A rundown of the Toni Morrison, Ethics, and Social Justice: A Robert M. Gay Memorial Symposium

Madison J. Poshkus, Staff Writer

On April 15th, the Simmons University Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities in collaboration with the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships hosted an event entitled “Toni Morrison, Ethics, and Social Justice: A Robert M. Gay Memorial Symposium.” 

The event was moderated by Sheldon George, chair of the Simmons University English department and co-editor of Reading Contemporary Black British and African American Women Writers: Race, Ethics, Narrative Form

The event began with opening remarks by Dean of the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities, Brian Norman, who spoke of the Gwen Ifill College’s commitment to honoring the work of its namesake. 

“I wanted to share with you some words from Gwen Ifill herself that I thought were relevant to the Morrisonian project of placing Blackness at the center of the American experience. Gwen Ifill said, ‘Whose stories can you tell? Whose voices are not being heard? Who gets to decide which stories and which voices get ignored, and what are you willing to do about it?’ Our students are ready and willing to do that,” said Norman.

George then gave brief remarks regarding the proximity and relevance of Morrison scholarship to the nation’s current racial reckoning. 

“It’s a focus on what Morrison can teach us about ethics and social justice. So why this focus? Why now? Why Morrison?” said George. “I could list names to suggest the urgency of the moment, from Jordan Davis, to Eric Gardner and Duante Wright, to the 60,000,000 and more that are memorialized in the epigraph to Morrison’s novel on slavery, Beloved. But, as the character Beloved puts it, ‘It’s always now.”

The three keynote addresses were given by three prominent Toni Morrsion scholars: Jean Wyatt: Author of Love and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison’s Later Novels and recipient of the Toni Morrison Society’s Best Book Award, Carolyn Denard, founder and president of the Toni Morrison Society, and Daphne LaMothe, author of Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography. The speakers were introduced by Charlie Sinotte, Grace Weinberg, and Sara Getman, seniors at Simmons University and students of Sheldon George’s Toni Morrison Seminar course. 

Jean Wyatt presented her work, “Toward the Recovery of Erased: Toni Morrison’s Home,” which focuses on Morrison’s use of the motif of severed body parts and the idea of individual and collective repression and its connection to the historical use of “nonconsenting Black subjects for medical research from slavery to the present day.”

Carolyn Denard presented a piece entitled “Black Ethics in Morrison’s Fiction,” which examined the use of five Black ethical tenets in  Morrison’s first six novels, The Bluest Eye , Sula , Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved , and Jazz . Denard’s five tenets of Black ethics are the ethic of care, the ethic of greater good, the ethic of racial solidarity, the ethic of justice of the self and the community, and the ethic of mother love. Denard defines Black ethics, and cultural ethics in general as “determined by what cultural groups believe to be right and wrong, the moral doctrines that communities accept.”

Daphne LaMothe shared her work, “The Aesthetic Life Of Blackness: Present and Presence in Toni Morrison’s Novels.” LaMothes’ work explains how Morrison’s novels Song of Solomon and A Mercy “expand what it means to live a Black life,” and refute the idea of Blackness as monolithic. LaMothe also spoke about her quest to write novels featuring “aesthetic integrity,” which she defines as novels that do not aim to explain the Black aesthetic life to white people, but instead novels intended for people like herself. 

The panelists’ talks were followed by a conversation between student moderators Charlie Sinotte, Grace Weinberg, and Sara Getman and the panelists themselves, accompanied by a chance for audience members to ask questions of the panelists. 


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