On Friday, April 1, students met with Associate Professor of English Joan Hepburn in the Heritage Room to discuss Toni Morrison’s new book, God Help the Child. This event was the last of a three- part series hosted by the Africa and the Americas program.
Students began arriving shortly before 5 p.m., andhelped themselves to substantial refreshments. They crowded around four large tables to eat and introduce them- selves. A little after 5 p.m. the satiated stu- dents turned their attention to Hepburn for her introductory remarks.
Hepburn began with an introduction to the author. Toni Morrison is an American novelist, Nobel Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. She has published works of fiction, non-fiction and children’s litera- ture. In addition to her career as a writer, Morrison is also an editor, professor and lecturer.
The discussion of God Help the Child centered on the various traumas pre- sented in the text, ranging from how we allow prejudices to define our lives to how we the way we were treated as children impacts us as adults.
The audience was mostly comprised up of members of Hepburn’s classes. Before
spring break, the Africa and the Americas program provided free copies of the book to interested students, and several who had taken up the offer were in attendance as well. In addition, a few community members joined the discussion. Hepburn opened up the conversation by asking the students what they would like to talk about. After a few students offered sug- gestions, the group decided collectively to discuss the representation of relationships in the novel.
Each chapter is narrated by a rotating cast of characters. The main protagonist, Lula Ann, is a young woman who has broken into the fashion industry. Readers travel with her as she embarks on a quest to right many of the wrongs in her life. After facing horrendous discrimination in her childhood, most prominently from her mother, Lula Ann seeks to claim her space, right a wrong that occurred in her childhood and remedy a relationship.
“We learn that personal history involves not only what happens to you, but also to those who shape you,” Hepburn said.
The audience engaged in the discussion as they flipped through their books and nodded along with the comments, but they seemed intimidated by the size of the group. Hepburn skillfully guided the students through the discussion, asking
provocative questions when the conver- sations lulled and supporting student’s responses with evidence from the text.
“The thing that is courageous here has to do with risking love,” Hepburn said. “Risking love with parents, risking making real attachments to those in one’s life – it is about that vulnerability.”
This comment seemed to strike a chord with the students, and they began par- ticipating more actively in the discussion. Throughout the course of the evening, students discussed concepts of childhood trauma, family heritage, racial identity and the vulnerability of youth.
“Ultimately, this work is about the pos- sibility of finding healing,” Hepburn said. “It shows us that no matter how hard the struggle, how long the quest or how wide the distance, there is a way.”
The event lasted for an hour and a half, and students left with a greater understanding of the complex ways in which race, class and identity permeate American culture. Although there are no more salons on the calendar for this year, look for more events from the Africa and the Americas program next fall.