Toni Morrison: Dealing with Race in Literature (Part Two)

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The award-winning novelist continues her discussion about her writing with Bill. In this half hour, they discuss the lack of discourse about race in literary criticism and the silent history of black characters in books.

Morrison says: “His presence, never heard, and that they don’t speak in the text themselves. They are not permitted to say things. So that the academy or the history can’t really permit them to be center stage in the discourse of the text, in art, in literature. But in public discourse, when we talk about neighborhoods or policy or schools or welfare or practically anything, the real subject is race, or is class. I mean, that’s what it’s about. We may call it disadvantaged or undeveloped or remedial or, you know, all these sort of euphemisms for poor people and/or black people and/or any non-white person in this country. That is the subject of practically all of the political discourse there is, but it has been kept out of the art world.”

In her five books, she has transported millions of readers into the experience of being black in America. 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 and the Pulitzer Prize. Fifteen universities have awarded her honorary degrees.


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 her widely noted essay in the Michigan Quarterly Review discussing the Afro-American presence in American literature.

[interviewing] You said in your lecture at the University of Michigan that it’s a great relief to you that terms like “white” and “race” are now discussable in literature. How so?

TONI MORRISON: Because a language had been developed – and has still some sovereignty – in which we mean white and we mean black, or we mean ethnic, but we say something else. And so there’s an enormous amount of confusion. It’s difficult even to understand the literature of the country if you can’t say white and you can’t say black and you can’t say race. One of the things I was doing in that speech was using some of the scholarship that other Africanist scholars had already done, in order to say at last, we can look clearly, for example, at Herman Melville. At Edgar Allan Poe. At Willa Cather. At real issues that were affecting founding as well as 20th century American writers, because now it’s not incoherent, because we can talk about it now. We don’t have to call it nature, or we don’t have to call it radical political. We can say what it was, and that is a relief.

BILL MOYERS:The public rhetoric has been filled with race and white and black, and so that it seems a surprise to hear someone say, “Well, now, at least, we can discuss those in literature.” You’re saying that they weren’t a part of our tradition of storytelling, novels?

TONI MORRISON: Oh, no. Not in the critique, not in the discourse, not in the reviews, not in the scholarship around these works. That was not a subject to be discussed. It was not worthy of discussion. Not only that, it admitted that the master narrative could not encompass all these things. The silence was absolutely important, the silence of the black person.

BILL MOYERS:The silence, you mean that his voice, her voice was never heard?

TONI MORRISON: His presence, never heard, and that they don’t speak in the text themselves. They are not permitted to say things. So that the academy or the history can’t really permit them to be center stage in the discourse of the text, in art, in literature. But in public discourse, when we talk about neighborhoods or policy or schools or welfare or practically anything, the real subject is race, or is class. I mean, that’s what it’s about. We may call it disadvantaged or undeveloped or remedial or, you know, all these sort of euphemisms for poor people and/or black people and/or any non-white person in this country. That is the subject of practically all of the political discourse there is, but it has been kept out of the art world. There is a wonderful collection of paintings, The Image of the Black in the Western World. No one thinks of Hogarth, for example, as having painted all these black people. Or no one thinks of all of the importance, the changes, that the iconography of black people went through. They’re everywhere. The country, particularly this one, is seething with the presence of black people. But there had – it was necessary to deny in critical language that presence when we discussed it. I read all those books in graduate school, as everybody did. We never talked about what was really going on. We talked about Huck Finn and Jim, and we’d think about how wonderful the innocence of this sort of radical child is, kind of a paradigm for the American as he comes of age, his generosity –

BILL MOYERS:The white American.

TONI MORRISON: – the white American, because it is about the construction of a white male. But what’s serviceable to him, to Huck, is this grown-up black man who is never called a man, who is the battle plain or the arena through which Huck can become a moral person. He becomes a moral person because of his association with this black man who is never called a man. And to Mark Twain’s credit, he provides an extraordinary scene where you realize that Jim has a wife, and has a child, and he’s trying to get home. Huck’s trying to get to the territory, he’s trying to get home. And a terrible little thing happened at that moment when he told his daughter to shut the door and she didn’t do it, and he told her again, and she didn’t do it. And he got annoyed and he hit her, and then later realizes she was sick, she had spinal meningitis or something, and she had lost her hearing. And he’s reflecting on that. And he tells that story to Huck. And suddenly there’s this man who has a context.

