The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2012 had this to say when asked about racism: “And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’, I will say yes.”
Age hasn’t dimmed the fire in Toni Morrison, 84. The unwavering voice of black America talks about her latest novel and what it will take for racism to be a thing of the past.
Toni Morrison is, without a doubt, a world-class novelist. Her work as an editor, however, has received much less attention. Morrison worked at Random House for 20 years, leaving in 1983, just before she set out to write her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved.
At her apartment in lower Manhattan, I ask her about the ways in which American literature has changed, and she volunteers that she “had something to do with that”. But she is not referring to her own fiction. “I said, I can’t march, I have small children,” she tells me. “I’m not the marching type anyway. So when I went into publishing, I thought, the best I can do is to publish the works of those who are out there – like Angela Davis, Huey Newton – and the literature. And let it be edited by someone who understands the language, and understands the culture.”
Last summer Morrison came to the Hay Festival and made three appearances over three days. In the course of those conversations, she touched on this issue a number of times, spinning it out, examining it, not tub-thumping but the opposite, as if there were still nothing conclusive to say. The question of race, she reflected, “is not static. You just have to swim in it for a bit”.
Since then, Eric Garner has been strangled by white policemen on Staten Island, Michael Brown has been shot by white policemen in Ferguson, Walter Scott has been shot by a white policeman in South Carolina. “People keep saying, ‘We need to have a conversation about race,’” she says now. “This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back,” Morrison says finally. “And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’, I will say yes.”
Toni Morrison – who was then Chloe Wofford – grew up understanding none of this. In the small industrial town of Lorain in Ohio, where she was raised, the stories told by her Southern parents seemed unreal. Her father was a welder in the shipyards. Most of their neighbours were European immigrants, and in her high-school yearbook there were only two other black students.
Had her father really witnessed a lynching when he was 14? Did they really have separate water fountains for white and coloured people in Georgia? It was only when she went to Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, DC, that she began to realise how things were. And off-campus, in the late 1940s, the city was segregated. She stole one of the wooden bars used to keep blacks at the back of buses and sent it to her mother as a grim keepsake.
Morrison began to feel an affinity, a fascination. What emerged was a career-long project to – in her words – “turn the gaze”. She didn’t want to write in order to persuade white people, as the abolitionists Frederick Douglass or Solomon Northup had. She wasn’t interested in assuming a white person’s worldview, like the mid-20th century writer Ralph Ellison (“Invisible to whom?” she says of his famous novel The Invisible Man). She didn’t want to join in the black power cries of “screw whitey”. When the revolutionary 1960s turned into the 1970s, she wanted to say, “Before we get on to the ‘black is beautiful’ thing, may I remind you what it was like before, when it was lethal?”
So she wrote from the point of view of little black girls in her first two books, of 17th-century slaves in Mercy, of a child killed by her mother to save her from suffering in Beloved. She combined the metaphorical stories of her grandparents with the facts on the ground, and arrived at what she calls “imaginative resistance”. To tell a tale, you have to pick up its pieces, she once suggested, comparing storytellers to Hansel and Gretel. “Their momma doesn’t want them. They leave a little trail. That trail is language.”
In words that are simple and cadences that are sometimes incantatory, through action that is both true to life and magical in its habits of thought, Morrison has conveyed a series of black perspectives, thrown her readers into a world they had not previously met in fiction, and realigned American history by choosing the people through whom it might be told.
Via: Telegraph UK