Toni Morrison, who was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, talks about subjects that inspire both her life and writing with Bill Moyers in this classic 1990 conversation.
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BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Toni Morrison seems always to be in two worlds. There is the visible world, bustling around her, and there is the world of her novels, whose characters tell us about an interior reality hidden from the eyes of strangers.
In her five books, she has transported millions of readers into the experience of being black in America. The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby. In Beloved, perhaps the most painful and beautiful of her creations, Toni Morrison reached back into the 19th century years of slavery.
Her writing has won numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon in 1978, and the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988. Fifteen universities have awarded her honorary degrees.
Like many fiction writers, Morrison has earned a living by other means. She was an editor for Random House, and taught at Howard University, Yale and the State University of New York at Albany. She is now teaching in the humanities at Princeton University.
She is also a trustee at the New York Public Library, where we talked about how the invented world of fiction connects to life as it is.
[interviewing] There is such a gulf between the “inner city” today and the rest of the country, in both imagination and reality and politics and literature; frankly, very little communication takes place. If you were writing for the rest of the country about the inner city today, what metaphor would you use? And I ask that question because you struck a common metaphor in Song of Solomon, the metaphor there was flying) everybody’s dream of literally being up and away in the air, all of us could identify with that. But what, if you were writing for the rest of the country, would you use as a metaphor for the inner city today?
TONI MORRISON:: Love. We have to embrace ourselves. Self-regard. I remember James Baldwin said once, “You’ve already been bought and paid for, your ancestors already gave it up for you. It’s already done. You don’t have to do that anymore. Now you can love yourself. It’s already possible.” So I have this feeling of admiration and respect and love for these black people in the inner city who are intervening, who are going in and saying, “You four girls, you come to my house every Thursday and we’re going to eat, we’re going to take you out.” I mean, these are professional women, we’ll say, who go in, have these companions.
I love those men I heard about in Chicago, black professional men who went every lunch hour to the playgrounds in Chicago’s South Side to talk to those children. Not to be authoritarian, but just to get to know them, without the bureaucracy, without the agencies, to simply become an agency.
MOYERS: The love you’re talking about is the love inspired by moral imagination that takes us beyond blood.
MORRISON:: Absolutely. Absolutely that.
MOYERS: But the image one has — and as a reporter, I’ve been there — that in so many of these neighborhoods, that simply is impossible —
MORRISON:: Is lacking.
MOYERS: —because of the wasted nature.
MORRISON:: Mm-hmm. It’s terrible. It’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. It reminds you of some nightmare that the Marquis de Sade thought up, in some of those places. But the children — I call them children when they’re under 18 — are hungry for that love. The drugs are just a sleep that you can’t even wake up from, because you might remember what you did when you were there. There’s no place for them — there should be a rehabilitation center on every corner, along with McDonald’s and the banks. This is serious business. The waiting lists are incredible. I mean, it’s terrible. It’s really terrible.
But, some interesting things have happened along that line. Some woman told me a couple of weeks ago, a close friend of mine, that men, black men, were going into shelters, I think. They were spending time holding crack babies, I mean children who were born — holding them. Holding them. Now, I’m sure it does something for the baby, but think what it does for that man, to actually give up some time and hold a baby.
MOYERS: I remember that John Leonard once said, “Toni Morrison writes about places where even love found its way with an icepick.” Maybe that’s the — can we talk about love for a moment?
MOYERS: You say love is a metaphor, and when I go back through the novels, love is there in so many different ways and forms that — and particularly when I look at the women in your novels, at the extraordinary things they do for love. There’s the grandmother who has her leg amputated so that she can have an insurance policy that will buy a house and take care of her children as they grow up. There’s Sethe, who is willing to kill her children before the slave catchers can come and seize them. What kind of love is that?
MORRISON:: Some of it’s very fierce. Powerful. Distorted, even, because the duress they work under is so overwhelming. But I think they believed, as I do, while it may be true that, you know, people say, “I didn’t ask to be born,” I think we did, and that’s why we’re here. We are here, and we have to do something nurturing that we respect before we go. We must. It is more interesting, more complicated, more intellectually demanding and more morally demanding to love somebody, to take care of somebody, to make one other person feel good.
Now the dangers of that are the dangers of setting oneself up as a martyr or as, you know, the one without whom it would not be done.
MOYERS: Paul Deas says to Sethe, “Your love is too thick.” Is that what you’re talking about here?
