Toni Morrison interview on her Life and Career (1990)

Toni Morrison seems always
to be in two worlds. There is the visible world
bustling around her, and there is the world of her novels whose
characters tell us about an interior reality hidden from
the eyes of strangers. In her five books, she has
transported millions of readers into the experience
of being black in America. The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song
of Solomon, Tar Baby. In Beloved, perhaps the most
painful and beautiful of her creations, Toni Morrison reached
back into the 19th century years of slavery. Her writing has won numerous
awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for
Song of Solomon in 1978, and the Pulitzer Prize for
Beloved in 1988. 15 universities have awarded
her honorary degrees. Like many fiction writers,
Morrison has earned a living by other means. She was an editor for Random
House, and taught at Howard University, Yale, and
the State University of New York at Albany. She is now teaching in the
Humanities at Princeton University. She is also a trustee at the New
York Public Library where we talked about how the invented
world of fiction connects to life as it is. There is such a gulf between the
quote, “inner city” today and the rest of the country,
in both imagination and reality in politics, and
literature frankly, very little communication
takes place. If you were writing for the rest
of the country about the inner city today, what metaphor
would you use? And I ask that question, because
you struck a common metaphor in the Song
of Solomon. The metaphor there was flying,
everybody’s dream of literally being up and away in the air. All of us could identify with
that, but what if you were writing for the rest of the
country which you use as a metaphor for the inner
city today? Love. You have to embrace, we have
to embrace ourselves. Self-guard. I remember James Baldwin said
once, you’ve already been bought and paid for. Your ancestors gave
it up for you. It’s already done. You don’t have to
do that anymore. Now you can love yourself. It’s already possible. So I have this feeling of
admiration, and respect, and love for these black people
in the inner city who are intervening, who are going in
and saying, you four girls, you come to my house
every Thursday. And we’re going to eat, I’m
going to take you out. These are professional women
we’ll say who go and have these companions. I love those men I heard about
in Chicago, black professional men who went every lunch hour
to the playgrounds in Chicago’s South Side to talk
to those children. Not to be authoritarian, but
just to get to know them, without the bureaucracy, without
the agencies, to simply become an agency. The love you’re talking about is
the love inspired by moral imagination that takes
us beyond blood. Absolutely. Absolutely that. But the image one has and, as
a reporter I’ve been there, that in so many of these
neighborhoods, that simply isn’t possible, because of
the wasted teenager. It’s terrible. It’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. It reminds you of some nightmare
that the Marquis de Sade thought up in some
of those places. But the children– I call them children when
they’re under 18– are hungry for that love. The drugs are just a sleep that
you can’t even wake up from, because you might remember
what you did when you were there. There’s no place. And there should be a
rehabilitation center on every corner, along with McDonald’s
and the banks. This is serious business. The waiting lists
are incredible. I mean it’s terrible, it’s
really terrible, but some interesting things have happened
along that line. Someone told me a couple of
weeks ago, a close friend of mine, that men, black
men, we’re going into shelters, I think. They were spending time holding
crack babies, I mean children that were born,
holding them. Holding them. Now I’m sure it does something
for the baby, but think what it does for that man. To actually give up some
time and hold a baby. I remember that John Leonard
once said, Toni Morrison writes about places where
even love found its way with an ice pick. Maybe that’s the [INAUDIBLE]. Can we talk about love
for a moment? You say love is a metaphor, and
when I go back through the novels, love is there in so many
different ways and forms. Particularly when I look at the
women in your novels at the extraordinary things
they do for love. There’s the grandmother who has
her leg amputated, so that she can have an insurance policy
that will buy a house and take care of her children
as they grow up. There’s Sethe who is willing
to kill her children before the slave catchers can
come and seize them. What kind of love is that? Some of it’s very fierce,
powerful, distorted even, because the arrests they work
under is so overwhelming. But I think they believed,
as I do. It may be true that people say,
I didn’t ask to be born. I think we did, and that’s
why we’re here. We are here, and we have to do
something nurturing that we respect before we go. We must. It is more interesting,
more complicated, more intellectually demanding and
more morally demanding to love somebody, to take care of
somebody, to make one other person feel good. Now the dangers of that are the
dangers of setting myself up as a martyr, or as the
one without whom it would not be done. Paul D says to Sethe, your
love is too thick. Too thick. Is that what you’re talking
