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AMY GOODMAN: Today, in a special broadcast, we spend the hour remembering Toni Morrison, one of the nation’s most influential writers. She died in August at the age of 88 from complications of pneumonia. In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her classic work Beloved. Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. She did not publish her first novel, The Bluest Eye, until she was 39 years old. She wrote it while taking care of her two young sons as a single mother and juggling a day job as a book editor at Random House. As an editor, she’s widely credited with helping widen the literary stage for African Americans and feminists. Much of Morrison’s writings focused on the female black experience in America. Her work was deeply concerned with race and history, especially the sin and crime of transatlantic slavery and the potentially restorative power of community. In 2012, President Obama awarded Toni Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Toni Morrison, she is used to a little distraction. As a single mother working at a publishing company by day, she would carve out a little time in the evening to write, often with her two sons pulling on her hair and tugging at her earrings. Once a baby spit up on her tablet, so she wrote around it. Circumstances may not have been ideal, but the words that came out were magical. Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt. From Song of Solomon to Beloved, Toni reaches us deeply, using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct and inclusive. She believes that language arcs toward the place where meaning might lie. And the rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride.
AMY GOODMAN: Upon her death, President Obama said, quote, “Toni Morrison was a national treasure. Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful — a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy.” This is an interview Toni Morrison gave to the Australian journalist Jana Wendt in 1998 for the program Toni Morrison: Uncensored.
JANA WENDT: You don’t think you will ever change and write books that incorporate white — white lives into them substantially?
TONI MORRISON: I have done.
JANA WENDT: In a substantial way?
TONI MORRISON: You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you? Because you could never ask a white author, “When are you going to write about black people?” Whether he did or not, or she did or not. Even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center.
JANA WENDT: And being used to being in the center.
TONI MORRISON: And being used to being in the center, and saying, you know, “Is it ever possible that you will enter the mainstream?” It’s inconceivable that where I already am is the mainstream.
JANA WENDT: Oh, no, that wasn’t the implication of my question. I think you are very, very much in the mainstream. It’s a question of the subject of your narrative, whether you want to alter the parameters of it, whether you see any benefit in doing that, or will you clearly see disadvantages in doing it, from your own point of view?
TONI MORRISON: Artistic disadvantages. There are no pluses for me. Being an African-American writer is sort of like being a Russian writer, who writes about Russia, in Russian, for Russians. And the fact that it gets translated and read by other people is a benefit. It’s a plus. But he’s not obliged to ever consider writing about French people or Americans or anybody.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Toni Morrison being interviewed by the well-known Australian journalist Jana Wendt in 1998.
Well, today we remember Toni Morrison through those who knew and loved her — editors, writers, musicians — as we bring you highlights from a celebration of her life, a memorial, that took place here in New York on November 21st at Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It drew thousands. We begin with Oprah Winfrey, who produced and starred in the 1998 film adaptation of Morrison’s Beloved. Oprah’s Book Club also brought Toni Morrison’s novels to a wide audience.
OPRAH WINFREY: The first time I came face to face with Toni Morrison was in Maya Angelou’s backyard for a gathering of some of the most illustrious black people you’ve ever heard of, to celebrate Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize victory. My head and my heart were swirling. Every time I looked at her, I mean, I couldn’t even speak. I had to catch my breath.
And I was seated across from her at dinner, and there was a moment when I saw Ms. Morrison just gesture to the waiter for some water, and I almost tripped over myself trying to get up from the table to get it for her. And Maya said, “Sit down. We have people here to do that. You’re a guest.” So I sat down. I obeyed, of course.
But it was not easy, I tell you, to sit still or to keep myself inside my body. I felt like I was all of 7 years old, because, after all, she was there — and so many others that day: Mari Evans, Sister Angela Davis was there, Nikki Giovanni was there, Rita Dove was there, Toni Cade Bambara was there. It was a writers’ mecca. And I was there sitting at the table taking it all in. And as I look back, that day remains one of the great thrills of my life.