MORRISON:: Too thick. That’s right. It can get to be very excessive.
MOYERS: And how do we know when a love is too thick?
MORRISON:: We don’t, we really don’t. That’s a big problem. We don’t know when to stop, as Baby Suggs says, ”When is it too much and when is it not enough?” That is the problem of the human mind and the soul. But we have to try that. We have to try that. We have to do that. And not doing it is so poor for the self. It’s so poor for the mind. It’s so uninteresting to live without that, and it has no risk. There’s no risk involved. And that just seems to make life not just livable, but a gallant, gallant event.
MOYERS: But I have the sense, in so many of the love stories in your novels — that the world is destined to doom love, or that love is destined to be doomed by the world.
MORRISON:: Well, in the stories, the characters are placed by me on a cliff. I mean, I sort of push them as far as I can, to see of what they are made.
MOYERS: I don’t think I’ve ever met a more pathetic creature in contemporary literature than Pecola Breedlove, in The Bluest Eye, the little girl who wants the blue eyes. Abused by her—
MOYERS: —parents, rejected by her neighbors, ugly, homely, alone. Finally descending into madness. But I — it’s been years since I read that novel, but I remember her.
MORRISON:: She surrendered completely to the so-called master narrative.
MORRISON:: The master narrative, I mean, the whole notion of what is ugliness, what is worthlessness, what is contempt. She got it from her family, she got it from school, she got it from the movies, she got it everywhere.
MOYERS: The master narrative. What is — that’s life?
MORRISON:: No, it’s white male life. The master narrative is whatever ideological script that is being imposed by the people in authority on everybody else. The master fiction. History. It has a certain point of view. So, when these little girls see that the most prized gift that they can get at Christmastime is this little white doll, that’s the master narrative speaking. “This is beautiful, this is lovely, and you’re not it.” So if you surrender to that, as Pecola did, the little girl, the eye of the story, is sort of a bridge there, and they’re sort of resistant, a little feisty about it. They don’t trust any adults. She is so needful, so completely needful, has so little, needs so much, she becomes the perfect victim, the total, you know pathetic one. And for her, there is no way back into the community and in society. For her, as an abused child, she can only escape into fantasy, into madness, which is part of what the mind is always creating, we can think that up.
MOYERS: What about Ella, in Beloved, who says, ”If anybody was to ask me,
I’d say don’t love nuthin’.”
MORRISON:: “Don’t love nuthin’.” I’ve heard that said a lot, “Don’t love nuthin’, save it.” You see, that was the — one of the devastating things, I think, in the experience of black people in this country, was the effort to prevent that, the full expression of their love. And that sentiment that Ella has is conservative, if you want to hang on to your sanity, hang on to yourself, don’t love anything, it’ll hurt. And of course, that’s true not just of African Americans, it’s true of all sorts of people. It’s so risky. People don’t want to get hurt. They don’t want to be left. They don’t want to be abandoned, you see. It’s as though love is always some present you’ve given somebody else. And it’s really a present you’re giving yourself.
MOYERS: On the other hand, there’s Pilate, your character who reminds me of my Aunt Mildred, who says in Song of Solomon, “I wish I’d knowed more people. I would have loved them all. If I’d a knowed more, I would have loved more.” There are people like that, too. Not all of your characters are driven by dark insanity.
MORRISON:: No, but that’s a totally generous, free woman. Fearless. She’s not afraid of anything. She has a few little things. She has a little vaguely supportive skill that she can perform. She doesn’t run anybody’s life. She’s available for almost infinite love, almost infinite. If you need her, she’ll deliver. And complete clarity about who she is, complete clarity.
MOYERS: Do you know people like that?
MORRISON:: Yes. In my family. Women who presented themselves to me that way. They were just absolutely clear, and absolutely reliable. And they had this sort of intimate relationship with God and death and all sorts of things that strike fear into the modern heart. They had a language for it. They had a — I don’t know, a blessedness, maybe. But they seemed not to be fearful. It’s to those women, you know, that I really feel an enormous responsibility whenever I answer questions such as the ones you’ve put to me and about how terrible it all is, how it’s all going down the drain. I think about my great-grandmother, and her daughter and her daughter, and all those women who had — I mean, incredible things happened to those people. They never knew from one day to the next about anything. But they believed in their dignity, that they were people of value, that they had to pass that on. And they did it, so that when I confront these sort of, oh, 20th century problems, look at—
MOYERS: These sort of little 20th century problems? But you seem to have defined one of them quite interestingly, the conflict of identity between Nell and Sula.