about here? It can get to be
very excessive. How do we know when
love is too thick? We don’t. We really don’t. That’s a big problem. We don’t know when to stop
as Baby Suggs says. When is it too much, and
when is it not enough? That is the problem of the human
mind and the soul, but we have to try that. We have to try that. We have to do that. And not doing is so
poor for the self. It’s so poor for the mind. It’s so uninteresting to
live without that. And it has no risk. There’s no risk involved. And that just seems to make
life, not just livable but a gallant, gallant event. But I have a sense in so many
of the love stories of your novels that the world is
destined to doom love. Or that love is destined to
be doomed by the world. In the stories, the characters
are placed by me on a cliff. I mean I sort of push them
as far as I can see of what they are made. I don’t think I’ve ever met a
more pathetic creature in contemporary literature
than Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye. The little girl who wanted
the blue eyes. Abused by her– Everybody. –parents, rejected by her
neighbors, ugly, homely, alone, finally descending
into madness. It’s been years since
I read that novel, but I remember her. She surrendered completely
to the so-called master narrative. To? The master narrative, I mean,
the whole notion of what is ugliness, what is worthlessness,
what is– she got it from her family, she
got it from school, she got it from everywhere. The master narrative. What is– that’s life? No, it’s quite male life. The master narrative is whatever
ideological script that is being imposed by the
people in authority on everybody else. The master fiction,
history, it has a certain point of view. So when her, when these little
girls see that the most prized gift that they can get at
Christmastime is this little white doll, that’s a master
narrative speaking. This is beautiful, this is
lovely, and you’re not it, so what are you going
to do with it? So if you’ve surrendered to
that, as Pecola did, the eye of the story, there’s
sort of a bridge. They’re sort of resistance
and feisty. They don’t trust any adults. She is so needful, so
completely needful. Has so little, needs so much,
she becomes the perfect victim, the total
pathetic one. And for her, there’s no
way back into the community and society. For her, as an abused child,
she can only escape into fantasy, into madness, which
is part of what the mind is always creating. You can think that up. What about Ella in Beloved who
says, if anybody was to ask me, I’d say don’t
love nothing. I’ve heard that said a lot. Don’t love nothing. Save it. You see that was one of the
devastating things, I think, in the experience of black
people in this country, was the effort to prevent
that, the full expression of their love. And that sentiment that Ella
has is conservative if you want to hang on to your
sanity, or hang on to yourself, don’t love anything. It will hurt. And, of course, that’s true, not
just of African-Americans, it’s all sorts of people. It’s so risky. People don’t want to get hurt. They don’t want to be left. They don’t want to be
abandoned, you see. It’s though love is always
some present you’ve given somebody else, and it’s
really a present you’re giving yourself. On the other hand, there’s
Pilate, your character, who reminds me of my Aunt Mildred
who says, in Song of Solomon, “I wish I’d knowed
more people. I would’ve loved them all. If I’d have knowed more, I
would’ve loved more.” They’re people like that, too. Not all of your characters
are driven by– No, but that’s a totally
generous, free woman. Fearless. She’s not afraid of anything. She has a few little things. She has a little vaguely
supportive skill that she can perform. She doesn’t run anybody’s
life. She’s available for
almost infinite love, almost infinite. If you need it, she’ll deliver
and complete clarity about who she is. Do you know people like that? Yes. In my family, women who
presented themselves to me in that way. They were just absolutely clear
and absolutely reliable. And they had this sort of
intimate relationship with God, and death, and all sorts
of things that strike fear into the modern heart. They had a language for it, and
they had, I don’t know, a blessedness maybe. But they seem not
to be fearful. It’s to those women, you know,
that I really feel an enormous responsibility. Whenever I answer questions,
such as the ones you’ve put to me about how terrible it all
is, and how it’s all going down the drain. I think about my great
grandmother, and her daughter, and her daughter, all
those women who– I mean, incredible things
happened to those people. They never knew from one day
to the next about anything. But they believed in their
dignity, that they were people of value, that they had to pass
that on, and they did it. So that when I confront these
sort of little 20th century problems, what could it be? Sort of little 20th
century problems? But you seem to find them,
quite interestingly, the conflict of identity between
Nel and Sula. Nell gives herself to
the [? king ?]. He needs the security, the
comfort, the conformity of it. And Sula comes along,
as you said– Deceptive. She’s out there independent,
uncontained and uncontainable you said. Now you call her the new
black woman, the New World black woman. Why? Well, she’s experimental. She’s sort of an outlaw. I mean, she’s not going
to take it anymore. I mean, she’s at the– she’s available to her
