The Spirit and the Strength: A Profile of Toni Morrison

Kevin Nance
From the November/December 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Toni Morrison sucks her teeth. The gesture, identified by linguists as rooted in Africa, produces something like the sound that horseback riders use to get their mounts moving, but Morrison’s version is sharper, wetter, and more expressive—of comic disapproval or, more often, an ingrained skepticism. The 1993 Nobel laureate is skeptical about so very many things: prizes and fame, critics, the teaching of creative writing, politics (of the electoral, racial, sexual, literary, and academic varieties), and virtually anything else anyone tries to sell her. Morrison isn’t buying it, generally speaking—at least not until she’s squeezed and weighed and probed it to her own exacting standards. And sometimes not even then.

Photograph by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

From the beginning of her career, Morrison has bequeathed this teeth-sucking, and the fiercely independent, questioning mind-set it conveys, to many of her most memorable characters, most of them female. In her first novel, The Bluest Eye (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), a sassy young girl named Frieda sucks her teeth; so does the maverick title character of Morrison’s second novel, Sula (Knopf, 1973). So, too, do figures in several of her other books, including Jazz (Knopf, 1992), whose opening sentence (“Sth, I know that woman”) includes a transcription of the sound—the sound of intelligence irreverently asserting itself, like it or not.

The sucking of the teeth continues, literally and figuratively, in Morrison’s life and on the page. In an interview at the New York City offices of Random House—where for many years she worked as an editor—she fixes her interviewer, and by extension the world, with a gimlet eye. At seventy-seven, her cascade of silver dreadlocks set off against a cranberry blouse, she laughs often, easily, and sometimes wickedly, but it never quite balances the intensity of her assessing gaze. She’s always on guard, always suspicious of conventions, structures, and received wisdom from all sources.

That includes her own initial research for A Mercy, her new novel, set in late-seventeenth-century Virginia, published this month by Knopf. As part of her study of indentured servitude in that period, Morrison examined the manifests of ships that ferried a motley group of people from the British Isles to the New World, finding that 70 to 80 percent of them listed their occupation as servant.


“I was trying to get beyond the Puritan, Plymouth Rock stuff, because I didn’t believe that, not for one minute,” says Morrison, sounding a bit like a detective in a crime novel. “I mean, I believe that, but I didn’t think it was the whole story. Why are you leaving a servant job to go to this unknown place on the other side of the ocean? What were they running from?” Her eyes light up with discovery. “Some of them were adventurers, but most of them were felons. Most of them were prostitutes. Most of them were children. Most of them were just people they didn’t want in Great Britain, and they gave them a choice: prison or transportation.”

In a few cases, even the poorest passengers from other backgrounds—stuffed belowdecks next to the animals, without light or air, enduring conditions not far removed from those of African slaves making their own middle passage—journeyed across the Atlantic for different reasons. In A Mercy, one of these, a sturdy and practical young woman named Rebekka, travels to meet her new husband, an enlightened Protestant named Jacob. Settled on his farm, Rebekka finds herself mistress of a strange trio of young slaves: Lina, a Native American, and Sorrow and Florens, both black. (On the periphery are two white male indentured servants whose terms of service are perennially extended.) Relations among the four women, always complex, grow deeper and even more interdependent when Jacob, known to the slaves as Sir, dies, leaving Rebekka infected with pox. To save her life, Florens is dispatched on a dangerous mission through inhospitable territory to find a free black man, a blacksmith who once worked at the farm and is believed to possess healing powers—and with whom she happens to be in abject, obsessive love.

Florens’s first-person account, which forms the novel’s narrative spine, alternates in contrapuntal fashion with the third-person stories of the other characters. Within this elegant structure—the book is also, at 167 pages, conspicuously compact—Morrison returns to the great theme of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Beloved: slavery and its tar pit of historical, political, and emotional implications.

But where Beloved, which was published by Knopf in 1987, combined the slow-building epic sweep of Greek tragedy with the mounting horror of a ghost story, A Mercy has the intimacy and speed of a chamber piece while still being impressively dense, like a small valise packed with enough outfits for a month in the country. It parses sometimes surprisingly fine distinctions between master and slave, male and female, black and white (and brown). It features a new entry in Morrison’s ever-growing inventory of the forces aligning themselves against freedom: a certain type of romantic love, which Florens is finally forced to confront as a kind of spiritual quicksand that threatens to swallow her sense of self. Above all, A Mercy brims with the omnipresence of the author’s questing, sifting brain, which the reader can feel inspecting each strand of the story, subjecting it to the closest scrutiny before weaving it into the whole. The result is both a compelling yarn and a meditation on the varieties and degrees of enslavement and liberation; it is as precise, taut, and tough-minded as Morrison herself.

“To me, this is her finest book since Beloved, and I’m very impressed and moved by it,” says Robert Gottlieb, her longtime editor at Knopf. “My personal favorites among her books are Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and this. It’s very intense.”

A Mercy may be a doubling back to Beloved, but it’s also, like that earlier book, closer to the bone than many readers will realize. Morrison’s grandfather was born a slave in Alabama, and her father, a ship welder named George Wofford, whose family had migrated from the South in the early twentieth century, distrusted whites. Raising his own family, with his wife, Ella Ramah Willis, in the small town of Lorain, Ohio, he had reason to. In the early years of the Great Depression, when Chloe Anthony Wofford (who later adopted her nickname, Toni) was about two years old, “people set our house on fire to evict us,” she told Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes in 1998.

