“Life Outside the Box” – Why?

Toni Morrison, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University

Toni Morrison, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University

You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.

— Toni Morrison, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University

Why I chose to name this program: “Life Outside the Box.”

We all inherit our family and cultural stories. We learn from our elders and peers what is expected of us. The creators of popular media also tell us stories that teach us our place and role in life. Specifically, we are surrounded in advertisements, TV shows, movies, video games, etc. that frequently repeat this one epic story: people who are “Hollywood attractive,” White, male, have access to wealth or social power are cast as the “hero” or main character who “wins” or “saves the day.” In contrast, people who come with bodies that don’t fit Hollywood standards, or who are people of colour, female, Aboriginal, poor, or have little access to social power are cast as the secondary — or missing — characters who “lose,” receive the consolation prize, or remain invisible.

I designed the Life Outside the Box program to empower youth to create their own characters and stories in which a person who looks just like them can live an interesting life, learn how to control personal strengths (possibly even super powers), struggle with character flaws, grow in wisdom, reap the rewards that come with hard work, and ultimately “save the day.” My purpose was to help youth — especially if they don’t fit the unrealistic Hollywood or dominant culture standards — to feel worthy and qualified to star as the hero in their own story. By using comic book story-telling and simple drawing techniques, youth — and adults, too — can use comic panel “boxes” to envision a new story, practice grit and resiliency and generate hope as they imagine a life outside the Hollywood or dominant culture “box.” This comic book creating program, therefore, invites youth to imagine, draw, write and then live a full “life outside the box.”

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Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones who do by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean. But then, I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty. So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.

— Toni Morrison


  1. The above quotes were from Toni Morrison’s commencement speech at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts USA on MAY 28, 2004.
  2. The featured image and a transcript of Toni Morrison’s speech can be found here: http://www.humanity.org/voices/commencements/toni-morrison-wellesley-college-speech-2004
  3. The second image of Toni Morrison was retrieved from http://www.vanderbilt.edu/commencement/archives/past-speakers.php
  4. Toni Morrison’s speech can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/brainpicker/toni-morrison-wellesley
  5. A thoughtful discussion of Toni Morrison’s speech can be found here at “Brain Pickings”: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/21/toni-morrison-wellesley-commencement/

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