You know, I didn’t really get to speak to Toni Morrison that day. I was just too bedazzled. But I had already previously called her up to ask about acquiring the film rights to Beloved. After I finished reading it, I found her number, called her, and when I asked her, “Is it true that sometimes people have to read over your work in order to understand it, to get the full meaning?” and she bluntly replied, “That, my dear, is called reading.” I was embarrassed. But that statement actually gave me the confidence, years later, when I formed the book club on the Oprah show, to choose her work. I chose more of her books than any other author over the years — _Song of Solomon_ first, Sula, The Bluest Eye and Paradise. And if any one of our viewers ever complained that it was hard going or challenging reading Toni Morrison, I simply said, “That, my dear, is called reading.”
There was no distance between Toni Morrison and her words. I loved her novels. But lately I’ve been rereading her essays, which underscore that she was also one of our most influential public intellectuals. In one essay, she said, “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.” And this: “Facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.” She thought deeply about the role of the artist and concluded that writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of all the artists. She believed it was a writer’s job to rip the veil off, to bore down to the truth. She took the canon, and she broke it open. Among her legacies, the writers she paved the way for, many of them here in this beautiful space tonight celebrating her.
Toni Morrison was her words. She is her words, for her words often were confrontational. She spoke the unspoken. She probed the unexplored. She wrote of eliminating the white gaze, of not wanting to speak for black people but wanting to speak to them, to be among them, to be among all people. Her words don’t permit the reader to down them quickly and forget them. We know that. They refuse to be skimmed. They will not be ignored. They can gut you, turn you upside down, make you think you just don’t get it. But when you finally do, when you finally do — and you always will when you open yourself to what she is offering — you experience, as I have many times reading Toni Morrison, a kind of emancipation, a liberation, an ascension to another level of understanding, because by taking us down there amid the pain, the shadows, she urges us to keep going, to keep feeling, to keep trying to figure it all out, with her words and her stories as guide and companion. And she asks us to follow our own pain, to reckon with it and, at last, to transcend it.
And while she’s no longer on this Earth, her magnificent soul, her boundless imagination, her fierce passion, her gallantry — she told me once, “I’ve always known I was gallant.” Who says that? Who even knows they are gallant? Well, her gallantry remains always to help us navigate our way through.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Oprah Winfrey. We’ll hear more from her at the end of the broadcast. This is Toni Morrison’s publisher, Erroll McDonald.
ERROLL McDONALD: The United States Senate, in a rare show of bipartisanship, approved a resolution honoring Toni Morrison’s life and legacy. Put forth by Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, Democrat and Republican, respectively, of Ohio, where Toni was born, the resolution pointedly includes Toni Morrison in the patriarchal American literary canon, citing Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Emerson, Whitman and Faulkner as her peers.
But Toni Morrison transcends this well-intentioned, if parochial, commendation. She is no mere great American writer. A free artist of herself, she is a world historical figure, a towering presence in the world republic of letters, who has had a seismic impact on the global economy of literary prestige.
So it is that we have gathered in this house at this time to offer a collective praise song in celebration of Toni Morrison’s life, a life evermore about to be as generations today and to come read her work. Let’s all rejoice as we extol the richness of her personhood, the sublimity of her art, the exceptionalism of her stature and the power of her moral imagination.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Toni Morrison’s publisher, Erroll McDonald. This is Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Hello again, Ms. Morrison. I’ve been seeing you everywhere since you surrendered to the air and took your flight. I see you in bleak skies that are as seductive as sunshine. I see you in daisy trees. I see you in benches by the road. I hear your voice in church hymns, spirituals and in jazz tunes, because you were, as you wrote of Jadine in Tar Baby, not only a woman, but a sound, all the music we have ever wanted to play, as well as a world and a way of being in it. I keep seeing you, too, in shiny, beautiful hair pins weaved through gray locks. Each time you gifted me one of those hair pins, I felt as though you were sharing pieces of your infinite crown with me. I still feel your presence and your sister writer friends who folded me in your embrace. …
Your work, my goodness, the work is sublime. And we do not just read it, we experience it. You gave us both lullabies and battle cries. You turned pain into flesh, and you brought spirits to life. You urged us to be dangerously free.