own imagination. She’s available to her own
imagination, and other people’s stories,
other people’s definitions are not hers. The interesting thing about Sula
is that she makes you do your own defining
for yourself. So I was putting two sort
of strands of womanhood, certainly black womanhood, as a
nurturing block neighborhood woman who relies on that,
but without the imagination of the New World. And then, Sula, who doesn’t have
the other roots, has no seed around which to grow. I happen to think that
they need each other. I mean, the New World black
woman needs a little of the old world black woman in her,
and the other way around. I don’t think that they
are completely fulfilled without the other. I think an ideal situation
is a Sula who has some responsibilities and takes
them upon itself. But at the same time,
has this flare. I don’t like those either/or
scenarios where you do this, and you can’t do that. I think that whatever
interesting things that, certainly, feminine intelligence
can bring is a kind of look at the world, as
though you can do two things, or three things. The personality is more
fluid, more receptive. The boundaries are not
quite so defined. And I think that’s part
of what modernism is. The creation of a new kind of
person who, like now, is committed to nurture and caring,
but like Sula, is defy of the master narrative. I mean, she won’t let it write
her script for her. She writes her own rules, so
that she can defy them. There’s a combination there
that we hope emerges. If it happens. And I think I’ve seen
women who strike me as being like that. You’ve had guests on your
program who looked like that. Women who are very independent,
very fierce, artist women, black women who,
at the same time, can cook, and sew, and nurture, and
manage, and so on. And I think that we’re probably
in a very good position to do that
as black women. We’ve been managing households,
and other people’s children, and two jobs,
listening to everybody, and at the same time, creating,
singing, holding, bearing, transferring the culture
for generations. We’ve been walking on
water for 400 years. So now there’s the
20th century. We don’t have to jettison that,
like say Jadine and Tar Baby would go off and
totally Westernize or Europeanize oneself. Nor do we have to be her
[? Aunt Deen ?]. There’s something in between,
and that’s what’s really attractive and challenging. And since you can feel both
worlds sort of pressing on one, it’s an ideal space for African-American women to inhabit. Have these women you have
created taught you anything? Oh, yeah. It is the lesson. All the books are questions
for me. I mean, they start out, because
I write them if I don’t know something. I want to know what does that
feel like, that color thing? In The Bluest Eye, what does
that feel like to really feel that worthlessness? And the same thing was true with
Sula and Song of Solomon. There was something in there I
really did not understand, I really didn’t know. What is the problem between a
pair of lovers who really love one another but are culturally
different? I mean, is that what that
battle is about? Culture and class? In Tar Baby when Son
and Jadine can’t speak to one another. They’re all sort of right, but
nobody will give- nobody will say, OK, I give you
this little bit. What have they learned? How can you manage to love
another person under these circumstances if your culture,
your class, your education is that different? Where is the ground? And all the while I wrote that
book, I was so eager for them to make it. Sort of end up getting married
and go to the seashore. And yet? They didn’t. They had to learn something
else, I think, before that would happen. And with Beloved, oh, I began
to think about really motherhood. And it’s not the all
encompassing role for women now. It can be a secondary role, or
you don’t have to choose it. But on the other hand, there
was something so valuable about what happens when
one becomes a mother. For me, it was the most
liberating thing that ever happened to me, having
children. Liberating? Most of the cliches say, well,
you’re immediately imprisoned by the love that you want to
give, but you are hostage to that love, and to those small
children, and to their lives. You now define yourself like
whites and blacks used to do with each other by children. You’re limiting yourself,
but you say, liberating. Liberating, because of the
demands that the children make are not the demands
of a normal other. The children’s demands on me
were things that nobody else ever asked me to do. Such as? Be a good manager, have a
sense of humor, deliver something that somebody
could use. And they were not interested in
all the things that other people were interested in, like
what I was wearing, or if I was sensual. All of that went by. You’ve seen those eyes
of those children? They don’t want to hear it. They want to know what are
you going to do now? Today. And somehow, all of the baggage
that I had accumulated as a person, about what was
valuable, so much of that just fell away. And I could not only be me,
whatever that was, somebody actually needed me
to be there. It’s different from
being a daughter. You figure out how to do that. Or it’s different from
being a sister. Those children could listen
to them, look at them. They make demands that you can
live up to, not you can’t, because they don’t need all that
overwhelming love either. I mean, that’s just you
