop to one knee. You bend. You stop, first to pour water on the iron, then down your throat. (SHIVERING TONE) Ooh.
Before you know I'm in the world, I'm already killed by you. My mouth is open, my legs go softly, and the heart-- [PANTING] is stretching to break.
(SINGING) Hmm-hmm-mm-mm. Hmm-hmm-mm-mm.
(SPEAKING) My nature is a quiet one anyway. When I was a child I was considered respectful. As a young woman, I was called discreet. Later on, I would thought to have the wisdom maturity brings. Nowadays silence is looked on as odd. And most of my race I have forgotten the beauty of meaning much by saying little.
Now tongues work all by themselves, with no help from the mind. Still, I used to have normal conversations. Hmm. And when the need arose, I can make a point strong enough to stop a womb or a knife.
Now, no. Bare face being the order of the day, I hum. The words dance in my head to the music in my mouth.
(SPEAKING) I suspect, soft as it is, my music has a kind of influence too, the way "Mood Indigo" drifting across the waves can change the way you swim. [CHUCKLES] It doesn't make you dive in, but it can set your stroke, or trick you into thinking you're both smart and lucky. So why not swim a little farther and a little farther still? What is the deep to you? It has nothing to do with blood made bold by cornets and piano keys, does it?
Still-- [CHUCKLES] of course I don't claim to have that kind of power. My hum is mostly below range, private, suitable for an old woman embarrassed by the world, her way of objecting to the way the century's turning out, where all is known and nothing understood.
(SINGING) Friends may come and take what's not their own. But the love you've got rebuilds the road home.
(SPEAKING) In this here place, we flesh, flesh that weeps, flesh that dances. Bare feet on grass love it, love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They don't love your eyes. They'd just as soon pluck 'em out. No more than they love the skin on your back. Yonder, they flay it.
And oh, my people, they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off, and leave empty. So love your hands. Raise them up and kiss them. Pat them together. Touch others with them. Stroke them on your face, because they do not love that either. You've got to love it. You.
This is flesh I'm talking about here, flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance. Backs that need support. Shoulders that need arms-- strong arms, I'm telling you.
And oh, my people, hear me, they do not love your neck un-noosed and straightened. So love your neck. Put a hand on it. Stroke it, graze it, and hold it up.
And all your inside parts they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you've got to love them too. The dark, dark liver, love it. Love it.
And the beat [THUMPS FIST AGAINST CHEST] and beating heart, love that too, more than eyes and feet, more than lungs that have yet to draw free air, more than your life holding womb and your life giving private parts. Love your heart. For it is the prize.
[MUSIC - BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS, "THREE LITTLE BIRDS"]
BOB MARLEY: (SINGING) Don't worry about a thing because every little thing is gonna be all right. Singing don't worry about a thing because every little thing is gonna be all right.
ARTHUR KLEINMAN: It's my pleasure and honor to introduce Davíd Carrasco, a great friend and champion of Toni Morrison who's been so assiduous and powerful in the transmission of Morrison's work at Harvard, out in the broader academic world, and will give this convocation talk as we've heard. Now, Davíd is the inaugural Neil Rubenstein Professor of the Study of Latin America at Harvard, with his appointment shared between Harvard Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Department of Anthropology. He's also the founder and director of the Moses Mesoamerican Archive and Research Project.
A 1977 PhD in history of religions from the University of Chicago, he worked closely with four exceptionally influential scholars, the interpreter of religious experience and polymath, Mircea Eliade, with whom he became closely associated, Charles Long, the great historian of African-American religious life, Jonathan Z. Smith, historian of religion, and Paul Wheatley, the historian of cities and an urban geographer. These iconic influences carry over in Davíd's orientation to religion and history. His dissertation, The Irony of Empire-- Myths and Prophecies of Quetzlcoatl, is the basis for his first book, a prize-winning one. By my count, he has authored or edited 27 single and multi-volume books, including, more recently, Breaking Through Mexico's Past-- Digging the Aztecs with Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, 2006, co-authored with Leonardo López, Luján, and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, mysteries of the Mayan calendar museum with Laanna Carrasco, and Cave, City, and Eagle's Nest-- an Interpretive Journey Through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan, co-edited with Scott Sessions.