You led this foreigner to a different type of home. Your work has carried me through adolescence and marriage, through parenthood and orphanhood. I have recited and paraphrased your sentences to myself while cradling the tiny bodies of my newborn daughters. “They get bigger, older, but grown.” What’s that supposed to mean? And the skeletal faces of my dying parents, soft as cream — I hoped that they would go soft as cream. And I came to think of you, as you wrote in The Bluest Eye, as “somebody with hands who does not want me to die.” “Death is as natural as life,” you wrote. And you sure did live in this world.
Some of us called you mother. To you, Ford, she was Mama. Some of us called you grandmother, grand. Some of us called you sister, soror. Many in this room called you teacher, editor, mentor. We called you our beloved. Others called you friend, which is no casual title to you, because friendship is a kind of religion in your work, including friendships of the mind. We still call you by those names, but now we will also call you timeless. We now also call you ancestor.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Haitian-American writer Edwidge Dandicat, speaking at the Celebration of Life for Toni Morrison. We’ll continue to look at her life and legacy after break.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Toshi Reagon performing “There and Back Again” at the Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with the Toni Morrison memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Toni Morrison was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also won a Pulitzer Prize. At her memorial, thousands packed in. We turn now to professor, author, activist Angela Davis, once hunted by the FBI, imprisoned and exonerated. Her autobiography was edited by Toni Morrison.
ANGELA DAVIS: Soon after my first encounter with Toni Morrison, she became my editor. I probably would not have written an autobiography if anyone other than Toni had approached me. And for me today, the real significance of that book is the arena it created for an instant friendship that lasted almost half a century. I was her housemate for a while. According to her, she was also my “handler” when we traveled together on tour. We were traveling companions both within and beyond the continental United States. We jogged together in Spring Valley. We hiked in the Virgin Islands. We explored Scandinavia together. She was my big sister, a friend who made me feel that without her friendship, I could never have become who I imagine myself to be today. So many of us feel that we have found ourselves through, because of and in relation to Toni and her work.
I was in my late twenties when we met. And although she was in her early forties, she was not yet Toni Morrison, the internationally acclaimed writer. But she was on a mission to open the U.S. publishing industry to black writers and activists. “I wanted to give back something,” she later said to Hilton Als. “I wasn’t marching. I didn’t go to anything. I didn’t join anything. But I could make sure there was a published record of those who did march and did put themselves on the line.” Toni also understood much better than anyone else, I believe, that deep, radical change happens not so much because people march and put themselves on the line, however important this kind of activism might be, but rather because we collectively learn to imagine ourselves on different terms with the world — we realize that we can change, along with the conditions of our lives — and that it is the task of writers and other artists to help produce these profound shifts. This is why she wrote. And this is why she published authors like Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Henry Dumas, who was shot to death by a New York transit police officer in 1968. Nothing was serendipitous here.
I don’t remember formalities when we first met. One moment, I had no idea who Toni Morrison was, and the next moment, it felt like we had been friends forever. I learned so much from Toni: the evocative element of perception and language, the expansiveness of the political beyond traditional realms of power, the importance of identifying and attempting to contest the white gaze, the male gaze. But what I value most among all of her many gifts is how she demonstrated a way of being in the world that allowed her simultaneously to inhabit multiple dimensions. She was always here and there at the same time, totally present with you, but also, at the same time, creating new universes.
Many years ago, when her sons were quite young, I was staying with them in Spring Valley. Toni had already written The Bluest Eye and Sula. She made hot breakfast every morning before heading to the city, where she would drop off the boys at school and be in her office at Random House by 9. She always began her writing early in the morning but would jot down ideas throughout the day. I remember one morning, when she was cooking eggs, I believe. While the eggs were on the stove, she reached for her yellow pad and pencil, which were always nearby, and jotted something down. And again and again. I remember her doing this when we were driving, when the traffic would come to a halt, for example, at the George Washington Bridge. She was writing Song of Solomon. And all of this time, she had been engaged with Milkman and Hagar and Pilate and the other characters. She was obviously fully involved with them. The book itself is the evidence. But at the same time, she was absolutely present for her young sons, or while driving or in conversation. She was never only partially paying attention. She was always 100% engaged. This is why I think her vision was so extraordinary. She never drew stark lines separating fiction and the real. And her fiction was often much more real than reality, and especially the current political reality.