being vain about it. If you listen to them, somehow
you are able to free yourself from baggage, and vanity, and
all sorts of things, and deliver a better self,
one that you like. The person that was in me that
I liked best was the one my children seemed to want. That one. The one when they walked in the
room, do you frown at the children, and say pull
your socks up? Or is their presence– Also, you begin to see the
world through their eyes again, which are your eyes. I found it extraordinary. It is true that is physically
confining. You can’t go anywhere. You have to be there. You raised them by yourself,
didn’t you? Yes. Would you have liked to have had
the help of a companion? Yes. It would have been just somebody
else to think that through for you. Yeah, it would have been nice. The more, the merrier. I needed a lot of help. As I listen to you talk about
the liberation of motherhood and love, I find all the more
incredible Sethe’s willingness to kill her son rather
than let the slave capture, kidnap him. Was that a far out figment of
your imagination to make a dramatic point? Or did you find in your research
into the past that there were mothers willing
to do that? That was Margaret
Garner’s story. There was a slave woman in
Cincinnati named, Margaret Garner, who escaped from
Kentucky, arrived in Cincinnati with her
mother-in-law. The situation’s a little
different. I think she came with
four others. And when she got there, the man
who owned her found her. And she ran out into the shed,
and tried to kill all her children just like that. And she was about to bang one’s
head up against the wall when they stopped her. Now she became a cause celebre
for the abolitionists, because you see they were trying to
improve the situation a little bit, and trying to get
her tried for murder. Because that would have been a
big coup if they had gotten her tried for murder, because
it would assume that she had some responsibility over
those children. But they were not successful. She was tried for the real
crime which was stolen property, and convicted, and
returned to that same man. But what struck me, because I
didn’t want to know a great deal about her story, because
there would not space for me to invent, was that when they
interviewed her, she was not a mad dog killer. She was this very calm, in her
20s, woman, and all she said was they will not
live like that. They will not live like that. And her mother-in-law who was a
preacher said, I watched her do it, and I neither
encouraged her nor discouraged her. So for them, it was a dilemma. This is a real dilemma. Shall I permit my children who
are my best thing to live like I have lived, and I know
that’s terrible, or to take them out? So she decided to kill them,
and kill herself. And that was noble. That was the identification. She was saying I’m
a human being. These are my children. This script I am writing. Did you ever put yourself
in her position? In the writing of
the book, yeah. Could I have done that
to my two sons? I ask it a lot. As a matter of fact, the reason
the character Beloved enters is because I couldn’t
answer it. I felt just like Baby Suggs. I didn’t know whether I
would do it or not. You hear stories of that in
slavery and holocaust situations where women I’ve
got to figure it out fast. I mean, really fast. So the only person I felt who
had the right to ask her that question was the child
she killed. And she can ask her, what
did you do that for? Who are you talking about. This is better. What do you know? Because it was, for me, an
impossible decision. Someone gave me the line for it
at one time, which I have found useful, is that it was the
right thing to do, but she had no right to do it. And you’ve never answered
it in your own case? Could I do it? I’ve asked. I don’t know. You said in your lecture at
the University of Michigan that it’s a great relief to you
that terms like white and race are now discussable
in literature. How so? Because our language has been
developed and has still some sovereignty in which we mean
white, and we mean black, or we mean ethnic, but we
say something else. So there’s an enormous
amount of confusion. It’s difficult to even
understand the literature of the country, if you can’t say
white, and you can’t say black, and you can’t say race. One of the things I was doing in
that speech was using some of the scholarship that other
Africanist scholars had already done in order to say,
at last we can look clearly, for example, at Herman Melville,
at Edgar Allan Poe, at Willa Cather. At real issues that were
affecting founding, as well as 20th century American writers,
because now it’s not incoherent. Because we can talk
about it now. We don’t have to call it nature
but we don’t have to call it the radical political. We can say what it was, and
that is a relief for me. The public rhetoric has
been filled with race, and white, and black. And so that it seems a surprise
to hear someone say, well, now at least we can
discuss those in literature. You’re saying that they
weren’t a part of our tradition of storytelling,
novels? Not in the critique, not in
the discourse, not in the reviews, not in the scholarship around these works. That was not a subject
to be discussed. It was not worthy
of discussion. Not only that, it admitted
that the master narrative could not encompass
all these things. The silence was absolutely
important. The silence of the
