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From the reserved elegance of Memorial Church to the sweeping grandeur of Sanders Theatre, the Harvard community honored 28th University President Drew G. Faust with two festive events on the eve of her inauguration.
Yesterday afternoon, Nobel laureate in literature Toni Morrison gave a reading during the first function celebrating Faust’s installation. Later in the evening, a concert helped ring in a new era of Harvard history.
Standing amidst the towering columns of Memorial Church, Morrison brought the audience members—which included Faust, Corporation fellows, and other Harvard community members—back to the late 17th century.
She took on the voice of a 16-year-old slave girl on a mission to find the only man who can save her dying mistress.
Her voice remaining at a near whisper, Morrison touched on themes of race, gender, and human dignity throughout the reading. As in much of her work, a mystical atmosphere pervaded the story.
“How many times do I have to tell you? Demons do not bleed,” she read, quoting a widow speaking to her dying daughter. “We bleed—demons never.”
Ultimately, however, the reading transformed into a reminder of the transcendent power of love.
Gloria I. Montiel ’09, who has read Morrison’s novel “Beloved” 12 times, said she thought the author’s message, a theme present in many of her books, is also in line with Faust’s desire to reach out to members of the Harvard community in a “quest for more than just individual character.”
Humanities Center Director Homi K. Bhabha said Morrison was an excellent choice for a speaker because she represents in her work the “American experience as it was in the past and as it is, the history of slavery, the history of freedom.” The reading also resonated with Faust’s background as a Civil War historian.
Faust spoke immediately after the reading, thanking Morrison for her contributions to literature and for “bearing witness to the past.”
This is Morrison’s second visit to Harvard this year, having received the 2007 Radcliffe Institute Medal in June. Morrison read at the presidential inaugurations of Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons and University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann.
Faust said that Morrison asked if she could also read during the inauguration festivities.
“And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’” Faust exclaimed.
The evening’s concert in Sanders featured a performance by the Kuumba Singers as well as individual acts by alumni.
Pianist Robert D. Levin ’68 wowed the audience with a celebratory improvisation, in which he assigned specific letters of the alphabet to the keys on the piano and composed a song using only the keys that corresponded with the letters in Faust’s full name.
Actor John Lithgow ’67 also spoke briefly and introduced a short film called “Lessons in Leadership.” The film sent the audience laughing as snippets from famous movies were paired with nine pieces of advice specific to Faust’s tenure as president.
“By the way, no pressure, but we’re expecting great things from you,” the screen read toward the end of the film. “And remember: You were born for this.”
—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at email@example.com.
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