His earlier works include Religions of Mesoamerica, Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes, City of Sacrifice, that great book, Moctezuma's Mexico, and The History of the Conquest of New Spain, among others. His 55 articles and book chapters range across history, archaeology, but also social and cultural anthropology, social theory, as well as religion. They emphasize cities as symbols, the Mexican-American border lands, ritual and cosmology, and wisdom about the human experience. Davíd is also executive co-producer of the film ¡Alambrista! The Director's Cut, on the ordeal of undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Carlos De Icaza, the ambassador of Mexico, calls Davíd "a man of our time, a man of enormous vitality." Carlos Fuentes, the great writer, lauded The City of Sacrifice as a "brilliant, provocative, timely, and eternal book." Toni Morrison herself wrote of the "pure, elegant prose of his books and articles"-- her words. She also said about David, "Through the study of his work and our engagement with the anthropology of experience, we see why and how peoples sign and narrate themselves, how they choose their principal acts of violence around which to organize themselves, how we eat and placate our gods, how we absorb and become their proxies, how we conserve societal norms and subjugate citizens."
Now, for this remarkable corpus of work, Davíd has received the Mexican order of the Aztec eagle, the highest honor the Mexican government can bestow on a foreign national. He also was chosen as the University of Chicago Divinity School's Alumnus of the Year in 2014. Among his other awards, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a corresponding member of the Academia Méxicana de la Historia.
He is also, as many of us know, a passionate professor, charismatic in the classroom, and a master of cross-disciplinary collaboration and colloquy. But Davíd Carrasco is much more than this impressive record. He possesses, as a human being, those high qualities that the Chinese culture I have devoted my career to study expresses with three key terms-- chi, renqing guanxi, and [NON-ENGLISH].
Chi refers to the huge energy and great spirit that he radiates. Renqing guanxi has to do with the moral relations that he cultivates and exemplifies, including those with Eliade, Fuentes, Matos Moctezuma, and Toni Morrison, but also including many of us here. [NON-ENGLISH] means living a life of responsibility for the good of one's family and friends and institutions, as exemplified by his contributions to the faculty and students of Harvard Divinity School, but also to the Anthropology department and to Harvard more broadly.
Davíd Carrasco stands up, tall and broad, for Mexican-Americans, for African-Americans, for Native Americans, for the undocumented, for ethnic diversity and cultural pluralism, for justice for the poor and marginal, for resistance to the horrible indifference of our times, and really for all of us. Like Toni Morrison, his great friend, he breaks open the canonical to let in the light of other peoples and traditions in order to do good in the world. His Latino reading of the African-American experience expresses the universality in Morrison's books.
He is more than an adornment to our institution. He represents what makes scholarship and teaching truly vital. To borrow Gabriel García Márquez's famous idiom, Carrasco "wakes up the souls of things and of people."
And now with this praise song, let me introduce my close friend, esteemed colleague, and moral exemplar for combining scholarship with advocacy, truth with social Justice, David Carrasco.
DAVID CARRASCO: Thank you, Arthur Kleinman, for your generous introduction. And for all you continue to do to help our universities quest for wisdom. Thank you also to David and Louanne Hempton for your fine leadership and hospitality for our community. Thank you especially to assistant dean Karin Grundler-Whitacre and Margie Jenkins for arranging all the details of this afternoon's convocation program. And thank you, Ramona Peters, Alexandra King, Cornel West, Danilo Pérez, and Patricia, for joining us to strengthen our new beginning. How about a round of applause for all of these people.
Today's event is a celebratory bienvenida to the incoming class, the new students at HDS. And my comments were prepared with you in mind. We faculty and staff are thrilled that you accepted our invitation to join us in this learning adventure. How about some applause for the new students who are coming to join us.