black person. The silence. You mean that her voice
was never heard? Never heard, and they don’t
speak in the text themselves. They are not permitted to say
things, so that the academy or the history can’t really permit
them to be center stage in the discourse of the text
in art, in literature. But in public discourse, when
we talk about neighborhoods, or policy, or schools, or
welfare, or practically anything, the real subject
is race or it’s class. I mean, that’s what
it’s about. We may call it disadvantaged, or
undeveloped, or remedial or in all these sort of euphemisms
for poor people, and/or black people, and/or
any non-white person in this country. That is the subject to
practically all of the political discourse there is,
but it has been kept out of the art world. There’s a wonderful collection
of paintings, The Image of the Black in the Western World. No one thinks Hogarth, for
example, as having painted all these black people. No one thinks all of the
importance, the changes that the iconography of black
people went through. They’re everywhere. The country, particularly this
one, is seething with the presence of black people. But it was necessary to deny
in critical language that presence when we discussed it. I read all those books
in graduate school, everybody did. We never talked about what
was really going on. We talk about Huck Finn and Jim,
and we think about how wonderful the innocence of this
sort of radical child is, kind of the paradigm for the
American as he comes of age. The white American. The white American, because it
is about the construction of a white male. But what’s serviceable to him,
to Huck, is this grown up black man who is never called a
man, who is the battle plain or the arena through
which Huck can become a moral person. He becomes a moral person
because of his association with this black man who
is never called a man. And to Mark Twain’s credit, he
provides the extraordinary scene where you realize
that Jim has a wife and has a child. And he’s trying to get home. Huck’s trying to get
the territory. He’s trying to get home. And a terrible thing happened
at that moment when he told his daughter to shut the door,
and she didn’t do it. And he told her again,
and she didn’t do it. He got annoyed and he hit her. And then later realizes
she was sick. She had spinal meningitis
or something, and she’d lost her hearing. And he’s reflecting on
that, and he tells that story to Huck. And suddenly there’s this
man who has a context. He has a family. He has a family. Emotions. Emotions and it’s an
overwhelming thing for Huck who can say, interestingly
enough, these people think about children the
same way we do. It’s a revelation. You were saying earlier before,
when we were talking before we began the conversation
that in the movie Glory, the only reference that
is made to the fact that these black troopers have a family
is once when they’re being paid Exactly. And they said, we
need the money. I have a family. But those men are fighting, and
dying, and willing to die for a very important
cause, freedom. But it’s never contextualized. They’re not seen as
having children, wives, aunts, mothers. They have a blasted family that
doesn’t matter, for whom they are perceived of as not
feeling responsibility, and who are not responsible
to them. And it’s so absolutely contrary
to the real life of black people for whom the family
and the relations are paramount importance. There is no life outside the
family for the traditional black person. The artist is supposed to carry
our moral imagination. It’s astonishing to me that in
the 1840s and 1850s on the eve of the Civil War, in the period
of traumatic conflict over abolition and slavery, that
the American novelists were not dealing with
those issues. Hawthorne was writing European
Gothic with ruins and ghosts, the supernatural. James Fenimore Cooper was
writing best sellers set in primeval forests. The bestselling novels, in fact,
out on the eve of the Civil War were sloppy stories
written by women about courageous orphans. Your people never show up in
the novels of that time. How do you explain that? Oh, they do. They show up. They’re everywhere. They’re in Hawthorne’s
Power of Blackness. They’re in all the
dark symbols. They’re in the Haunting. What’s he haunted by? What is the guilt? What is that real sin that
is really worrying Hawthorne all his life? They’re there. Do you think it was? I think it was. I don’t care where he
took the story. Novelists, writers are informed
by the major currents of the world. It’s in Melville. It’s everywhere in Poe. The blacks don’t emerge
as people with– Oh, no, no. –context,
with family. No, not three dimensional. With emotions. The characters are discredited,
and ridiculed, and perjured. But the idea of those
characters, the construction of them as an outside
representation of anarchy, collapse, illicit sexuality, all
of these negative things that they feared are projected
onto this presence. So that you find these
extraordinary gaps, and evasions, and destabilizations. The chances of getting a truly
complex human black person in the book is in this country in
the 19th century was unlikely. Melville came probably very
close with sorts of classic complexities, but not real
flesh and blood people. It was symbols. Symbols more, yes. There were shadows on the
wall back there at the rear of his cave. But he gets into bed with him
in the very first scene. Ishmael goes to bed