BILL MOYERS:Mm-hmm. He has a family –

TONI MORRISON: He has a family.

BILL MOYERS:– he has emotions, like –

TONI MORRISON: Emotions. And it’s an overwhelming thing for Huck, who can say, interestingly enough, these people think about children the same way we do. It’s a revelation.

BILL MOYERS:You were saying earlier, when we were talking before we began the conversation, that in the movie, Glory, the only reference that is made to the fact that these black troopers have a family is once, when they’re being paid.

TONI MORRISON: Exactly. And they say, “We need the money.” I mean, “I have a family.” But those men are fighting and dying and willing to die for a very important cause, freedom, but it’s never contextualized. They’re not seen as having children, wives, aunts, mothers. They are a family, that doesn’t matter, for whom they are perceived of as not feeling responsibility and who are not responsible to them. And it’s so absolutely contrary to the real life of black people for whom the family and the relations are of paramount importance. There is no life outside the family for the traditional black, you know, person.

BILL MOYERS:The artist is supposed to carry our moral imagination. It’s astonishing to me that in the 1840s and 1850s, on the eve of the Civil War, in the period of traumatic conflict over abolition and slavery, that the American novelists were not dealing with those issues. Hawthorne was writing European Gothic, with ruins and ghosts, the supernatural. James Fenimore Cooper was writing bestsellers set in primeval forests. The best-selling novels, in fact, on the eve of the Civil War were written – were soppy stories written by women about courageous orphans. Your people never show up in the novels of that time. How do you explain that?

TONI MORRISON: Well, they do. They show up. They’re everywhere. They’re in Hawthorne’s power of blackness. They’re in all the dark symbols. They’re in the haunting. What’s he haunted by? What is the guilt? What is that real sin that is really worrying Hawthorne all his life? They’re there.

BILL MOYERS:You think it was?

TONI MORRISON: It’s all in Fenimore Cooper. I think it was. I don’t care where he took the story. Novelists, writers are informed by the major currents of the world. It’s in Melville, it’s everywhere in Poe.

BILL MOYERS:But blacks don’t emerge as people with –

TONI MORRISON: Oh, no, no, no.

BILL MOYERS:– context, with family –

TONI MORRISON: No. Not three-dimensional. Oh, no. Oh, no.

BILL MOYERS:-with emotions.

TONI MORRISON: No. The characters are discredited and ridiculed and perjured. But the idea of those characters, the construction of them as an outside representation of anarchy, collapse, illicit sexuality, all of these negative things that are – that they feared are projected onto this presence. So that you’d find these extraordinary gaps and evasions and destabilizations. The chances of getting a truly complex human black person in a book in this country in the 19th century was unlikely. Melville came probably very close, with, you know, sorts of classic complexities, but not real flesh-and-blood people.

BILL MOYERS:They were symbols, again, they were –

TONI MORRISON: Symbols, more, yeah, complicated symbols.

BILL MOYERS:– shadows, shadows on the wall back there, at the rear of his cave.

TONI MORRISON: But he gets into bed with him in the very first scene. Ishmael goes to bed with Queequeg. Each one of those white people in Moby Dick has a black brother. They’re paired together. Fedallah is the shadow of Ahab. Queequeg is the shadow of Ishmael. They all have them, and they work together in tandem all through the book. So that what I am saying is that even though the realistic representation is not there, the sympathetic one you get, sort of, in – if you can call it, you know, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the information, subtextual information, it is powerful, what they are saying, is all self-reflexive, it’s all about the fabrication of a white male American.

BILL MOYERS:Isn’t that tension, the fate of this American experience, I mean, from the beginning, when blacks were the unacknowledged presence at Philadelphia, when the Constitution was being written –

TONI MORRISON: Mm-hmm, exactly.
BILL MOYERS:– in the constant – well, I think your term for it is unspeakable –

TONI MORRISON: Things unspoken.

BILL MOYERS:Unspeakable things unspoken. Always we are defining ourselves by the other.


BILL MOYERS:Even when it is not spoken, this deep and psychic struggle going on to –


BILL MOYERS:– to see and not see the other.

TONI MORRISON: That’s right. And it can become truly pathological. Truly crazy.

BILL MOYERS:In what sense?

TONI MORRISON: Well, when you think about the instruction one needs to become a racist, or the instruction one receives to become the victim of racism, it’s truly debilitating. I don’t mean it’s vaguely unsettling. I mean it is – I think it can get to be of clinical proportions. It can – it’s as though you –

BILL MOYERS:Requiring the surgery of a civil war to attempt to extricate us.