We launch this learning adventure by sharing some Toni Morrison stories about goodness, mercy, and Mexico. Here are five short stories with five lessons. Morrison teaches us about reading and writing, racism and evil, religion and human connection, crossing borders and Mexico, protest, and joy. When asked to talk about my work with Toni Morrison and my friendship, I emphasize that she had many, many friends and colleagues all over the country and in other parts of the world. Once, when I was asked about Toni, I said, oh yes, I was invited to her birthday party, and my prestige went way up.
Wow, came the reply, and who else was there? I said, well, Oprah was there. And my prestige went higher. And then I had to say, but you know, there were 299 other people at the party too.
You see, Toni Morrison had many friends and colleagues. At that birthday party, with 299 other friends, I was seated across the table from Gloria Foster, who played the Oracle in the first two Matrix films. Toni Morrison even had science fiction friends.
Story number one, "Toni Morrison, the Reader Who Wrote." As a visiting professor in the Religion department at Princeton University in 1990, a colleague told me that Toni Morrison taught a lecture course. Two weeks into the semester, I went to her departmental office and asked if it was possible to sit in on her course, "African-Americans and the Literary Imagination." The secretary said that Professor Morrison would have to personally give me permission. The mood and the message in the office was that visitors were not too welcome in the course.
20 minutes later, Ms. Morrison came walking down the hall, and I introduced myself. She said, they called me and told me a tall dark man was waiting for me here.
I mustered my courage and asked if I could sit in on the lecture. She said, simply, "I don't think so."
If I let you in, then you'll be up there in the back of my mind during the talk. I don't know how I recovered so quickly from this rejection. But I said, I promise to be a friendly presence in the back of your mind.
She looked at me with surprise and said, since you promise, I'll let you in. The lecture was on the novel Moby Dick, and the ways that African-Americans appear in our national literature, and sometimes ignite an evil brew in the pens of white authors and the minds of white readers. This evil brew is then projected onto black characters-- in Moby Dick, it was the tattooed Polynesian harpooner Queequeg-- who are then debased for the social and sexual danger they come to represent in the white gaze.
When Morrison used phrases like "the corners of consciousness" and "entering into what one is a strange from," I felt a stirring of memories from my life as a Mexican-American who grew up with black people in Washington, DC. When Morrison traced the wonton, elaborate strategies to erase and repress the Africanist presence from American literature, the works of certain Latin American writers and a specific French feminist, Marie Cardinale, came to my mind. It was as though a tissue of profound meaning was growing between Morrison and me.
After the lecture, I joined an entourage of graduate assistants and admirers walking with Morrison back to her office. Morrison asked me, how did you like the lecture? Your lecture reminded me of an autobiographical novel, I said, named, The Words to Say It by Marie Cardinale. Morrison stopped in her tracks, turned to me, and said, now, that's remarkable. This entire series of lectures is based in part on my reading of that very book. I'd like you to come see me in my office soon. Please make an appointment.
Morrison's lectures became her book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark-- Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The eight-page preface tells how her reading of Cardinale's account of her descent into madness and seven-year psychoanalysis helped Morrison identify the stages of her interest in exploring the racial unconsciousness in American thought and literature, and especially in the writings of Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and Willa Cather. And here, students, is the lesson for us. Toni Morrison was a reader long before she became a writer and during all the years that she was a writer. She read social history, art history, literary method, political theory, history of religion, anthropology, and feminism.
Morrison learned to read when she was three years old. And here you see her as a child. She also worked as a cataloger in a local library as a teenager until she went away to college at Howard University. She spent decades reading, and teaching, and writing on college campuses. She was a book editor at Random House for 10 years, and played a powerful role in bringing African and African-American literature into print. Her multidisciplinary reading meant she was never a static author, never writing a slight variation on the same theme again and again.
We read Toni Morrison's appeal to us students to read more widely and deeply in her 1991 essay called "Black Matters." She urged the development of a theory of literature that truly accommodates African-American literature. And here's the key phrases-- "one that is based on the culture, its history, and the artistic strategies the works employ to negotiate the world it inhabits."
