Design a site like this with
Get started

A Conversation With Toni Morrison Scholar Daphne Lamothe

“I think of Morrison as someone who thought deeply about the role she wanted to play as an author who wanted to contribute to making a more just and ethical world for all people.” 

Dr. Daphne Lamothe

Dr. Daphne Lamothe is a professor of Africana Studies at Smith College. She is the author of Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography (UPenn 2008). She has authored numerous essays, articles and reviews, published in peer-reviewed books and journals such as African American Review, Callaloo, Meridians, and Small Axe. Her publications focus on 20th and 21st century aesthetics, and apply an intersectional approach to the study of “blackness” as a racialized and cultural formation.

Simmons University’s annual Robert M. Gay Memorial Symposium will be hosting Dr. Lamothe as well as other Toni Morrison scholars to discuss Morrison, Ethics, and Social Justice. Dr. Lamothe will focus on two of Morrison’s novels, A Mercy and Song of Solomon. She is interested in Morrison’s portrayal of black life in her writing and what remains ‘unspeakable’ in these novels. This event will be held on April 15th from 5pm-7pm.

In anticipation of this event, I posed a few questions to Dr. Lamothe to get her opinion on Morrison’s authority, black culture, and Morrison’s expansive writing career.

Q: The Robert M. Gay Memorial Symposium will focus on Morrison’s relation to issues of ethics and social justice. Why do you think Morrison may be an important figure to turn to when addressing these issues?

A: I think of Morrison as someone who thought deeply about the role she wanted to play as an author who wanted to contribute to making a more just and ethical world for all people.  As I’ve been preparing for the symposium, I’ve been struck by the number of times she spoke in interviews and essays about wanting to write stories that were as enlightening as they were beautiful.

Q: Morrison’s books are flooded with Black culture that a white audience may not understand. Can you point to an example of a moment or idea that Morrison uses to embody the ‘black aesthetics’ that you will discuss?

A: It can be really helpful for a reader to have the kind of cultural literacy that would allow them to pick up on the allusions to vernacular culture in her novels. You can find references to musical traditions like jazz and the blues, spiritual and religious traditions, folklore (like the legend of flying Africans, which is a major motif in Song of Solomon). But truthfully, I think Morrison was more invested in using language to create the feeling in readers of being immersed in black culture. You don’t need to have a deep knowledge of the culture for her novels to move you, or to provoke powerful feelings, or inspire new ideas. That said, it’s incredibly helpful to develop that kind of cultural literacy if you want to read and write critically about Morrison.

Q: In your presentation, you are going to discuss A Mercy and Song of Solomon. These two books are published about 30 years apart. Do you find any important shifts in Morrison’s style over the years and the black aesthetics it produces?

A: Oh, definitely! There are definitely shifts in themes over the years. Also, while Morrison’s writing style is always beautifully lyrical, I think it became more experimental over time, and therefore became more challenging to some readers.

Q: You have written about other female writers in the Black diaspora. Do you have any new projects in this area that you’re working on?  

A: I’m working on a book right now that’s going to be published by University of North Carolina Press in 2022. It is focused on an idea that I’m calling “the black aesthetic present,” which I’ll be talking about on Thursday, and that is about the unique role that art plays in bringing black culture and subjectivities to life. It’s going to have sections on Morrison, another great black woman writer, Paule Marshall (who died the same year as Morrison!), and more recent writers like Zadie Smith and Dionne Brand.

by Sara Getman

%d bloggers like this: