Remembering Toni Morrison: the iconic author reflects on family, race and coping with personal tragedy
The influential American novelist is being celebrated around the world for her powerful, sensuous prose and for blazing a path — and creating a space — for other black writers and thinkers.
When Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, she became the first black woman and the first African American to win. The Swedish Academy praised her for giving "life to an essential aspect of American reality," in novels "characterized by visionary force and poetic import."
Morrison won many literary honours over her acclaimed career, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 for Song of Solomon and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved — in which a mother makes a tragic choice to murder her baby, in order to save the child from slavery.
She was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction.
Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Morrison three times: in 1992, 2003 and 2012, soon after the publication of her novel Home.
"My father hated white people. My mother handled our insurance and my father wouldn't even let the agent, a white man, into the house to collect the premiums. My mother, on the other hand, always judged people one by one. White, black — it didn't matter to her. But my father had a very firm, hostile relationship with white people. Even though he worked in mills with them, they could not come into his house.
"As a child, I made nothing of this. I just thought, you know, he was a man, she was a woman. They're different. She talks all the time. He doesn't. That was the difference. And it was only later that I learned that, as a young teenager, he had seen two black men lynched in his hometown of Cartersville, Georgia — businessmen. They were not, you know, sort of thugs. They owned businesses. And they were killed — hanged — in his neighbourhood. So he had, at an early age, absorbed violence of such a level that I can't even imagine what it's like to walk out of one's door and see bodies hanging.
My father had a very firm, hostile relationship with white people. Even though he worked in mills with them, they could not come into his house.
Not such a Golden Age
"In the United States we think of the 1950s as the kind of Golden Age. Right after the war, everybody was making money. The G.I. Bill was sending soldiers into college campuses, and the television was full of — I don't know — happy stories. Doris Day, all of that. But I didn't think so.
"I thought there was a veil that was being pulled over the 1950s, that it really wasn't like that. I was a young woman in the '50s and I thought I knew all about it. I began to think, 'Wait a minute, there was this huge, foreign war going on.' Something like 58,000 soldiers killed and they didn't even call it a war. They called it a 'police action.'
"There was also the McCarthy period. Everybody was terrified of communism, of Russia. And then there was enormous racial violence. Emmett Till was killed in '55. Although we didn't learn a great deal about it until the Vietnam War, there were medical experiments on helpless people. Soldiers who got the LSD first, and also prisoners and certainly a lot of black people who were told, if they took this test, they would get free medical care. That kind of thing — it still goes on in other parts of the world."
Trauma that doesn't go away
"I lost my son Slade to cancer in 2010. You don't deal with something so impossible like that. On the dedication page of Home, I have his name. And they asked me, 'What do you want to put after?' And I said, ' I just haven't discovered the language to say what I feel.' I may never and I don't care.
I'm so uninterested in the necessity for happiness that we seem to have in the United States. People are sad, so they take a pill.
"I'm so uninterested in the necessity for happiness that we seem to have in the United States. People are sad, so they take a pill. But Slade's death is part of who I am now. My son did not bury me. I buried him. That's it. I'm not struggling to be without it. That's part of my life now."
The reality of racism
"The construction of racism in this country, it's a social construct. But it's also a legal one. It has a function, which is to make sure that poor white people never conspire or associate politically with poor black people because it destabilizes the upper class. If you have blacks and whites working together for political change, then the upper class has a serious problem.
"The deal was to separate them and they made laws in Virginia: no black man shall ever carry a weapon and no white man shall ever be arrested, accused or convicted of hurting or killing any black man. So you have already made one group privileged and is free to kill you — kill the 'other' — and the other one helpless. That was done for the protection of the elite and it shifted its way all the way down.
"What I truly love and respect is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. And I always wondered, 'Invisible to whom?' Not to me, but that was the necessary narrative to confront. The project, particularly for black male writers, is to confront that overwhelming racist thing — and say, 'Yes we are absent in your world, but here we are.'
"As a black female writer, I just want to turn that around."