Houston A. Baker Jr. is Distinguished University Professor of English and African American Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University. He was the editor of American Literature from 1999 to 2006. Here, he remembers Toni Morrison from his time at Howard University.
The fortunes of being rejected by selected white colleges and universities during my senior year of high school manifested themselves when I received, and accepted, a handsome scholarship offer from Howard University in Washington, DC. It was 1961. I was leaving my home in Louisville, Kentucky, for the “Capstone of Negro Education.”
On a sweltering late summer afternoon, with a small cohort of other African American (then called “Negro”) high-school matriculants, I boarded a train from Louisville’s Union Station to Washington, DC. Louisville’s station still boasted the readable sign and signature of racial segregation: “Colored Waiting Room.” I wondered if I would find the same at the other end of my journey.
To enter Howard University’s campus in 1961 was to encounter a neatly maintained greensward sentineled by the classical cathedral design of Founders Library. Drew Hall (the new men’s dormitory) was a wonder in its impeccable hospitality. And as we young men sat on the short wall outside the Ira Aldrige Theater, we were confirmed in our first impressions that we were indeed occupants of a brave new world. We marveled at a slow parade of abounding beauty, pristine grace, and assured self-possession as young women of color made their way past us. These young women were simply mesmerizing. They seemed so far beyond our country selves. They left us breathless.
There was no ease in this beautiful Zion when we entered our first classes a few days later. The Howard professoriate was unstinting in its demand for excellence. All courses required commitment to black achievement grounded in a proud legacy of historically black colleges and universities. During the first week, we were challenged to serious intellection and adept manners of scholarly exchange.
The foregoing variables were energized by the uproarious revolts of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The direct address—the praxis—of that radical assault on centuries of black abjection and exclusion in America was everywhere near at hand. Black resistance and revolutionary projects were the temper of the times at 1960s Howard, despite administrative injunctions for the student body to maintain a traditional decorum of colored amiability. A crowning moment of my freshman year was enrollment in a required course whose title I forget but whose import was something on the order of “Great Books of the World.” I do not recall a syllabus, but there was a reading list that did not (I believe) include African American authors.
The first day of class, students filed respectfully into the room. I took a seat on the front row as an earnest demonstration of my consummate interest in everything the professor might have to say. The professor’s chair was one of those yellowish, hard wooden strongholds that signify scholarly austerity. The chair sat at the back of the desk.
The moment of arrival unfolded when one of the most arresting presences I have ever encountered in the academy floated into the classroom. She moved to the desk, slipped around and past its back, seated herself atop the front of the desk, and sat eloquently at ease before us. She flashed a welcoming and serious smile. “Good morning. My name is Toni Morrison. I am your professor for this course. This is a required course and we will accept no excuse for absence or failure to do the work.” I was rendered breathless—not so much by her undeniable poise and gesture as by her calm equanimity of presence and intellectual authority.
Our text was William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” to be taken up at the next class meeting.
The following class session, I had nothing to say, having been completely mystified by Faulkner and his bear. Professor Morrison began to unfold for us an extraordinary explication of the Faulkner story, when all at once a hand shot up just down the front row from me, and a loud mellifluous voice commanded: “Black people in the United States are being beaten and dying. The capitalist system is corrupt. Why are we reading this racist old white man who said he would defend Mississippi against any civil rights intervention with a shotgun in hand?” He continued: “We should be reading Chairman Mao and Che Guevara. We should be learning the sober dialectics of revolution.”
It was, indeed, the voice of Stokely Carmichael. His face was swollen, and he had a bandage over his right eye from participation in a civil rights action in neighboring Maryland just a few days before. He looked weary and incredulous that something as seemingly inane as a Faulkner story should ever occupy the mind of any black student.
Without so much as a small readjustment of her professorial posture, Professor Morrison answered: “Mr. Carmichael, scripture tells us there is a time and place for every occasion. For today, the time before us is reserved for Faulkner’s masterpiece “The Bear.” Please, let us continue, in season, with Faulkner’s astonishing creative achievement.”
Silence fell. Professor Morrison’s lucid and brilliant explication recommenced.
As class was adjourning, I found the courage to say hello to a young woman who had returned my friendly nod during the prior class session. I ventured an opinion: “That was pretty terrific of Professor Morrison to put Faulkner and his complicated book ahead of the civil rights movement, wasn’t it? I’m Houston.”
She said: “Hi, I’m Charlotte. And, yes, I think Professor Morrison was astonishing in her handling of Mr. Carmichael’s interruption.”
Toni Morrison became my ever-loved genius of the humanities and authorship.
Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Touré) still represents my best exemplar of what it means to be young, brilliant, and daringly committed to the global struggle for black liberation. Charlotte eventually became my wife. And in the late ’90s, Charlotte’s publisher sent Toni Morrison a draft copy of her book Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape. Toni Morrison called Charlotte of a winter’s evening and lauded her book: “This,” she said, “is a love story.” Toni Morrison befriended my academic career and writing at many a turn of life’s wheel. News of our professor’s passing is very, very hard to bear in these most awful of times in America.