The Spirit and the Strength: A Profile of Toni Morrison

by
Kevin Nance
11.1.08

Of course, her novels were implicitly political from the first. The Bluest Eye was a lyrical yet harrowing portrait of internalized racism and its result, black family dysfunction, while Sula posited black sisterhood as a key survival mechanism, even as the author herself was—and remains—somewhat at odds with the women’s movement. “It was for white women, as far as I was concerned, and I was annoyed at that time and much later because affirmative action has helped more white women than anybody,” she says. “They don’t have to apologize for getting into those medical schools. They don’t have to say, ‘We were not taking something away from white guys.’ If it’s labeled black, then all of a sudden there’s a problem. But no group of white women defended affirmative action, even though they were the largest beneficiaries of it. And then they started saying that sisterhood was powerful, as if it were this brand-new idea!”

Morrison laughs. “Sisterhood was so critical among black women because there wasn’t anybody else. And our dependency on one another—in my life, my mother’s life—it was a real thing. We saved one another’s lives for generations. When I was writing Sula, I was talking about a relationship that fell apart, because I wanted the reader to miss it.”

And if the later novels are more willing to frame their characters and situations within the larger context of Morrison’s deepening sense of American history—and at times to underline those meanings—her editor sees it as only natural. “The times have changed, and we’re older, and we know more, I hope,” Gottlieb says. “Like any intelligent person, Toni has evolved. At first, I’m sure, the issue was, ‘Can I write a novel?’ That was the main impulse, and The Bluest Eye proved that she could. But as you grow more sure of yourself, you become freer to look outside yourself, and her political consciousness developed. She became a great figure, too, which gives you both more freedom and more responsibility. That [Nobel] prize liberates people to say what they want to say more openly.”

Increasingly, Morrison has been doing just that. Her book of critical essays, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1992), was a biting critique of white American writers’ handling of black characters and themes. The same year, she edited Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (Pantheon Books). Today, she’s a member of the editorial board of the Nation, a leading liberal journal, and a public endorser of Barack Obama who worries about the presidential election. “The one thing that Republicans really, really hate is voters—they really do not like people to vote,” she says, again sucking her teeth. “And anything they can do to stop that…or steal it, they will.”

Novelist Reynolds Price, one of Morrison’s oldest and closest friends, isn’t surprised by her flowering as a cultural commentator. “I think the Nobel Prize gave Toni a podium from which to make a number of comments upon politics, sociology, whatever,” says Price, who developed a bond with Morrison when they served together on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1970s. “But any such podium is likely to attract attention from the world, and there are a number of people who wish Toni would just shut up. That has aroused a certain amount of ire and rejection. As a person who’s gotten my own share of bad reviews, I know how she feels. As Truman Capote said, ‘Once I’ve published a book, all I want to hear is praise.’”

In any case, Morrison’s friends say, becoming famous hasn’t changed her. “When I first knew her, she was not the very iconic figure that she now is, but I’m always delighted to see that she’s survived the Nobel,” says Price, who cherishes the memory of a dinner at Russell Banks’s home in the late 1980s, during which he and Morrison surprised Banks and another guest, their Princeton colleague Joyce Carol Oates, with their madcap sense of humor. “At one point I was playing with Toni’s pigtails and she said she’d cut one off and send it to me—I don’t think Joyce quite understood us,” Price recalls with a laugh. “Since then, I’ve always felt that within five minutes of our winding up at the same table or in the same room, my friendship with Toni is essentially where we left it the last time. She’s certainly not high-hat, or anything else that she once deplored in others.”

Perhaps that’s because everyday life has its ways of reminding Morrison that being a Nobel laureate gets you only so far. “It doesn’t help you write better, and then you have to get the prize out of your head,” she says. “You have to wait till it’s gone—the gaze of the prize; otherwise you’re just doing somebody else’s business. And people do say nice things, but not really. I go to the airport and these two black girls are there at the security desk pushing the luggage through, and they say, ‘Oh! Toni Morrison! We love you, honey, we love you! My mother loves you! Your books, my God! Take off your shoes.’”

