Remembering Toni Morrison, 'A Friend Of Our Minds'
With David Folkenflik
Toni Morrison looms large over any conversation of American literature of the past half-century. Morrison, who has died at 88, was a Nobel laureate, Pultizer Prize-winner and champion of other African American authors.
Other writers hail her use of language and of metaphor to capture black life in the U.S. as it is actually lived, often exploring the heritage of racism without putting it in terms of the white perspective. Powerful, personal, poetic, Morrison’s books, including “Beloved and “Song of Solomon,” became part of the American literary canon.
Dana Williams, professor of African American literature and chair of the English department at Howard University, Toni Morrison’s alma mater. President of the Toni Morrison Society. (@DWill5)
Tressie McMillan Cottom, writer, columnist, and professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Author of “Thick: And Other Essays,” a collection exploring the identity and experience that defines black womanhood in America. (@tressiemcphd)
Russell Banks, novelist and poet. Longtime friend of Toni Morrison. His books “Continental Drift” and “Cloudsplitter” were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His most recent book is “Voyager: Travel Writings.”
On the importance of Toni Morrison’s life and work
Tressie McMillan Cottom: “I am torn between feeling grateful to have had Toni Morrison for almost nine decades, and a deep sadness. I can’t help but think that we just weren’t done with her yet. She may have been done with us, but of all moments … to lose Toni Morrison — at the precise moment when I think we could use the language that she gave us to describe the world that we live in — it’s a sad moment, as well. … [Morrison] as a larger presence of being a black woman creative, who owned that she was great at what she did, and that there was nothing unnatural or noteworthy about her greatness and her brilliance, inspired me every time I sat down to write, and was one of the reasons why I knew that writing was possible for me, that there was a way to be a free black woman, and to write my own intellectual history, in my own voice. And that I could own it, as something that is not just authentic, but meaningful, and that matters. And that I could do it by speaking to and centering the people that I cared about the most. That talking about and thinking about black people was in and of itself an intellectual project. Toni showed us how to do that, and showed us how to do it with style.”
Dana Williams: “The way that she owned her story, and wrote from the position of culture, without any remorse, without thinking about it twice — [making it] clear that the implied reader, the assumed reader, was a reader who came out of the culture that she wrote from — was something that was not especially typical in the era where she was writing. And I think about the opportunities that I had to interact with her, and to think that this genius of a person … [she] wasn’t so self-serious that she couldn’t also be down-to-earth. … I can tell you, she was very often interested in seeing what the critics said about the work that she was doing. So, she was generous, in so many ways, and really just a very pleasant, pleasant gift, and a wonderful contribution. Not only to African American letters and American letters, but really to the world, in her work as an author. But also her work as a teacher, and especially as an editor.”
Russell Banks: “You can’t overstate her importance. I like to think that there are three central images in the American narrative, the making of the American imagination, in literature. There’s that white whale [from ‘Moby-Dick’ by Herman Melville], and then there’s that kid, that homeless boy on a raft going down the Mississippi [from ‘Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain], and then there’s the slave mother who sacrifices her child, rather than send her back to slavery [from ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison]. Those three images are central. You can’t think about the American imagination — you can’t have an American imagination — without those three images. And she is equal to Twain and equal to Melville in my mind.”
On writing about experiences of the African diaspora
TMC: “Toni Morrison, herself, said many times that the set of questions that drove her, when she sat down to create a narrative in a story, were informed by questions that she wouldn’t necessarily embed in time. She played a lot with linear time, which a lot of scholars have rightfully critiqued as being sort of a Western construct. She understood time as being something far more malleable than linear time would suggest. And part of her reason for that is because she understood, and I think deeply appreciated and loved, the narratives that had produced us. [Narratives] that sometimes had to exist outside of that time — because of the Middle Passage and enslavement, and the ties that had been broken in linear time — between African nations and with the African American nation within the nation. And instead [she] said that those stories still existed, that time existed in the stories, and the narratives that we inherited. She talks about the oral tradition, for example, of African American culture, and always links it to the narratives, and the stories, that we had inherited. Whether we always could uncover their history, or not, due to our ability, or inability, to do so because of how we came to the American shores. And so it is not surprising that that would resonate with people living across the diaspora. Because I think Toni Morrison spoke to the diasporic connections between black people, no matter where they were living, that our oral traditions had kept a history of us together. Even when so many forces of colonization had tried to race and rewrite those histories.”
DW: “[She took] the particularity of the black experience and show[ed] how it is indeed universal. That the human questions that we’re asking about this condition are questions that aren’t related specifically to race. What is good, what is bad and even the interrogation of that question. So one of the things that I think she actually learned from the African writers she edited, and she read, and she admired, was that these things are far more complicated. That binary relationships simply don’t work.”
TMC: “One of the things that you get in a Toni Morrison novel — I think one of the hallmarks of them, anyway — is a complex rendering of black life. As Dana points out, what you start to understand is that there is no binary, good and bad. When you strip away the white gaze, you then have the time, and the space, to explore precisely that: the nuance of what it means to internalize narratives of self-hate could be just as much about colorism — as Toni Morrison also explores in her work — as it is about valorizing whiteness as a beauty ideal. You can’t even get to some of those complexities when you’re so focused on telling a story that will center the comfort and the narrative of white characters. And, so yes, she deals with racism, but she deals with it in the way people experience it, rather than the way people turn it into an anthropology project. She sort of resists that outside gaze.”