with Queequeg. Each one of those white
people in Moby Dick has a black brother. They’re paired together. Fedallah is the shadow
of Ahab. Queequeg is the shadow
of Ishmael. They all have them, and they
work together in tandem all through the book. So that what I’m saying is that
even though the realistic representation is not there,
the sympathetic one you get sort of in, if you can call it,
in Uncle Tom’s Cabin but the information, subtextual
information, it is powerful what they’re saying. It’s all self-reflexive. It’s all about the fabrication
of a white male American. Isn’t that tension the fate of
this American experience? I mean from the beginning,
when blacks were the unacknowledged presence at
Philadelphia when the Constitution was
being written. And the constant– I think your term for
it is unspeakable. Things unspoken. Unspeakable things unspoken. Always we’re defining ourselves
by the other, even when it is not spoken. This deep and psychic struggle
going on to see and not see the other. That’s right. But it can become truly
pathological, truly crazy. In what sense? Well, when you think about the
instruction one needs to become a racist, or the
instruction one receives to become the victim of racism,
it’s truly debilitating. I don’t mean it’s vaguely
unsettling. I mean it can get to be of
clinical proportions. Requiring the surgery
of a Civil War to– Exactly. And what it does on a personal
level, if someone says to me this hand is not your hand. It doesn’t belong to you. it’s on your body,
but it’s alien. And I’m convinced. So what I do is it
folds up, right? It atrophied, and I
have to figure out something to do with it. It’s a true severance
of part of myself. It’s a true severance
of the body politic. Racism is not old. I mean, it seems to been
around forever, but say, 1,000 years? The human race is what four
million years old? It’s not a fixed star. The interesting thing is slavery
is older than racism. Of course. This is why there’s a double
bind in this country, because you had the twin evils of
slavery, which everybody knew something about. Everybody’s ancestors knew
something about that. But you have the visible other
who cannot disappear, who cannot quote, pass, so wherever
he is, he is the icon and he is the reminder. Not only of slavery, not only
of degradation, not only of dishonor, but the associations
that are racial. And that persists,
that persists. And you say that it deeply
infected the literature of escapism in a sense in the 19th
century when these gifted men, and they did produce a
wonderful body of work, were writing wonderfully romantic– I don’t mean Harlequin novels. They were out there in
imagination where you weren’t. No, there was an Eden, and what
you needed for the Eden was for it to not be susceptible
to corruption. It can’t fall. America was this Eden
for everyone. It was beautiful, and perceived
of, although it wasn’t as uninhabited. I was reading something in
Bernard Bailyn, and it said he bought this land, and it was
perceived of as being this large uninhabited
tract surrounded by tribes of savages. So what do you think of
this uninhabited land. A void. A void, so that, of course,
they had to fill. And when they came, they were
dreamers, and what one has to remember, I think, over and
over, is what they were writing from. Which was? Poverty, humiliation,
jail, constitution. I mean, some of them were nice
clerks and so on, but some of them were not even running
to freedom. They were running from it. I mean, the license that the
Puritans understood as corrupt, they were trying to get
it over here so they could be disciplined and contained. Georgia, like Australia,
was settled by– they won’t like this down in
Georgia, but the fact of history is the fact it was
settled by debtors, and an ex-prisoners and criminals,
most getting a second start over here. Now it could have happened that
all those people who came here figured it all out. And eventually, slavery was of
no use economically perhaps. But to make an America, you
had to have all of these people from these different
classes, different countries, different languages, feel
close to one another. So what does an Italian peasant
have to say to a German berger? And what does an Irish peasant
have to say to a Latvian, you know, really? They tended to balkanize. But what they could all
do is not be black. So it is not coincidental that
the second thing every immigrant learns when
he gets off the boat is that word, nigger. In that way, he’s establishing
oneness, solidarity, and union with the country. That is the marker. That’s the one. What kind of need did that meet
in the psyche do u think? Well, these were people
who were frightened. I mean, I would be. You go to a strange country,
maybe you have some friends there. You need a job, you’ve cut
your bridges, you said something’s terrible
back home. You go and you immigrate. You go someplace else. And if it’s under duress,
you facing chaos. And when you’re facing chaos
you have to name it, or violate it, or control
it in some way. So you want to belong
to this large idea. You want to belong. And one learns very quickly
what to belong to. And you belong to this non-black
population who is just everywhere. But it serves, it serves. It has always served
economically a lot of forces in this country. That I can understand, but the
failure of the writer to cross the boundary, to incorporate