Her critique of narrow reading appears in The Bluest Eye in this passage about Soaphead Church, the pseudo-theologian, spiritualist, and psychic reader who does injury to Pecola Breedlove. "He read greedily," she wrote, "but understood selectively, choosing the bits and pieces of other men's ideas that supported whatever predilection he had at the moment. For all his exposure to the best minds of the Western world, he allowed only the narrowest interpretation to touch him."
Story number two, "Racism is a Cosmology with a Practice." In 1993, Cornel West's book Race Matters-- there's my man right there-- was published by Beacon Press, and was a bestseller in academic and public circles. In response, in 1994, Princeton University hosted a conference attended by nearly 500 people entitled "Race Matters-- Black Americans, US Terrain." Toni Morrison was a close colleague of West's, and gave the keynote address in support of his scholarly achievements.
These were the years when Toni Morrison was experimenting with what she called the Paradise Project, with writing in a way that eliminated the potency of racial constructions and language, she says, writing in a way in which race does not matter. She told the audience that she wondered, quote, "if race-free language is both possible and meaningful in narration, a site clear of racist detritus, a place where race both matters and is rendered impotent. I want to imagine," she said, "the concrete thrill of borderlessness."
Morrison unmasked those race-matters deniers, scholars who shouted alarm when African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans were working to theorize and imagine race without dominance, without hierarchy. She told us that she was indebted to scholars who are "clearing theoretical space where racial constructs are being forced to reveal their struts and bolts, their technology and their carapace, so that political action, intellectual thought, and cultural production can be generated," end of quote.
But ask yourself, why was Morrison indebted to those scholars for their critiques and innovations on race, racism, and in American studies? She had already written a blazing passage about a racist cosmos and the psychological damage of white supremacy on a black family, 25 years before, in The Bluest Eye. Listen to this passage where she tells us the source of this damage done to the Breedloves, who believed they were ugly human beings. White supremacy, you see, in Morrison's mind, to borrow a phrase from Arthur Kleinman's, is an illness narrative.
Here's the passage. "You looked at them, the Breedloves, and wondered why they were so ugly. You looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realize that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious, all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear and they had accepted it without question. The master had said, 'you're ugly people.' They looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement. They saw, in fact, support for it leaning from every billboard, every movie, every glance. 'Yes,' they had said, 'you're right.' And they took the ugliness in their hands, they threw it as a mantle over them and went about their world with it."
And students, here's the lesson. Racism is a cosmology, a binding conviction, a total worldview program through practices. We in academia often settle with the position that racism is to be understood as a social construction. No doubt. But targets of racism don't suffer because they experience it as a social construction. Its lethal power rides in its cosmology, a total worldview, a deep program with practices. White supremacy is made up of creation myths, rigid social hierarchies, and manifest destinies. We undergo it as a total aggression.
Take the Mexicans and the Mexican-Americans murdered in El Paso last month, and whose families were shattered. They know the barrage of bullets is rooted in a creation story known through its code words. Mexicans are "bandits," "murderers," "rapists." they hear their social location as one of displacement-- "go back to where you came from." I heard this often as a child. Racism has its manifest destinies-- "make America white again."
Morrison showed how white supremacy could permeate every level of reality. And for some, despite the spiritual fight-back, it's too late. She wrote, in The Bluest Eye, "It's too late. At least on the edge of my town, among the garbage and the sunflowers, it's much, much, much too late." But Toni Morrison never stopped there, and reverses the location of the damage, for she had learned the lesson that this history of white supremacy also damaged white people and the experiment of democracy to its core.
Story number three, "Morrison's Imagination Opened to Border Crossings." When I read 100 Years of Solitude, she said, I became aware of a freedom in writing. Reading Garcia Marquez unlocked something important for me, freed me up in my writing.