The family held fast in Lorain, however, and Chloe, the second of four children, thrived in a household full of music, storytelling, folklore, and fairy tales. She graduated from high school with honors in 1949 and then studied English at Howard University—where she was the first in her family to receive a college degree—after which she attended graduate school at Cornell, where she earned a master’s degree (writing her thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf). After a short stint at Texas Southern University, where she taught English, she started teaching at Howard, where she met and married another member of the faculty, the architect Harold Morrison, with whom she had two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin.

The marriage was not a happy one, and she sought solace in a writers group, for which she wrote a short story about a young black girl who yearned for blue eyes. In 1964 she divorced, left Howard, and became an editor for Random House, working from Syracuse. In 1967 she transferred to Random House’s New York City office, where she became a senior editor known for discovering young black women writers including Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. Three years later The Bluest Eye, based on her short story, was published.

In 1973 Knopf published Sula, the first of her books to deal with one of her most enduring themes—friendships among black women—and the first edited by Gottlieb. “I said to her, ‘Sula is perfect. It’s like a sonnet. But you don’t have to do that again,’” he recalls. “She knew exactly what I meant, and of course she was thinking the same way. It wasn’t that what I said was a magic elixir or anything, but my saying it helped free her to do what she knew she had to do, which was expand and take chances. And the result, in the short term, was Song of Solomon.”

That book—the story of Milkman Dead (so named because of his unusually long period of breast-feeding), who goes in quest of an inheritance of gold—was Morrison’s breakthrough. Widely hailed as the best novel about African Americans since Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award with its lyrical prose, folkloric source material, and the flashes of magic realism—influenced by the work of Gabriel García Márquez—that would become one of her signatures.

“Gabriel García opened the world for me,” Morrison recalls. “When I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, it was a wide-open door. I could put reality and mythology together in a way that was so assumptive and real. I was sneaking up on it in Sula”—in which the title character’s arrival in town is heralded by a plague of robins—“but it was like some road was beckoning, and I wouldn’t take it. It was a risk. Then, after Márquez, it was open to me, and I was totally in control of it.”

Years later, in Mexico, Márquez recited the plot of Song of Solomon back to her, “like I hadn’t heard it before,” Morrison recalls with a smile. “He said, ‘This happened, this happened, and then this happened.’ It was in Spanish, so it had to be translated, and it took about twelve minutes. But it was amazing, because he understood the structure, how everything related to everything else.” (Another person who liked to recite passages of the book to her, in a series of late-night phone conversations, was Marlon Brando. “I’m like, ‘Who does he think he is—I don’t have this kind of time!’ But he would say, ‘Remember this part?’ And [he had] that voice, so I couldn’t hang up.”)

In the early eighties Knopf published Morrison’s fourth novel, Tar Baby, and she left her job at Random House. She resumed her academic career, teaching first at the State University of New York, Albany, then at Princeton. In 1993, a year before her mother died—her father had passed away back in 1975—she became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. “She had a class scheduled that afternoon,” recalls her Princeton colleague, poet Paul Muldoon. “The world’s press had beaten a six-lane highway to her door, but she absolutely refused to meet with them till she’d finished that class. I think that says a lot about her.”

Morrison, who reads her reviews, approaches the publication of A Mercy with a mixture of confidence and a certain resignation. Although Beloved was widely acclaimed—and in 2006 was named “the single best work of American fiction published in the last twenty-five years” by 125 leading writers, critics, and scholars polled by the New York Times—it also has its detractors.

“They didn’t ask me,” Charles Johnson, author of the National Book Award–winning novel Middle Passage (Atheneum, 1990), says of the Times poll. “I think Ms. Morrison is somebody who can write a very elegant, poetic prose line. But I’m a writer who values such things as plot, structure, and character development, which I didn’t quite feel were present in Beloved.”

Johnson was also among those troubled by the literary brouhaha surrounding Beloved in 1988, when forty-eight black writers, including Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, and Ernest J. Gaines, signed an open letter in the Times noting that Morrison “has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.”

“Lo and behold,” Johnson says ruefully, “she gets the Pulitzer.”

Poet Nikky Finney, one of the signers of the Times letter, resents the implication of foul play. “Toni Morrison changed the landscape of American literature with The Bluest Eye, and has been changing it with every other book she’s published,” says Finney, an African American woman and writer-in-residence at Smith College. “There’s no one writing today about the history of this country like Morrison does, yet she too often gets relegated to questions about race. Her narratives arc the whole American experience, and yet they get slotted into questions about black people. That’s a really narrow view. She’s writing more honest narratives about the interplay of the human heart and the human mind than anybody else today.”

Still, Morrison’s relationship with critics seems to have shifted since Beloved. Especially post-Nobel, certain former champions—notably Michiko Kakutani—have soured on Morrison, whose recent novels they seem to regard as having become too explicitly political and, in some cases, too openly feminist. In the Times Kakutani dismissed Paradise (Knopf, 1999), about a community of women murdered by the men of an all-black settlement, as “a heavy-handed, schematic piece of writing,” then criticized Love (Knopf, 2003) as “didactic” and “haphazard.”

Morrison sucks her teeth. “It read like a book report to me—an eleventh-grade book report,” she says of Kakutani’s Paradise slam. “I would not have expected that of a Princeton freshman. The level of execution—not what she thought about it, ‘heavy-handed’ or whatever, but how it was written. I was surprised that she was so careless.”

Responding to the “political” rap, her gaze sharpens. “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” she declares. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something.” Morrison laughs derisively. “That all started in the period of state art, when you had the communists and fascists running around doing this poster stuff, and the reaction was ‘No, no, no; there’s only aesthetics.’ My point is that it has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time. I’m not interested in art that is not in the world. And it’s not just the narrative, it’s not just the story; it’s the language and the structure and what’s going on behind it. Anybody can make up a story.”