MORRISON:: Sula, yes.
MOYER: Nell gives herself to the community, needs the security, the comfort, the conformity of it. And Sula comes along, as you said—
MORRISON:: Destructive, yeah.
MOYERS: She’s out there, independent, self-uncontained and uncontainable, you said. Now, you call her the new black woman, the New World black woman.
MORRISON:: New World, yeah.
MORRISON:: Well, she’s experimental, she’s sort of an outlaw. I mean, you know, she’s not going to take it anymore. I mean, she’s at the — she’s available to her own imagination. She’s available to her own imagination. And other people’s stories, other people’s definitions, are not hers. The interesting thing about Sula is that she makes you do your own defining for yourself, So I was putting together two sort of strands of womanhood, certainly black womanhood is a nurturing black neighborhood woman who relies on that, but without the imagination of the New World, and then Sula, who doesn’t have the other roots, has no seed around which to grow. I happen to think that they need each other. I mean, that the New World black woman needs a little of the Old World black woman in her, and the other way around. I don’t think that they are completely fulfilled without the other. I think an ideal situation is a Sula who has some responsibilities and takes them upon herself, but at the same time has this, you know, flair. I don’t like those either/or scenarios where you do this, and you can’t do that. I think one of the interesting things that certainly feminine intelligence can bring is a kind of a look at the world as though you can do two things, or three things — the personality is more fluid, more receptive. The boundaries are not quite so defined. And I think that’s part of what modernism is.
MOYERS: A creation of a new kind of person who, like Nell, is committed to nurture and caring.
MORRISON:: Yeah, that you can rely on.
MOYERS: But like Sula, is defiant of the master narrative. I mean, she won’t let it write her script for her. She writes her own rules so that she can defy them.
MOYERS: There’s a combination there that we hope emerges.
MOORRISON: Yeah. If you see a — you know, if it happens — and I think I have seen women who strike me as being like that — you’ve had guests on your program who looked like that, women who are very independent, very fierce, artist women, black women, who at the same time, you know, can cook and sew and nurture and manage and so on. And I think that we’re probably in a very good position to do that, as black women. I mean, we’re managing households and other people’s children and two jobs and listening to everybody, and at the same time, creating, singing, holding, bearing, transferring the culture, for generations. We’ve been walking on water for 400 years. So now there’s the 20th century. We don’t have to jettison that, like, say, Jadine in Tar Baby and go off and totally westernize, Europeanize oneself. Nor do we have to be her aunt, Ondine. There’s something in between. There’s something in between, and that’s what’s really attractive and challenging. And since you can feel both worlds sort of pressing on one, it’s an ideal space for African-American women to inhabit.
MOYERS: Have these women you have created taught you anything?
MORRISON:: Oh, yeah. …All the books are questions for me. I mean, they start out — I write them because I don’t know something. I don’t — I want to know what does that feel like, that color thing, that — in The Bluest Eye, what does that feel like, to really feel that worthlessness? And the same thing is true with Sula and “Song of Solomon,” to all of them, was there was something in there I really did not understand? I really didn’t know. What is the problem between a pair of lovers who really love one another but have culturally different — I mean, is that what that battle is about, culture, class, in Tar Baby, when Son and Jadine can’t speak to one another? They’re all sort of right, but nobody will give. Nobody will say, “Okay, I’ll give you this little bit.” What do they learn? How can you manage to love another person under these circumstances, if your culture, your class, your education is that different? You know, where is the ground? And I — all the while I wrote that book I was so eager for them to make it, you know, sort of end up and get married and go to the seashore.
MOYERS: And yet—
MORRISON:: They didn’t. They all had to learn something else, I think, before that would happen. And with Beloved, oh, I began to think about, really, motherhood and, — you know, it’s not the all-encompassing role for women now; it can be a secondary role, or you don’t have to choose it. But on the other hand, there was something so valuable about what happens when one becomes a mother. For me, it was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me, having children.
MOYERS: Most — the cliches say, well, you’re immediately imprisoned by the love that you want to give, but you are a hostage to that love and to those small children and to their lives. You now define yourself like whites and blacks used to do with each other, by children. They are “-“ you’re limiting yourself. But you’re saying liberating.
