As Her Work Once Again Faces Censorship Battles, Lorain Set to Celebrate Hometown Native With Toni Morrison Day

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click to enlarge Morrison speaking in 2008 - Angela Radulescu, FlickrCC
Angela Radulescu, FlickrCC
Morrison speaking in 2008

Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and acclaimed author who passed away at the age of 88 in 2019, had long dealt with attempts to censor or ban her works, talking often and at length through the years about the deep personal influence reading had on her when she was growing up and the perverse and real dangers of censorship.

"The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists' questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, cancelled films – that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink," she wrote in Burn This Book, an essay collection on the topic she edited. "Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination."

Once again, her works and others are being targeted by parents and school boards around the country, specifically Beloved and The Bluest Eye, as Critical Race Theory-frenzied conservative groups lob an assault on works by minorities across the country in unprecedented volume, according to the American Library Association.

Next week, Lorain will celebrate Toni Morrison Day, on Feb. 18, on what would have been her 91st birthday. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in 2020 signed a bill procaiming the honorary day throughout the state, but Lorain, where Morrison grew up, has a slate of special events to commemorate the occasion.

Brittany Lovett of The Community Foundation of Lorain County, which has helped organize an essay contest and other events, said she always wants to make sure students know that they can look to Morrison as a role model.

“You can be like her and go to do great things. All the things that make our community what it is, she was a part of it,” she said.

She relates to Morrison as a Lorain native and single parent of two boys, and admires how Morrison was able to balance her life doing phenomenal work in her community. Lovett hopes to do the same with her life’s work as well.

She also knows the latest round of attempted bans probably won't be the last time, but there's a reason why Morrison's work has resonated with so many.

“We understand the value of Toni Morrsion’s contribution to society …and some of her books are heavy,” she said. “They might not be for everybody, but we are always going to promote her.” Lovett said Morrison told stories about Black people that were for Black people in an authentic way. “You read a Toni Morrison book and you find [characters representing] your aunt, your uncle, the dude down the street. You relate,” Lovett said. "She’s given us a voice."

In 2019, the foundation partnered with the Lorain County Public Library to debut the film “Toni Morrison Pieces I Am” at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Community leaders fell in love with the idea of celebrating a hometown hero.

Morrison’s death sparked conversation on how the community could continue to honor her legacy in Lorain County. Lovett said she was fortunate enough to meet Morrison’s family and work with several community organizations to discuss ways to harness Morrison’s energy, creativity and initiative. Collectively, they created the Lorain County Toni Morrison Essay Contest for Young People. Winning students receive $75 and one of Morrison’s books.

“Toni was all about community, the next generation-having them write and express themselves,” Lovett said. “This is the perfect way to do that for our hometown hero.” There are four categories in the essay contest. Elementary, middle and high school students can enter the contest. College students from Lorain County are also encouraged to enter. The contest provides prompts for the students to express themselves through writing. “I’ll be honest, I have read these contests for two years in a row, and both years I have had to get tissues after reading,” she said. “Our kids are going through a lot, and we want to make sure they have a safe space where they can talk about what’s happening.”

click to enlarge As Her Work Once Again Faces Censorship Battles, Lorain Set to Celebrate Hometown Native With Toni Morrison Day (2)
Courtesy the Community Foundation of Lorain County

Lovett said she is really excited about this year’s contest. Essay prompts are about how the students are feeling in their environments, both physically and virtually. “Do we really ask our kids how they are feeling? This is that space for them to be honest, open and vulnerable,” Lovett said about the current essay contest. The 2020 Morrison Essay winners were featured on the Today Show. Contest officials are also working on creating a poster contest where students can enter drawings, paintings and design in place of writing an essay.

Lovett said they felt it was their duty to honor Morrison and arrange a day full of events for all ages to celebrate. Some events include “A Gesture of Love and Reflection” at the Wurtzel Theatre in Oberlin, during which anyone inspired by Morrison’s work has the opportunity to read excerpts or give testimony. Visitors can attend the “Remembering Toni Morrison'' exhibit in the Toni Morrison Reading Room at the downtown Lorain Library. In 2020, a virtual tour of the Reading Room was created to see Morrison’s books and artefacts during the pandemic. All events are free to the public.

The Community Foundation’s mission is connecting people who care with causes that matter. They’ve worked with several other organizations to make the day a success. Some include The Lorain County Alliance of Black Educators, Lorain County Community College and The Lorain County Urban League to name a few. The Community Foundation also visits several schools throughout Lorain County to teach students about Toni Morrison. Members have gone to Toni Morrison Elementary School with carrot cakes, which was a dish Morrison was known for, and to read books and bond with students.

”Whatever the community is doing to honor Toni Morrison, we are there to support,” Lovett said. “We do everything we can to make that day special."
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