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Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking novels about black history and identity helped to advance issues of civil rights and racial justice. The author was the keynote speaker at an event at Northeastern University in 2013, and afterward, she met with families who’d lost a relative to racial violence. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill/Northeastern University

Toni Morrison’s influence extends beyond literature

Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking novels about black history and identity helped to advance issues of civil rights and racial justice. The author was the keynote speaker at an event at Northeastern University in 2013, and afterward, she met with families who’d lost a relative to racial violence. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill/Northeastern University

Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who died on Aug. 5, was a giant in the literary sphere, but her influence extended well beyond her written words.

“Law alone is an ineffective tool with which to grapple with traumatic memory, and so we have always worked closely with creative writers, visual artists, and musicians,” said Margaret Burnham, a civil and human rights lawyer who met Morrison at a few social settings in the 1970s. They’re pictured here at the 2013 event at Northeastern. Photo by David Leifer for Northeastern University

Morrison, whose groundbreaking novels about black history and identity opened the door for scores of authors who followed, also helped to advance issues of civil rights and racial justice. 

“Toni Morrison’s fictive work about black life lies at the intersection of memory, history, and trauma,” said Margaret Burnham, University Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern. 

“Law alone is an ineffective tool with which to grapple with traumatic memory, and so we have always worked closely with creative writers, visual artists, and musicians,” said Burnham, a civil and human rights lawyer who met Morrison at a few social settings in the 1970s. 

At the time, Morrison was an editor at Random House, where she used her position to help amplify the voices of black writers such as Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Muhammad Ali.

Morrison’s own work as an author is essential to the mission of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, Burnham said. 

The organization, housed within Northeastern’s School of Law, conducts research and supports policy initiatives on anti-civil rights violence and other miscarriages of justice that occurred in the United States between from 1930 to 1970.

In 2013, the group hosted an event to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Burnham invited Morrison to be the keynote speaker.

Margaret Burnham, University Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Morrison’s penultimate novel, Home, “which pursues the idea that home is our collective space, the font of our common memories, and the measure of our mutuality,” Burnham said, had just been published when Morrison came to speak at Northeastern. The author read from it, and fielded questions from the audience, during the event.

“It was a cold January day when she came, but she warmed up as she engaged with our students and alumni,” Burnham said. “I particularly remember her wide smile when President [Joseph E.] Aoun asked her to come teach at Northeastern.”

The highlight of the afternoon happened behind the scenes, Burnham said.

The event featured three families, each of which had lost a member to racial violence in the 1940s. Members of each family traveled from across the U.S. to attend the event, and afterward, they got to spend some time with Morrison alone.

“She stayed for two hours, listening to the experiences of these family members, and what it meant for them to be able to share these traumatic events with a wider audience that included Ms. Morrison,” Burnham said.

“It was a very special time,” she said. “She really gave them her heart and listened quite closely as they shared their stories. Ms. Morrison listened intently and knowingly, as good storytellers do. That, to the families, was deeply restorative.” 

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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