Which sends her now into uproarious laughter.

Morrison’s humor may come in handy again soon. As her relationship with the critical establishment has deteriorated in recent years, she also increasingly faces pressure from fellow writers and scholars who take issue with what they see as Morrison’s failure to engage fully with contemporary African American life. Prominent among these is Johnson, whose recent essay in the American Scholar, “The End of the Black American Narrative,” invites fiction writers to consider leaving slavery and its long aftermath—what Johnson calls the “group victimization” story—behind. African Americans are now so successful and so diverse, he argues, that the slavery era has lost its potency as a lens through which to view the black experience.

Johnson’s essay doesn’t take specific aim at Morrison. But in a phone interview from Seattle, where he is an English professor at the University of Washington, it’s clear that he sees her novelistic material as in need of refreshment—a thesis arguably supported by the choice of subject for her new novel.

“I think writers should be free to go wherever their imaginations take them, but I do think clearly that slavery-era stories and segregation-era stories are stories about the past,” says Johnson, an African American who admittedly has written a number of such stories himself. “If there’s something fresh there, I say chase it down to the last page. But we do need a new narrative about black Americans living in America today.”

As for A Mercy, which Johnson hasn’t read, “I don’t want to say she’s beating a dead horse,” he says. “But she probably feels more comfortable writing about that period, as opposed to maybe something more contemporary.”

Provided with a copy of Johnson’s essay, Morrison doesn’t disagree with some of its points. She’s impressed, she says, by the potential of Edwidge Danticat and writers from many parts of the African diaspora; she’s also interested in younger “post-black” writers who, she notes with a kind of wonder, are singularly uninterested in the past. But as Morrison points out, her fiction never concerned itself with black identity politics per se, and this was deliberate.

“I know I’m of the generation that’s supposed to be hanging on desperately to the good old days of dogs and hoses and how we all survived, but I was never interested in that,” she says with a laugh. “What’s true is that that generation relied on white guilt as a stepping-off point to gain respect or resources or what have you. But where blackness becomes a product, I’m out. You can sell it, withhold it, mock it, imitate it. It makes money. And that’s too bad. Because when you start selling it, oh please! That’s over, or should be over. For me, I’m writing about African Americans in the same way that James Joyce wrote about Irish people. They don’t look like race books to me. This is just what I’m interested in, and when I lose interest in it, I’ll write about something else. I don’t feel as though I have to put race in, or wave it like a flag. The young black writers certainly don’t feel that obligation, and I don’t see why they should.”

On the other hand, she says in a steely voice, “Slavery can never be exhausted as a narrative. Nor can the Holocaust; nor can the potato famine; nor can war. To say slavery is over is to be ridiculous. There is nothing in those catastrophic events of human life that is exhaustible at all.”

Finney agrees. “When I’m reading her, I’m always lifting my eyes above the text toward something going on in contemporary life, even if she’s writing about 1863. What’s happening with Barack Obama is a wonderful thing, and it will bring new narratives to the pens of black and white writers. But think of his wife, who’s being made to seem ‘uppity’ and unfeminine—where does that come from? Does it fall from the heavens? The fact is that we have not fully looked at what slavery did to black people and white people. And now we’re supposed to cut off our feet—our feet being the foundational moment when this country came to be—and walk on ahead? We’re still hurting, and the only way to stop is to look forward and backward. If we don’t, we will never get the answers we need. We will make up some answer that will fit the moment, and it will be a pebble in our shoe, for the rest of our lives and our children’s lives. From what Morrison is laying down, we can learn something about who we are and how we got here.”

The Johnson/Morrison dialogue has already begun to pick up steam within academic circles. Marc C. Conner, who has edited books about Johnson and Morrison and is involved with scholarly societies devoted to their bodies of work, says the clash of these literary titans has been a hot topic at a number of recent literature conferences—so much so that it threatens to generate more heat than light. At a conference in May, he says, a Morrison supporter rose to her feet and declared, “You can’t compare these two; she’s better than he is.” Replied Conner: “That’s not cultural analysis. That’s keeping score.”