TONI MORRISON: Exactly. And what it does on a personal level is, you – if someone says to me, you know: “This hand is not your hand, it doesn’t belong to you. It’s on your body, but it’s alien,” and I’m convinced. So what I do is, it falls off, right, it atrophies. And I have to figure out something to do with it. It’s a true severance of part of myself. It’s a true severance of the body politic. You know, racism is not old. I mean, it seems to have been around forever, but, say, a thousand years? The human race is what, four million years old? It’s not a fixed star.

BILL MOYERS:The interesting thing is, slavery is older than racism.



TONI MORRISON: This is why there’s a double bind in this country, because you had the twin evils of slavery, which, I don’t know, everybody knew something about. Everybody’s ancestors knew something about that. But you have the visible other, who cannot disappear, who cannot go past, who cannot – so wherever he is, he is the icon and he is the reminder, not only of slavery, not only of degradation, not only of dishonor, but the associations that are racial. And that persists. That persists.

BILL MOYERS:And you say that it deeply infected the literature of –


BILL MOYERS:– of escapism, in a sense, in the 19th century, when these gifted men – and they did produce a wonderful body of work –


BILL MOYERS:– were writing wonderfully romantic and I mean harlequin novels –


BILL MOYERS:– they were out there in the imagination, where you weren’t.

TONI MORRISON: – no. There was an Eden, and what you needed for that Eden was for it to not be susceptible to corruption, that can’t fall. America was, you know, this Eden for everyone. It was beautiful and perceived of, although it wasn’t, as uninhabited. I was reading something in Bernard Balin, and it said, he bought this – this land was perceived of as being this large uninhabited tract, surrounded by tribes of savages. So we had this uninhabited land.


TONI MORRISON: A void, right. So that, of course, they had to fill. And when they came, you know, they were, you know, dreamers. And what one has to remember, I think, over and over again is what they were running from.

BILL MOYERS:Which was?

TONI MORRISON: Poverty, humiliation, jail, prostitution. I mean, some of them were nice clerks and so on, but they were – some of them were not even running to freedom. They were running from it, I mean, the license that the Puritans understood as corrupt, they were trying to get it over here so they could be disciplined and contained.

BILL MOYERS:Georgia, like Australia, was settled by – they won’t like this down in Georgia, but the fact of history is the fact, it was settled by debtors and ex-prisoners and criminals getting a second start over here.

TONI MORRISON: Yeah. That’s right. Now, it could have happened that all those people who came here figured it all out and eventually slavery was of no use economically, perhaps. But to make an American, you had to have all these people from these different classes, different countries, different languages feel close to one another. So what does an Italian peasant have to say to a German burgher, and what does an Irish peasant have to say to a Latvian? You know, really, they tended to balkanize. But what they could all do is not be black. So it is not coincidental that the second thing every immigrant learns when he gets off the boat is that word, “nigger.” In that way, he’s establishing oneness, solidarity and union with the country. That is the marker. That’s the one.

BILL MOYERS:What kind of need did that meet in the psyche, do you think?

TONI MORRISON: Well, these were people who were frightened. I mean, I would be. You go to a strange country; maybe you have some friends there. You need a job. You’ve cut your bridges. You’ve said something’s terrible back home. You go and you emigrate, you go someplace else. And it’s under duress. You’re facing chaos. And when you’re facing that chaos you have to name it, or violate it, or control it in some way. So you want to belong to this large idea, you want to belong. And one learns very quickly what to belong to. And you belong to this non-black population, which is everywhere. But it serves. It serves. It has always served economically a lot of forces in this country.

BILL MOYERS:That I can understand, but the failure of the writer to deal – to cross the boundary, to incorporate the other into the novel, is one that I don’t understand. Although I don’t want to run the risk of trying to read into the past –

TONI MORRISON: No, of course, of course.

BILL MOYERS:– the morays and visions and insights of the moment.

TONI MORRISON: Of the 20th century [crosstalk]. But I think many of them did. I think that book by Willa Cather, although she did it late, it’s sort of 1938, 1939, ’40, but still, her life, her writing life expanded, you know, earlier than that, of this book, Safira and the Slave Girl, I think that is a genuine attempt to talk about power, jealousy, othering, the process of entering the other. In that confrontation she sets up with a white, paralyzed, ill mistress and her young about-to-be-a-woman servant, and her response to that is to fabricate some mystical affair that’s not taking place between this girl and her husband, and to invite her own relative down in order to rape and seduce her, and to destroy her. It’s a difficult book, it’s a problematic book, but this is an instance in which a woman – and the women do it, I think, more easily than the men.