In 1995, I invited Toni Morrison to Mexico City with two goals. First, to be with her in a different racialized society of Mexico, one in which race mixtures and painful hierarchies were the cosmology and everyday reality of Mexicans. Secondly, to share with her some of my research on the history of religion and a great Aztec temple excavation in the heart of Mexico City.
A month before the trip, her assistant called with two requests. First, that we visit Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul in Coyoacan, Mexico, so she could get a better sense of Frida's home and art. Sure, I said, I'll arrange it. Then came the second request. Ms. Morrison would like it if you can arrange for her to meet Gabriel García Márquez.
Sure, I said. I will arrange it.
But when I hung up the phone, a lump grew in my throat. I didn't know García Márquez. So what was I going to do. I called up the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes in desperation. And he said to me, Davíd, you're in luck. García Márquez is my best friend. And we'll have dinner at my house. And we did.
You see here, Toni Morrison in the center, beaming. To her left is Carlos Fuentes. To her right is María Luisa Franco translating. And there is García Márquez And it was a great dinner.
Here we see a photograph of the three talking cordially with each other. Notice the animated storyteller Toni Morrison.
Carlos Fuentes, in the middle, his eyes tell us his pleasure and amazement. Look closely at García Márquez's eyes. They suggest a man falling in love-- [AUDIENCE CHUCKLES] even as a Hindu god seems to emerge from his head.
Toni and Garcia Marquez were at first admiring and courteous strangers, their native languages keeping them apart. Then, in the midnight hour, something strange and wonderful happened. They shared passions for literature, of otherness, and belonging, and a bridge opened between them. Standing together with the aid of the translator, they spoke of their debts to William Faulkner, the key role of editors in their writing-- I couldn't believe it, their talking about their need for editors-- the Nobel Prize adventures. And Garcia Marquez proudly identified the date, publisher, and theme of every one of her novels, and showed us where, in his words, to find, quote, "the key passageway into the heart of the story." In this case, his hard work to become familiar with her work and words showed he had crossed borders and gave him a sense of a wider belonging.
But in my view it was the Mexicans who, over the years, have said it best about Toni Morrison. It happened when we went to the National Autonomous University of Mexico. We saw green signs like huge leaves pasted to every wall and column. Each had her photograph, and name, and two powerful words in Spanish. Each announced, Toni Morrison entre nosotros, Toni Morrison is among us. It showed the awareness of Morrison's greatness and a gratitude that she had come to their be in their presence, to their national school, and close to them.
We went to Frida's Blue House and then the great Aztec temple, where she saw the slide of the great Coyolxauhqui Stone, the fabulous sculpture of the Aztec moon goddess whose dismembered body you see here represented the daily victory of the rising masculine sun over the fading female moon.
She'd heard the Aztec myth about this dying and rising goddess. And after she gazed intently at it for over a minute, I'll never forget what she said. She said, "there she is, Miss America." And I understood her meaning. On the one hand, she was referring to the way girls and women suffer, as in the Miss America cult, from the male gaze about female bodies and prescriptions of beauty. On the other hand, we'd been in Mexico long enough that she had grasped something of the historical depth of the culture. And her statement, there she is, Miss America, showed her view that the Americas had also originated in Mexico, through the bodies and lives of women like this lady of the bells, through the meetings of Spaniards and Aztecs and Africans and Asians early in the 16th century.
This claim of another American origin comes back to me now in 2019. For it was 500 years ago, in this November, that the Spaniards first faced off with Moctezumas' eagle warriors. Many of us look back to these years of 1519 to 1524 because of the birth of the Protestant Reformation, ignited when Martin Luther nailed his critiques to the Wittenberg Church, claiming, according to tradition, "Here I stand. I can do no other."
In the same year, the Spaniards first landed in what is now Mexico, claiming, "here we land." The difference between "here I stand" and "here we land" symbolizes big differences between the history, life, and thought of New England and that of New Spain. In the latter, the Spaniard imperial we spilled beyond their intentions, coming to mean the social and biological mixture of Iberians, Indigenous, and African peoples, and the formation of a new kind of conflicted, multiracial society in Latin America, the multiracial family of Mexico that Toni got a closer look at.
