Toni Morrison, Baton Rouge’s bench and ‘seeing myself’

Toni Morrison’s work impacted the lives of many people, including my own. As a Black student at predominately White university, it was hard for me to see myself on the required texts by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. It wasn’t until I took a course called, “Toni Morrison and Others,” that I saw myself.

The Black women, Black men, and Black children were complex. The ways in which Black people, both as individuals and as a community, responded to the restrictions placed upon them by the dominant white society were dynamic.

For Morrison, whiteness was neither normalized nor virtuous. White theories, White concepts, and White methodologies were not the only, nor the preferred way, for understanding the social world. The White imagination was not the only lens through which Blackness was seen.

One of the many important gifts Toni Morrison leaves us with is an appreciation for memory: who and what is remembered, and in what ways. Morrison often addresses the issue of memory in her works, particularly in the book, Beloved. Memory can take us places intentionally and unwillingly when summoned and when avoided.

Morrison’s remarks about Beloved led a group of dedicated scholars to create an outdoor memorial to the Black experience–A Bench By The Road. While the stories of Black people are often told from the perspective of White historians drawing largely from the artifacts of wealthy White elites, the Bench project provides Black communities with opportunities to tell and share their stories from their own experiences and their own perspectives. The celebrations surrounding the bench dedications are designed as celebrations of community, which is another theme commonly found in Morrison’s works.

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Historians and community leaders of the Baton Rouge Commemoration Committee gather at the dedication of A Bench By The Road on Thomas Delpit Dr. in South Baton Rouge. (Photo provided)

Through the living memorials, Morrison gives new life to forgotten moments in Black history and to Black scholars whose work is often discredited and discounted by predominately White reviewers, White presses, and a White public who think race no longer matters and that there is nothing to be gained from reliving a painful Black past.

Morrison consistently showed how a painful past informs the painful present. She also showed how Black people have resisted in passive and aggressive ways. She revealed ways Black people tried to create spaces where they could imagine a time and place where they controlled their own images and determined their own destinies and destinations, destinations which could be found within and/or beyond the material world.

We owe, I owe, Toni Morrison a debt of gratitude.

I thank Morrison for helping me find myself and for helping me to help others find themselves in the stories of people like Cynthia Hesdra and the people of South Baton Rouge. Hesdra, an ex-slave,  became a wealthy woman and owner of property used on the Underground Railroad in Nyack, New York. In the early 1950s, the South Baton Rouge community set the stage for the modern-day civil rights movement with the city’s 1953 bus boycott, which provided guidance for the organizers of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

Nyack and Baton Rouge are home to two of the 25 benches placed by The Toni Morrison Society worldwide.

Lest we forget.

Lori Latrice Martin, PhD
Professor, Department of Sociology and African & African American Studies Program
Louisiana State University

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