The Exhibit That Reveals Toni Morrison’s Obsessions
A display of personal materials from the late author’s archive shows her genius, the rigors of her research, and her capacious empathy.
The last time I saw the late Toni Morrison speak was in 2016; she was on a panel with the poet Sonia Sanchez and the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and they talked about art and social change. The conversation was far-reaching, and I can’t recall everything discussed. What I do remember is how Morrison responded: She told a story with each reply. When asked about the inspiration behind her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, she recalled details about a childhood friend who didn’t believe in God; it felt as if we were right there with her in the memory. The expansiveness of her answers transformed the abstraction of faith into a tangible experience. Further, it demonstrated to me how Morrison built worlds—how she took ideas and turned them into places for audiences to inhabit—allowing readers to connect with the humanity in her characters.
Morrison, who died in 2019, carved out a space for the Black literary tradition by using the lyricism and folk myths found in Black Americans’ oral customs. “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning,” Morrison wrote in her 1986 essay, “The Site of Memory,” “it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.” What may feel like magic to the reader is the result of intellectual labor, intuition, and capacious empathy on Morrison’s part. And an exhibit at Princeton University grants visitors a glimpse into that creative process, the way Morrison rendered the ordinary, the fantastic, the macabre, and the divine in her works of fiction. That she was a meticulous researcher is no surprise to those of us who’ve encountered the precision in her work. But her personal collection, now on display, shows what she actually prioritized in her fiction. It reveals her obsessions.
Curated by Autumn Womack, an associate professor of English and African American studies at Princeton, the exhibit features Morrison’s private papers and materials from the university’s archive (Morrison was a professor there from 1989 until 2006). Among the 75 objects on view are the first and last pages of an unpublished short story titled “Gia,” with iterative signatures of her given name, Chloe, before she settled on her nom de plume, Toni; early correspondences between Morrison and editors at Doubleday and Macmillan who offered notes on The Bluest Eye; sketches envisioning 124 Bluestone Road, the home haunted by the baby ghost in Beloved; and drawings that map out the fictional Oklahoma town and convent in Paradise, alongside real snapshots of Oklahoma’s landscape.
But one of the most remarkable displays are the waterlogged and charred pages from Morrison’s diaries that contain the early drafts, character sketches, and plot outlines for Song of Solomon, Morrison’s 1977 epic about the family Dead’s journey to recover their identity. These items were believed to have been destroyed in a 1993 fire at the writer’s upstate New York home, until they were recovered in 2021 by Princeton archivists. Morrison filled multiple day planners and journals from the fall of 1974 into 1975: Her handwriting strokes are fluid and hurried on some pages, perhaps reflecting the fact that she was also the full-time working mother of two young boys. In later interviews, Morrison said that her father’s death helped her imagine Song of Solomon. She turned to the music and language of early- to mid-20th-century Black Americans who, like her father, migrated north yet still held deep memories of the South.
Morrison’s personal recollections were where she drew inspiration for some of her most memorable characters. The exhibition also includes a 133-minute video from 1987 featuring Morrison in conversation with the psychologist Sigmund Koch and the scholar Hortense Spillers. Viewers learn that Morrison was part of a writers’ group while she was a professor at Howard University. In a coffee shop one Saturday afternoon, she wrote a short story (that later became The Bluest Eye) and presented the draft to her writing group immediately afterward. Morrison was haunted by her aforementioned childhood friend’s rejection of God (because her prayers for blue eyes hadn’t been answered), which led the author to significant questions about slavery’s legacy.
Morrison’s fixation on what the scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery” is a main focus of the exhibit. It’s widely known that the inspiration for Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was an 1856 news clipping of the story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who freed herself via the Underground Railroad and killed one of her children to prevent them from being taken back into slavery. But the Princeton papers indicate that Morrison had plans to extend the titular character’s narrative beyond a single book to three novels spanning decades. In a section of the exhibition called “Wondering and Wanderings,” visitors learn that as troubled as Morrison was by Garner’s story, she was similarly disturbed by the funerary portraiture of the Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee, which explores the morbid parts of Black life. Summary pages show Morrison’s plan for Beloved’s expanded story: The second book would have placed the ghost in the 1920s with another family, drawing inspiration from one of Van Der Zee’s photos (a girl in a coffin) and exploring the idea of Garner’s self-destruction through self-love. “Who shot you, I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Morrison noted in her conceptual layout, posing questions to divine her characters’ motivations and visualize their world. That original vision for the trilogy didn’t happen, but it explains the thematic links between Beloved and Morrison’s later novels Jazz and Paradise.
The exhibit underscores the idea that items or facts that other people might have regarded as incidental (the Van Der Zee subject’s death, in this case) became, for Morrison, tools to enrich readers’ imaginations. Morrison listened to jazz records, researched when silencers were made for firearms, studied 1920s Jim Crow laws regarding segregated train cars, and pored over maps of waterways and small towns from 1870s Virginia. She pieced together neglected stories with an eye toward what history ignored, and gave them space to breathe. Still, in the 1987 video, Morrison warned Koch and Spillers about how dangerous it is to immerse oneself in those particulars. “I’d write one sentence and walk around for 20 minutes,” Morrison recalled in the interview, remembering that she had to “soothe something that’s burning [her] hand” because her writing demanded that she go to places “too terrible to relate.” She spoke of how rendering these realities in her work could unsettle her, but that, even though fear remained present, she believed artists must take risks for invention. As a result, she said, she developed strategies to quiet that fear and “get out of the reality you invent.”
Studying Morrison’s documents shows that the deep research and probing questions that characterize her fiction are part of the magic of her books. She channeled empathy and emotion through distant artifacts, and used relics from the past to add texture to her characters’ inner lives. Her archival materials demonstrate not just the potency of her thinking but also the care and meticulousness required for literary mastery. Most important, the exhibit shows the personal connection Morrison had to her work: She mined her own life to help readers better understand themselves and their world.