“When a child walks in the room, your child or anybody else’s child, do your eyes light up? That’s what they’re looking for.” –Toni Morrison
When great writer Toni Morrison passed away August 5th our world lost an incomparable voice. I always have been especially moved by her portrayals of children, and the knowledge that her care and perceptive attention to children’s emotions and needs did not stop on the printed page.
I remember gratefully her presence at CDF’s 1999 National Symposium on the Arts and Scholarship held at the Children’s Defense Fund Haley Farm for the dedication of the Langston Hughes Library designed by Maya Lin on the grounds formerly owned by Roots author Alex Haley. The library’s design and construction was made possible by the generosity of Leonard Riggio and his wife, Louise. Len was chair of Barnes and Noble and a CDF Board member.
Toni Morrison joined First Lady Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, Dr. Maya Angelou, Dr. John Hope Franklin, Dr. Dorothy Height, U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Giovanni, and more than 200 other guests at the inspiring event. Toni Morrison’s signature remains at the top of the library’s visitors book. She spoke about the role of arts and literature in liberation, enthralled us with a reading from Paradise and graciously moved among her great admirers.
Her presence at this very special CDF event was a powerful reminder of her deep commitment to children. When asked about her treatment of child characters in a 1984 interview, she responded:
“… I have thought that the children are in real danger. Nobody likes them, all children, but particularly black children. It seems stark to me, because it wasn’t true when I was growing up. The relationships of the generations have always been paramount to me in all of my works, the older as well as the younger generation, and whether that is healthy and continuing. I feel that my generation has done the children a great disservice. I’m talking about the emotional support that is not available to them anymore because adults are acting out their own childhoods. They are interested in self-aggrandizement, being ‘right,’ and pleasures. Everywhere, everywhere, children are the scorned people of the earth.”
She continued: “There may be a lot of scorned people, but particularly children…You don’t have to go to the exploitation, the ten-year-old model and child porn—that’s the obvious. Even in the orderly parts of society it is staggering. Children are committing suicide, they are tearing up the schools, they are running away from home. They are beaten and molested; it’s an epidemic.”
How deeply aware she was of the way our culture mistreats and undervalues children, the continued fraying of traditional multigenerational bonds and the increasing exploitation, self-absorption, and isolation that has grown in the Internet age.
Toni Morrison was a great human being and a peerless writer, whose words will echo across the ages. Accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 she said:
“Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”