And here is the lesson Toni Morrison and García Márquez's imaginations were open to crossing borders so their writings could be enriched. She drew inspiration and content from reading a Latin American writer who had another cosmology. It was a Latinx story whose words unlocked something important for me in my writing.
Story number four, "Toni Morrison's Literary Inspiration, Joy, and Responsibility to Black Women." It may be surprising to some of you that several literary critics and journalist worked hard-- and overtime-- to impede Morrison's achievements and deny her literary prizes.
When she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, here's what The Washington Post said about her work. After quoting some phrases and praises, the article went, Beloved was a fraud, a fake vision of the slave trade. All the male writers are pissed. Morrison has been the beneficiary of goodwill. Whites and men are portrayed badly.
Black men, too. I hope this prize inspires her to write better books. The award was a triumph of political correctness. The Bluest Eye was her best. I thought something was going to happen after that. Nothing did.
Morrison withstood these slurs. And when asked about her literary project by Mexican journalists, she responded-- I love this newspaper that came out in Mexico City-- mi inspiración no nacie de protesta, si no de puro goce. Me projecto literario esta dictado por la alegria, no por la decepión. My inspiration is not borne of protest, but out of pure joy. My literary project is dictated by happiness, not by disappointment.
Part of her inspiration came from a sense of responsibility to black people, and especially to black women. When asked about the character Pilate in Song of Solomon, she said, "I know women in my family like Pilate, totally generous, free women, and who showed complete clarity when they spoke. They had this intimate relationship with God, and death, and all sorts of things that strike fear in the modern heart. They had a language for it. They had, I don't know, a blessedness. But they seemed not to be fearful. It's to these women that I feel an enormous responsibility."
And here's the lesson. Make your work, wherever you draw inspiration from, a form of joy and responsibility to others. Final story-- have goodness and mercy. Toni Morrison spoke on this stage and said, "evil has a blockbuster audience. Goodness lurks backstage. Evil has vivid speech. Goodness bites its tongue."
A month after we met in 1990, in the wake of her lecture on Moby Dick, Toni Morrison asked if I could assist her while writing her new novel, Paradise, by doing research on Afro-Brazilian religions and the theme of paradise. Two weeks later, we met to discuss the mixtures and the shared languages of Candomblé and Umbanda. Out of this exchange came a 25-year conversation about the religious dimensions in her novels. When I told her I saw two religious patterns in her work, Christianity remade by African-Americans and African myths and practices, she agreed, but said, "you left out the most important thing, Davíd. You left out all the strange stuff."
In 2012, Morrison accepted the Harvard Divinity School's invitation to deliver the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality. To make Morrison's visit more than a one-day celebrity performance. Stephanie Paulsell and I, along with the assistance of Charlene Higbee, Dean Hempton's office, and Bob Devoe, organized a six-week seminar attended by over 60 people, entitled, thanks to Stephanie, "Have Mercy-- the Religious Dimensions in the Writings of Toni Morrison." Our seminar heard rich intellectual presentations by Jonathan Walton, Charles Long, and our PhD students Mara Willard, Josslyn Luckett, and Jay Williams.
When Toni arrived, she met with the entire seminar community. She's over there on the left. And you can see, here, the HDS students and other people who've come to be part of this seminar. Our student participants also got to spend some time with Toni Morrison. Here you see them also with Stephanie.
Our essays plus Toni's lecture grew into the upcoming publication, Goodness and the Literary Imagination, with essays on Morrison's moral and religious vision. Mara Willard joined us in editing of the book that included fresh essays by HDS faculty Jacob Olupona, Matthew Potts, and Harvard historians Tiya Miles and Walter Johnson, and our Syracuse colleague, Biko Mandela Gray.