MORRISON:: Liberating. Because of — the demands the children make are not the demands of a normal other. The children’s demands on me were things that nobody else ever asked me to do.
MOYERS: Such as?
MORRISON:: Be a good manager, have a sense of humor; deliver something that somebody can use. And they were not interested in all the things that other people were interested in, like what I was wearing, or, you know, if I was sensual, or if I was — you know, all of that went by. You’ve seen those eyes of those children. They don’t want to hear it. They want to know, what are you going to do now, today? And somehow, all of the baggage that I had accumulated as a person about what was valuable, so much of that just fell away. And I could not only be me, whatever that was, somebody actually needed me to be that. It’s different from being a daughter.
You know, you figure out how to do that. Or it’s different from being a sister. Those children could listen to them, look at them, they make demands that you can live up to. Not you can’t, because they don’t need all that overwhelming love, either. I mean, that’s just you being vain about it. If you listen to them, somehow you are able to free yourself from baggage and vanity and all sorts of things and deliver a better self, one that you like. The person that was in me, that I liked best, was the one my children seemed to want. That one. The one, when they walked in the room, do you frown at the children and say, “Pull your socks up,” or is their presence, you know — also, you begin to see the world through their eyes, again, which are your eyes. I found that extraordinary. It is true that it is physically confining, you can’t go anywhere. You have to be there.
MOYERS: You raised them by yourself, didn’t you?
MOYERS: Would you have liked to have had the help of a companion?
MORRISON:: Yes. It would have been just somebody else to think that, too. Yes, it would have been nice. The more the merrier. I needed a lot of help.
MOYERS: As I listen to you talk about the liberation of motherhood and love, I find all the more incredible Sethe’s willingness to kill her son—
MORRISON:: Oh, yeah.
MOYERS: —Rather than let the slavecatcher kidnap him. Was that a far-out figment
of your imagination to make a dramatic point, or did you find in your research
into the past the-re were mothers willing to do that?
MORRISON:: That was Margaret Garner’s story. There was a slave woman in Cincinnati named Margaret Garner who escaped from Kentucky; arrived in Cincinnati with her mother-in-law. The situation was a little different; I think she came with four others. And right after she got there, the man who owned her found her. And she ran out into the shed and tried to kill all her children, just like that. And she was about to bang one’s head against the wall when they stopped her. Now, she became a cause celebre for the Abolitionists, because; you see, they were trying to improve the situation a little bit and get her tried for murder, because that would have been a big coup, if they had gotten her tried for murder. Because it would assume that she had some responsibility over those children. But they were not successful. She was tried for the real crime, which was stolen property, and convicted and returned to that same man.
But what struck me, because I didn’t want to know a great deal about her story because there would be no space for me to invent — was that when they interviewed her, she was not a mad dog killer, she was this very calm, you know, in her 20s, woman. And all she said was, “They will not live like that. They will not live like that.” And her mother-in-law, who was a preacher, said, “I watched her do it, and I neither encouraged her nor discouraged her.” So for them, it was a dilemma. This is a real dilemma. “Shall I permit my children, who are my best thing, to live like I have lived, and I know that’s terrible, or to take them out?” So she decided to kil1 them, and kill herself. And that was noble. That was the identification. She was saying: “I’m a human being. These are my children. This script I am writing.”
MOYERS: Could you have put your — did you ever put yourself in her position, and ask—
MORRISON:: In the writing of the book, yeah.
MOYERS: —could I have done that to my three sons?
MORRISON:: I asked it a lot. As a matter of fact; the reason the character Beloved enters is because I couldn’t answer it. I felt just like Baby Suggs. I didn’t know whether I would do it or not. You hear stories of that in slavery and Holocaust situations, I mean, where women have got to figure it out fast, I mean really fast. So the only person I felt who had the right to ask her that question was the child she killed.
MOYERS: The child.
MORRISON:: And she can ask her: “What did you do that for? Who are you talking about? This is better? What do you know?” Because I just — it was, for me, an impossible decision. Someone gave me the line for it at one time, which I have found useful, is that it was the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it.
MOYERS: And you’ve never answered it in your own case, “Could I do it?”
MORRISON:: I’ve asked. I don’t know.
MOYERS: [voice-over] We’ll conclude this conversation with Toni Morrison in a later edition of the World of Ideas. I’m Bill Moyers.