Wednesday, December 1

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Justifying the lesser-known angles of a University icon

I've heard a lot of talk in the last few weeks about Professor Toni Morrison what with all the commotion about Oprah's secret visit, the release of her new book "Paradise" and the filming of "Beloved." Though we may hold these truths to be self-evident, there is an underlying cynicism surrounding Toni-mania based in nothing but jealousy and gossip.

Let's examine . . . Has Toni Morrison ever claimed to be the Pope? the Dalai Lama? Buddha? Has she ever claimed to be anybody's spiritual leader or to hold the secret to life and truth? No, I didn't think so. She's a writer. She writes books. She edits books. She teaches snotty-nosed Ivy League Toni-wannabes (myself included). Here's the kicker: Toni Morrison is mortal. Toni Morrison is allowed to have a bad day, get cramps, have a migraine, and, yes, occasionally take her frustrations out on lesser intellectuals if she so chooses. Sometimes those lesser intellectuals are mere students, as I was in her 1997 Atelier in documentary film alongside Louis Massiah.

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I have heard more than a few people say she was rude, arrogant and uncooperative at her book signings. But lets look at the real problem here. If you went, you paid money to be in her presence – not to really hear her insight on the ethno-historical structure of Paradise. Most likely you went to kiss ass and to get a copy of Paradise signed so you could lie to your parents about how you actually "know" Toni Morrison.

The stories I've heard coming out of the book-signing were pretty much about people gushing to her about how her book changed their life. Well, guess what folks? After you've heard that story one million times like Toni Morrison has, it gets old, you start to glaze over and wish someone would say something interesting or just shut up.

Nobody is ever honest here. Nobody lets down their guard. People don't even look each other in the eyes as they walk down the sidewalk. So yes, Toni Morrison's abruptness may be shocking to some, but down south we call it "telling you something about yourself." She's perhaps unintentionally trying to break Princetonians of the habit of pseudo-intellectualism. You know, that process most of us go through when we sit in precepts and gab for 50 minutes just to hear ourselves speak as we make sure the preceptor marks down our participation grade. Even Joyce Carol Oates once said, "I hate it when people tell me they're going to ask me a stupid question . . . I tell them, 'So, don't. [Stupid questions are] a waste of my time."

I have never known Professor Morrison to be anything less than forthright, blatantly truthful and jovial. Most all of her sentences end with a laugh. Sorry to burst the bubble of those who love to slam Toni just because they weren't handpicked to be in the Atelier like I was, or any of her numerous other African-American Studies lectures, or her Morrison-on-Morrison student initiated seminar.

Where were you? Oops, most likely you were too lazy to haul your butt over to the registrar's office to sign up for those rare gems of academia. But I did. And even if you showed the least bit of initiative and at least filled out the application for Atelier, you would have at least gotten an interview with "the great one" herself. And if all else failed, if you had stumbled through the Lucas Gallery anytime around Atelier class time you would have run into Professor Morrison in the halls of 185 Nassau.

But like most of the "toolishly" influenced dark forces around here, you've probably been sucked into the vortex of thinking that college is about how big of a signing bonus you can get from Goldman Sachs and not about the academic fulfillment you get just from sitting across the table from Professor Morrison.

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I admit to lapses in tooldom broken by moments of sanity, myself. After all, I only had three goals in coming to Princeton: getting into Woody Woo (failed), getting accepted to write a creative thesis (failed), and taking a class from Professor Morrison – and in case you haven't guessed I won big on that one.

So you see, it's not really about being a blind devotee of Professor Morrison; I haven't even read all of her books. It's about getting to know our professors on a personal level and judging them as people who are being sought after for all sorts of things – money, fame, the next book, some good academic criticism, a decent recommendation for grad school (hint, hint!).

Now don't get me wrong; I'm not holding a candle and singing Kumbaya here. I'm not even an English major. I do agree with my best friend who said she was angry when she introduced her Mom to Professor Morrison and they "did not hit it off so well," so to speak. "No one disrespects my mom and gets away with it," she said. I'm all for love, valor, and Mommy. But this whole assumption that "celebrities are nice and interested in my life" thing has got to stop. Or, maybe it's because Princeton is so small, and everyone is so pretty and rich that you think the world including Toni Morrison owes you something. But she doesn't. You're the student –remember? Prove something to her.

Morrison is a special professor here. Everyone knows she's one of the greatest fundraisers this school has. She's one of the last big "name" professors we haven't scared off yet. She can toss off names of "friends" like a who's who of The Social Register. And even they don't truly know her. It's the few special students like me and some of my friends who have spent time, week after week, hour after hour, sitting side by side with her and hearing her stories and the passion she has for youth and art that win our respect. The artifice of the Morrison name melts away, and we see a person – with quirks and flaws, brilliance and beauty.

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I'm tired of people disrespecting her when they've never met her. I'm tired of people judging her when they've been in her presence for a few seconds. She's one of the only reasons I'm still here at Princeton. I believe in her work and I believe in her. It's not something I have to say to her face. It's the satisfaction of knowing that I was an open enough person to let her influence my life for the better. And in the end it's all because when I'm defending Toni, I'm defending myself.

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