Remarks for the Dedication of Morrison Hall, November 17, 2017

Good evening. I am delighted to welcome all of you to Chancellor Green and to this ceremony to celebrate the naming of Morrison Hall, the 181 year-old building that is the home and the heart of the undergraduate college at Princeton University.

Tonight’s occasion marks an important step along a path laid out by the Trustee Ad Hoc Committee that examined Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton. In its final report in April 2016, the committee called upon the Princeton administration to “solicit ideas from the University community for naming buildings or other spaces not already named for historical figures or donors to recognize individuals who would bring a more diverse presence to the campus.”

How fitting that the first building renamed through this process will now honor a teacher, an artist, and a scholar who has not only graced our campus with the highest imaginable levels of achievement and distinction, but who has herself spoken eloquently about the significance of names on the Princeton campus. In her address entitled “The Place of the Idea; the Idea of the Place,” delivered in 1996 at Princeton’s 250th convocation, Professor Morrison observed that:

Universities play a powerful mnemonic role. Their fields, their campuses, are dotted with figures and plaques of bronze, stone, and marble—with botanical life to keep memory alive.” [1]

She also said in that same speech that:

“Princeton’s subtlety lies in its ability to revise itself.”

Today Princeton revises itself—revises its plaques of stone and its maps both paper and electronic—so that Toni Morrison’s name becomes part of the lexicon through which students, faculty, staff, and alumni navigate this campus, and thereby part of the evolving tapestry through which our community defines itself.

By honoring Toni Morrison in this way, we recognize the indelible impact she has had on this University. Arriving at Princeton in 1989 as the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Morrison’s transformative presence as a member of the creative writing program played a central role in diversifying our campus by attracting other faculty and students of color to Princeton and deepening our commitment to African American studies. She also served as a catalyst for expanding Princeton’s commitment to the creative and performing arts. In 1994 she founded the Princeton Atelier, which continues to bring together undergraduate students in interdisciplinary collaborations with acclaimed artists and performers. Professor Morrison’s leadership has helped Princeton to become the increasingly imaginative and inclusive institution that we know today.

Through these myriad contributions, and now through the name of Morrison Hall, Professor Morrison’s legacy will having enduring significance for all who walk our campus. Her name will matter here because names matter to how we understand history, and how we understand history matters to how we understand ourselves and our community.

President Abraham Lincoln understood this; he spoke in his first inaugural address of the “mystic chords of memory” [2] that move and animate people and nations. President Barack Obama understood this; he said at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History in September 2016 that it is by telling “a richer and fuller story of who we are” that “we better understand ourselves and each other.”  [3] The writer James Baldwin may have put it best when he said,

“the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” [4]

From today forward, the “mystic chords of memory” at Princeton, the history “present in all that we do,” will resonate with the name of Morrison Hall.  We hope that this naming of an iconic University building will inspire generations of Princeton students to learn and retell the story of Toni Morrison’s contributions to this ‘place of the idea.’

 


[1] Toni Morrison, "The Place of the Idea; the Idea of the Place," Princeton's 250th Anniversary Convocation, October 25, 1996.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, "Inaugural Address of the President of the United States," March 4, 1861.

[3] Barack Obama, "Dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture," September 24, 2016.

[4] James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Ebony, Aug. 1, 1965, 47-48.


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