“It’s a good thing not to let this devolve into something simplified, because Johnson’s essay is extraordinarily important, especially in the year of Obama, and it does seem to go against Morrison’s fictional material,” Conner, who is white, says in an interview from Washington and Lee University, where he is an English professor and director of the African-American Studies program. “I think Johnson is exactly right that the simplest form of the narrative of victimization is no longer accurate for contemporary African American culture. And it’s a little troubling that her work is always looking backward, rather than at the present. That being said, I think she deserves the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize, and I agree that Beloved is one of the greatest novels of the century.”

How much attention Morrison pays to all this is unclear. She’s an extraordinarily busy woman, with a book tour on the way and a multitude of interview requests to satisfy (or not). Now a professor emerita at Princeton, she plans to teach one more semester next spring in the interdisciplinary “atelier” concept she developed there in the nineties, in which students work with professional artists in various media—who over the years have included novelist A. S. Byatt, theater and opera director Peter Sellars, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and composer Richard Danielpour (with whom Morrison later collaborated on Margaret Garner, an opera based on the same source material as Beloved).

At first, when Morrison was considering retirement at age sixty-five, the atelier was her response to burnout. “In the creative writing department, I was not challenged, I think,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “Once in a while I had a really good student, but you never know whom you’re going to get; they just pass the students out randomly to avoid clubbishness. And so I was bored. It was okay to be half-engaged, and I don’t like to work that way; it’s just not worth my time to sort of come in and write things in the margin. So I thought, if I was going to stay here, what would make me interested? Creative writing wasn’t getting it—there was no juice in it for me.”

Another factor in Morrison’s thinking at the time was that she has always been skeptical of the value of creative writing programs in general. “I thought they were a good way for writers to say what they know to people who were interested, and to get paid, and to have some protection and some dignity that was separate from the publishing industry,” she says. “For students, I thought it wasn’t going to help at all. I thought it was going to make them think that that could be taught. And it can’t. My feeling was, you can take something and make it a little bit better by editing it—or you can throw it in the trash, or whatever—but you cannot teach vision. Talent you can hone, but the essential thing, the compulsion to create—where you know that if you don’t do it, something dies in you—that’s there or it’s not. And I thought that part was going to be watered down in the sort of creative writing industry.”

In recent years, however, Morrison has changed her mind—“not altogether, but partly, because I see interesting writers coming out of those programs,” she says. Even so, she adds, “Sometimes they’re a little too academic, and I hear in their prose a question to some critic somewhere: ‘Is this okay?’”

For Morrison, the solution was the atelier, which at first was regarded by some at the university as of questionable value—“just some junk that kids do at camp,” she says. There were also questions about the usefulness of the collaborations to creative writing students, which Morrison found maddening. “I don’t think writers write in isolation,” she says. “All this business about going home to your little desk—it’s nonsense. I don’t know any writer in history who did not know painters, listen to music. I think the myth of the isolated, starving, horrified, lonely guy or girl—a room of one’s own—I mean, please. You’re surrounded by people who are thoughtful, who are doing other things that you can learn from. There are historians in your group. There are musicians. And they add to what you know.”

For Conner, who was a graduate student at Princeton, the atelier was more evidence of Morrison’s innovation. “So many writers ensconced in their comfortable Ivy League chair will just teach their semester and vanish,” he says. “Here she was, injecting new conceptions of the arts at Princeton, as she herself was entering her seventh decade.”

That’s the Morrison whom Price knows too. “Toni has worked unusually hard, and kept at it,” he says. “She’s gone through a lot, and one of the miracles of her life and career is how she’s sort of sucked her teeth and gone on—not only with her increasingly brilliant writing but with her life.”

For now, Morrison finds herself pleased with life and work. She has a special affection for Florens from A Mercy, who learns the hard way that even love is no substitute for independent thinking. “She turns into something fairly feral, a tough-minded person who’s willing to stand up for herself,” she says in a tone that suggests she could be speaking just as easily of someone else. “Too bad about the guy, but at least she’s meaner. And she might survive this.”

At this prospect, Toni Morrison smiles a dazzling smile.

 

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.