the other into the novel is one that I don’t understand. Although I don’t want to run
the risk of trying to read into the past, the morays, and
visions, and insights– Of the 20th century. But I think many of them did. I think that book by Willa
Cather, although it’s late, it’s sort of 1938, ’39, ’40,
but still her writing life spanned it earlier than that–
of this book, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. I think that is a genuine
attempt to talk about power, jealousy, othering, the process
of entering the other in that confrontation she sets
up with white, paralyzed, ill mistress and her young,
about-to-be a woman, servant. And her response to that is to
fabricate some mystical affair that’s not taking place
between this girl and her husband. And to invite her own relative
down in order to rape and seduce her, and to
destroy her. It’s a difficult book. It’s a problematic book, but
this is an instance in which a women, and the women do it
more easily than the men. Why? I don’t know. I think they are already
othered maybe. But when you look at the
literature of the women, I mean, Harriet Beecher Stowe,
after all, is a woman. So is Cather, Gertrude Stein,
Carson McCullers, and Reems, and others. They are more likely– and
especially, Southern women. It’s interesting. Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty,
there’s something– I know this is going to be a
great generalization that’s going to be proven fallacious. But it seems to me in the
literature that emerges in which there’s a real place
for a complicated– either complicated black person
or a problematized relationship between a white and
a black, frequently, the people who generate that are
women, and unbelievably many of them have lived
in the South. That’s interesting to me. Why a different psyche there? I think it’s the intimacy. The intimacy and the distance
that has probably had been historically much more
complicated in the South than in the North, where there was
a lot of illusion, and delusion, and evasion. You could sort of hide behind
very virulent racism for a lot in the North, because of
the way in which it was constructed. In the South, it was almost
impossible to do that. I don’t mean this to be
a trick question. It just occurs to me though,
is it conceivable that you could write a novel in which
blacks are not center stage? Absolutely. You think the public
would let you? Because the expectations are
you’ve made such a– you’ve achieved such fame and
made such a contribution by writing about black people in
your novels, that they now expect you to write about
black people. I will, but I want to identify
them as such. That’s the difference. There are two moments
in Beloved in which I tried to do it. Which I set up a situation in
which two people are talking, two black people. And some other people enter the
scene, and they’re never identified as black or white. But the reader knows
instantly. Not because I use the
traditional language of stereotype, but two moments. One, when Paul D and Sethe are
walking down the street, he touches her shoulder to lead her
off of the sidewalk onto the ground, because three women
are walking this way. That’s all, but you
know who that is. There’s another moment when
he’s sort of in despair talking to a friend, and a man
rides up on a horse and says, where is–I don’t know
what her name is– Valerie? And he calls a woman
by her first name. Doesn’t she live around
here somewhere? You can tell by the reactions
of the black men that he is a white man. But I don’t have to say it. So my thing that I really want
to do, and expect to do, is to do what you say, but I’m not
writing about white people. I will be writing about black
people, but I won’t have to do what they did in all these
19th century novels. They always had to say it. I mean you couldn’t say Jupiter
walked in the room or Mary, you said the Negro, the
slave, the black, the this. It always required
its own modifier. If you take the modifiers
out, you see? Well, if Cather had entitled her
book, Sapphira and Nancy, that changes the whole book. I mean the strategies
are different. The power relationships
are different. But she said Sapphira
and the Slave Girl. She has no first name. In the title. In fact, as you talk, I remember
now back to my own reading in those periods
that you were always called, the something. But there was not a name,
there was an object. A male. That’s right. The Negro, the slave,
the Negress. On my, I challenged my students
last year if they could find a 19th century novel
in which a black male appeared and was called
a man without the possessive pronoun. Or when he was not in the
company of a black female, in which case, they would
distinguish a gender. Just find one reference in which
somebody says black man. And I’ll take you to
dinner, I said. Did you have to pay out any? Not yet. You haven’t. But if I write a book and I can
do that, whatever it will mean to the people who read it,
they won’t be confused. That will be part of my job. But then you think what it
would mean for me and my relationship to language and to
text to be able to do that without having to always explain
to the reader the race of the characters. Even if in my mind they
are all black, or African-Americans, or whatever
the word is at the time. But I don’t have to say that. From the New York Public
Library, has been a conversation with
Toni Morrison. I’m Bill Moyers.

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