Russell Banks, on his friendship with Morrison
“Toni and I met around the mid-’80s, and then she was a colleague from that point on, and very quickly became a friend. And I think we bonded there, initially, over cigarettes and wine and laughter and politics. She used to sneak down the hall from her classroom to my office, because she couldn’t smoke in the classroom. Then we would sit by the window of my office and smoke cigarettes and gossip and talk politics. She was a very funny person and loved to laugh. And I think it’s probably not widely known: She really liked the company of men. She knew we were ridiculous and dangerous, and that we needed constant instruction and correction. And she thought that was worth doing, for the benefit, as she saw it, of our company. So she was a great person, to be a man, and to be close to. I loved her very much.”
From The Reading List
New York Times: “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison” — “Not too long ago, Toni Morrison sat in the small kitchen attached to the studio where she was recording the audiobook for her newest novel, ‘God Help the Child,’ telling a roomful of strangers stories that I will never forget. The studio, a small, refurbished barn in Katonah, N.Y., was more than a hundred years old, but only a few rustic touches remained, like a sliding barn door and knotty pine floors. A solid kitchen table had been laid with fresh fruits, muffins and tins of jam. Beams of sunlight reflected off the blindingly white snow outside the glass window. A young woman from Random House kept mentioning her sunglasses, how it was bright enough to wear them inside. Everyone giggled at her nervous chatter, but they seemed to be mostly laughing at her brave attempt to make small talk in the presence of Toni Morrison.
“The only person not bothered by the glare and the room’s awkward giddiness was Morrison herself, who sat at the head of the table, in a thin, black linen caftan, a wool beret and with a sizable diamond ring on one hand. Morrison wears her age like an Elizabethan regent or a descendant of Othello via Lorain, Ohio. Long before we met, I read that she could be impervious at times, coquettish at others. What was evident that day in Katonah was that had she so much as lifted a finger, every person in the room — the studio’s director and his engineer, her P.R. person from Knopf, her publisher and two young women from the audiobooks division of Random House — would have stopped what they were doing to ask if they could assist. Not because she required it, but because the unspoken consensus was that the person who produced the 11 novels that Morrison has written, the person those books came out of, was deserving of the fuss.
“It takes a long time to record a book. Many authors use actors. But that’s not how Morrison hears her own sentences, so she does these tedious sessions herself. That day, she would go into a narrow, low-lit booth, carrying a small pillow for her back, sit down and read from her new book for hours. We followed along in the control room, listening to her barely-a-whisper voice read from a chapter called ‘Sweetness’: ‘It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened.’ ”
New Yorker: “Ghosts in the House” — “No. 2245 Elyria Avenue in Lorain, Ohio, is a two-story frame house surrounded by look-alikes. Its small front porch is littered with the discards of former tenants: a banged-up bicycle wheel, a plastic patio chair, a garden hose. Most of its windows are boarded up. Behind the house, which is painted lettuce green, there’s a patch of weedy earth and a heap of rusting car parts. Seventy-two years ago, the novelist Toni Morrison was born here, in this small industrial town twenty-five miles west of Cleveland, which most citydwellers would consider ‘out there.’ The air is redolent of nearby Lake Erie and new-mown grass.
“From Morrison’s birthplace it’s a couple of miles to Broadway, where there’s a pizzeria, a bar with sagging seats, and a brown building that sells dingy and dilapidated secondhand furniture. This is the building Morrison imagined when she described the house of the doomed Breedlove family in her first novel, “The Bluest Eye”: ‘There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio,’ she wrote. ‘It does not recede into its background of leaden sky, nor harmonize with the gray frame houses and black telephone poles around it. Rather, it foists itself on the eye of the passerby in a manner that is both irritating and melancholy. Visitors who drive to this tiny town wonder why it has not been torn down, while pedestrians, who are residents of the neighborhood, simply look away when they pass it.’
“Love and disaster and all the other forms of human incident accumulate in Morrison’s fictional houses. In the boarding house where the heroine of Morrison’s second novel, ‘Sula,’ lives, ‘there were rooms that had three doors, others that opened on the porch only and were inaccessible from any other part of the house; others that you could get to only by going through somebody’s bedroom.’ This is the gothic, dreamlike structure in whose front yard Sula’s mother burns to death, ‘gesturing and bobbing like a sprung jack-in-the-box,’ while Sula stands by watching, ‘not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.’ ”
WAMU: “How Toni Morrison’s Time At Howard University Shaped Her Career” — “Toni Morrison planned to study literature when she enrolled at Howard University in 1949, but ended up with much more than a book education. She confronted institutionalized racism in segregated Washington, D.C., and learned about the skin color-based caste system on campus. Morrison, who died Monday night at the age of 88, would go on to write prize-winning work focused on the African American experience.
“Most notably, Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 for Beloved, a Civil War-era story of an enslaved African American woman who escaped to Ohio. Oprah Winfrey produced and starred in a 1998 movie based on the book. Morrison also won the Nobel Prize in literature and was the first black woman of any nationality to do so.
“Morrison herself grew up in small-town Ohio. She was born Chloe Wofford, but started going by ‘Toni’ when she got to Howard (the nickname comes from Anthony, the name of her baptismal saint). She began her studies in the English department but spent a lot of her time within the drama department.”
Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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