Let me bring Toni Morrison back to you in her own words about the matter of goodness, and evil, and mercy. In the lecture, she said, "I have never been interested in or impressed by evil itself. But I have been confounded by how attractive it is to others. I'm stunned by the attention given to its every whisper and shout. Which is not to deny its existence and ravage, nor to suggest evil does not demand confrontation, but simply to wonder why it is so worshipped, especially in literature.
"Is it its theatricality, its costume, its blood-spray, the emotional satisfaction that comes with its investigation more than its collapse? Evil has a blockbuster audience. Goodness lurks backstage. Evil has a vivid speech. Goodness bites its tongue."
Dear students, I quote these powerful words from the opening of Goodness and the Literary Imagination as an invitation for you in your reading, in your writing, in your encounter with race, so that your vision will be enlarged and you will leave here with more responsibility to others and seeking, in the words of Arthur Kleinman, the soul of care.
Here's a final lesson, in her words. "Expressions of goodness are never trivial to me or incidental in my writing. Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate evil. But it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness, the acquisition of self-knowledge. A satisfactory or good reading for me is when the protagonist learns something vital and morally insightful that she or he did not know at the beginning."
Toni Morrison gave us the way forward in the final paragraph of her novel, Paradise. A woman named Piedade, or "compassion," sees another ship of migrants arriving in America. They are lost and saved, atremble at what will greet them at the borderlands of the shore. The final sentence for our moment of convocation in my address goes like this. "Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in Paradise." Thank you all for being here for Toni Morrison.
Some of you who know Aristotle know that his definition of tragedy goes like this. It's a mimesis, or an action that's serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude. Toni Morrison's life, and work, and now death is of great magnitude. For this magnitude, we invited Danilo Pérez, the supremely talented pianist and composer, to perform here today. During rehearsal, he told me something that stood out. He said that he'd worked to create this original piece for Toni Morrison partly because he could feel, in her life, the dance between tragedy and love. And so he has composed this piece, called "Beloved."
Danilo Pérez is a Grammy award-winning Panamanian pianist/composer. He's been lauded as one of the most creative forces in contemporary music. Pérez's global jazz music is a blend-- listen to this-- of Panamanian roots, Latin American folk music, West African rhythms, and European impressionism, promoting music as a borderless and multi-dimensional bridge between all people. He's toured and recorded with legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Wayne Shorter, and Roy Haynes. He currently serves as UNESCO Artist for Peace, the cultural ambassador to the Republic of Panama. He's accompanied by the highly talented saxophonist Patricia Zarate Pérez, and they're joined also for vocals by Farayi Malek. Please welcome Danilo Pérez and company.
[MUSIC - DANILO PÉREZ, "BELOVED"]
DAVID CARRASCO: So they got the invitation to do this just 10 days ago.
CORNEL WEST: What a great and grand convocation. Do you agree with me? Has this been marvelous, magnificent?
The artists giving their all, or their brother Davíd plunging into the depths and the height of the genius of Toni Morrison. Students, you all are off on a running start. Oh, what a running start.
I see my dear brother Preston Williams. 50 years. Let's give it up for Preston and Connie. 50 years. 50 years. Same tradition-- same grand tradition. We love you. We love you.
And let us not forget that our sister, my dear sister, Toni Morrison, she became a Catholic when she was 7 years old in an AME family. She was-- two black Catholics at Howard University when she was there. She was a practicing Catholic, a revolutionary Christian, Sister Elizabeth. Yes, she was.
She was a subversive Catholic. But she actually was empowered by her taking of the Eucharist too. There's ways in which we understand all of our different perspectives, orientations, and different traditions in such a way that we keep track of the singularity of the Toni Morrisons and others.
Let us go forth with a of spiritual fortitude and a more determination, especially young students, to leave this world just a little better than you found it, so that the afterlife of not just sister Toni but sister Anne too is at work in our lives. Let's leave a little heaven behind, given this hellish, nightmarish condition that we find this empire in. Let's keep the love and justice going. Thank you for our dear Indigenous sister. Let us struggle together. Should I introduce my dear brother? He says, let it go. He says, let it go. Let it go. Have a wonderful year. Have a wonderful year.