Toni last visited me and my partner in Oakland a few years ago. And we talked repeatedly of her upcoming visit, when we would, in California, go up to the country to see the night sky, and especially the Milky Way. She was inhabiting one of the characters in her next novel, a boy who loved the night sky. And so I think of her now exploring the infinitude of our galaxy.
We are probably all reflecting on the fact that so many out in the world are mourning Toni Morrison and are proclaiming that she is not gone because her extraordinary work fills the void that was created by her passing. But we who knew her, who know her, and certainly treasure her work, for us, it is the greatest challenge to our collective imagination to envision a world without the glorious laughter of our dear, dear Toni.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s professor Angela Davis. This is author Fran Lebowitz.
FRAN LEBOWITZ: Many years ago, I was on a book tour with a book that was doing very well, until it got a truly terrible review in The New York Times. Toni was in Paris. I was in either Portland or Seattle. I know there’s supposed to be some vast difference between these two, but I can never remember what that is. Despite the thousand-hour time difference, Toni called me from Paris.
“Listen,” she said. “This doesn’t mean a thing. This has nothing to do with your book. This is personal. This guy just doesn’t like you.”
“Don’t take it seriously,” she said. “Reviews aren’t important. Books are important. You have to learn to ignore these kind of reviews, like I did. Don’t you remember when this person said that about me? Don’t you remember when that person said this about me?”
“No,” I said. Of course, I did not.
So she then proceeded to quote, word for word, at least half a dozen of her bad reviews, none of which, as she said, mattered at all. And many of Toni’s bad reviews were absolutely despicable. They reeked of misogyny and racism.
So, what kind of friend was Toni? Toni was the kind of friend who called you to read you her bad reviews. But as Toni got older, she kind of lost her grip on her bad reviews and genuinely seemed to shrug them off. This enraged me.
“How can you talk to that guy?” I would say. “Don’t you remember what he wrote about you?”
“Oh, well,” she would reply. “It was a long time ago. I don’t really care.”
But I really cared. So I assigned myself the task of holding Toni’s grudges for her. She found this extremely entertaining. But I was perfectly serious. And I still am. So, please, let’s keep that in mind. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s author Fran Lebowitz. This is Ta-Nehisi Coates. He won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me.
TA-NEHISI COATES: It has taken me some time to truly understand how much I owe to Toni Morrison. What I know is that when I was young, the sheer poetry and economy of her sentences enthralled me; that I grew older, and the sentences deepened for me as I came to appreciate what that poetry and economy was doing, how it gave voice to a pain that was at once distant and close. What I know is I’ve been rereading Toni Morrison since her passing, and I’m amazed how only now, at this late hour, I have come to appreciate what everyone here must already appreciate: that Toni Morrison was really funny. Darkly, darkly humorous.
What I know is that Toni Morrison taught me the meaning of grown folks’ literature, the kind that, to paraphrase my sister Jasmine, is as merciless with its characters and as merciless with us as life itself, but like a trenchant memory, we are drawn back to that work, and slowly we come to see the lesson that grown folks’ literature is trying to bestow on us. Toni Morrison has been bestowing lessons on me for my entire life.
To explain what I mean by this, I have to take you back to 1974, before I was born, and into my father’s small, struggling bookstore on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore. If you had gone in that store in 1974, you would have found copies of what my father considered to be one of the most magical books he’d ever encountered. And that’s because this book was all about him, all about black people. And the book was not so much a book as a work of visual art, a pastiche of ancient maps, antebellum newspaper clippings, handbills, quilt work, photographs, song lyrics and poetry. This marvel was called The Black Book, and my dad had never seen anything like it. He wondered how it could be that the white folks in publishing had brought such a thing to be. There was no author identified on the cover of The Black Book, and thus no way of knowing that this book of magic was not the work of white folks at all. It was the work of Toni Morrison.