TONI MORRISON: I don’t know. I think they’re already othered, maybe.


TONI MORRISON: But when you look at the literature of the women, I mean, Harriet Beecher Stowe, after all, is a woman. So is Cather. Gertrude Stein. I mean, in Carson McCullers and reams of others, they are more likely – and especially southern women. It’s interesting. Flannery O’Connor. I mean, when they do –

BILL MOYERS:Eudora Welty.

TONI MORRISON: – Eudora Welty. There’s something – and I know this is going to be a great generalization that’s going to be proven fallacious, but it seems to me, in the literature that emerges, in which there’s a real place for a complicated – either a complicated black person or a problematized relationship between a white and a black, frequently the people who generate that are women, and unbelievably, many of them have lived in the South. That’s interesting to me.

BILL MOYERS:Why a different psyche there?

TONI MORRISON: I think it’s the intimacy.


TONI MORRISON: I mean, you know, the intimacy and the distance that is probably – had been historically much more complicated in the South than in the North, where there was a lot of illusion and delusion and evasion, I mean, you know, you could sort of hide behind very virulent racism for a lot in the North because of the way in which it was constructed. In the South, it was almost impossible to do that.

BILL MOYERS:I don’t mean this to be a trick question, it just occurs to me, though, is it conceivable that you could write a novel in which blacks are not center stage?

TONI MORRISON: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS:You think the public would let you, because the expectations are you made such a – you’ve achieved such fame and made such a contribution by writing about black people in your novel that they now expect you to write about black people.

TONI MORRISON: I will, but I won’t identify them as such. That’s the difference. There are two moments in Beloved in which I tried to do it, in which I set up a situation in which two people are talking, two black people. And some other people enter the scene, and they’re never identified as black or white. But the reader knows instantly. Not because I use the traditional language of stereotype. There are two moments, one when Pauldie and Sapphire are walking down the street and he touches her shoulder to lead her off of the sidewalk onto the ground, because three women are walking this way. That’s all, but you know who that is. There’s another moment when he’s sort of in despair, talking to a friend, and a man rides up on a horse and says, “where is I don’t know what I name is, Valerie?”, and he calls a woman by her first name, “Doesn’t she live around here somewhere?” And you can tell by the reactions of the black men that he is a white man, but I don’t have to say it. So my thing that I really want to do and expect to do is to do what you say, but I am not writing about white people. I will be writing about black people. But I won’t have to do what they did in all these 19th-century novels. They always had to say it. I mean, you couldn’t say, “Jupiter walked in the room,” or “Mary.” You said “the Negro,” “the slave,” “the black,” the this. You know, it always required its own modifier. You take the modifiers out, you see. If you had – if Willa Cather had entitled her book, Safira and Nancy, that changes the whole book. I mean, the strategies are different, the power relationships are different. But she said Safira
and the Slave Girl
. She has no first name, you know, in the title.

BILL MOYERS:In fact, as you talk, I remember now, back to my own reading in those periods, that you were always called, “the something.”

TONI MORRISON: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS:Yeah. There was not a name, there was an object, a noun.

TONI MORRISON: No name, that’s right.

BILL MOYERS:“The Negro,” “the slave,” “the Negress.”

TONI MORRISON: That’s right. Exactly. That’s right. Or “my.” I challenged my students last year if they could find a 19th-century novel in which a black male appeared and was called a man, without the possessive pronoun or when he was not in the company of a black female, in which case they were distinguishing gender. Just find one reference in which somebody says black man, and I’ll take you to dinner, I said.

BILL MOYERS:Did you have to pay out any –

TONI MORRISON: Uh-uh, not yet.

BILL MOYERS:– you haven’t.

TONI MORRISON: Uh-uh. But if I write a book and I can do that, whatever it will mean to people who read it, they won’t be confused. That will be part of my job. But can you think what it would mean for me and my relationship to language and to text to be able to do that without having to always explain to the reader the race of the characters. Even if, in my mind, they are all black, or African-Americans, or whatever the word is at the time. If I don’t have to say that.

BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] From the New York Public Library, this has been a conversation with Toni Morrison. I’m Bill Moyers.

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