My dad’s bookstore was not long for this world, sadly. But The Black Book was. When he shut down the store in the late ’70s, he brought it home, put it in his library, where it sat waiting for his young son to discover. The Black Book is the first work of Toni Morrison’s I ever encountered. It was chaotic to me — printing fonts which switch on the same page. The imagery, sometimes of Sambos, other times of black men burnt alive, other times of the enslaved, was haunting. I did not like The Black Book, but I was very much arrested by it. And in an era before smartphones and Google, I spent hours flipping through its pages, imbibing lessons on aesthetics that only now, like life itself, like grown folks’ literature, are being revealed to me.
I think that the principal lesson was this: Black is beautiful, but it ain’t always pretty. Indeed, for black to be beautiful, it must very often not be pretty, that beauty must ache, that beauty must sometimes repulse, even as it enchants, even as it enthralls, even as it arrests.
So Toni Morrison was with me as a child in my parents’ library. She was with me at Howard University when I walked in her flowing shadow and saw her in 1995 give the annual Charter Day address. She was with me as I sought my own voice as a writer. And she was with me when I published my own work. And she was not there to anoint me or even celebrate me. She was there to challenge me; to force me to remember my lineage; to remember the standard that was set before me by all my literary ancestors, including now the queen of them all, Toni Morrison herself; to not indulge in gallantry; to not indulge in pretty; and to remember that this is not a fairy tale. This is grown folks’ literature. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s prize-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is Kevin Young, poet and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
KEVIN YOUNG: It is an honor to be here celebrating our genius Toni Morrison in this august place. This, as you know, is a sacred space, not least of which because it is resonant with writing and writers, who, like Morrison, wrote themselves free. It is also, as you know, the space where James Baldwin’s funeral was held in 1987, when Toni Morrison offered a eulogy for her friend, addressed to you. …
I was fortunate to get to know and meet Toni Morrison a number of times. My first in-person encounter with her was during my freshman year of college, when I talked my way into an advanced seminar on her work. What a privilege reading all her novels in the order that they were written. It was a condensed approximation of the wonder and wisdom that had greeted faithful readers over the years. She freed something in me.
That year, Morrison came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to read from Beloved, then newly out. With a standing-room-only crowd and people sitting in the aisles of the giant Unitarian Church, my friends and I literally sat at her feet. Arriving a few minutes late, Morrison passed right over and in between us, so close that I could almost touch the hem of her garment. Of course, now and always, we all sit at her feet.
A year or so later, in 1991, I would get to meet Morrison more personally. I went to the movies with her and Angela Davis, who perhaps remembers, and a good friend of mine who’s Davis’s niece, Eisa. Whenever I tell this story, which I don’t do much but sometimes do, people always asked me, “What movie did y’all see?” They picture, I think, something profound and political, as Morrison’s writing. ”The Five Heartbeats,” I answer. I love that it was that film, because, up close, Morrison was earthy and funny.
Smoking afterward as we walked the streets of Oakland, “Oh, a bookstore,” she said, after a few blocks, and dashed in to ask after something. Through the glass doors, I could see the employees at the help desk looking quite helpless, answering that they didn’t have this or that title, then staring after her in wonder as she simply walked out and we ambled back to our cars. It was like a visit from a myth that you had only read about.
The whole while — I was still in college — I had my hardcover copy of Beloved in my blue messenger bag, and I was aching to ask her to sign it. I was too shy and didn’t know how to broach the subject, exactly because Morrison was so unpretentious and accepting. I was afraid to break the spell. After we parted ways and for the rest of the evening and for years after, I felt I had missed my chance. Later, over a decade later, I would get that book signed. She was generous as ever.
But more than that, over the years, her own work had helped me to further accept my own black and writerly self, to realize two of her many truths, that, quote, “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction,” and also that, quote, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” She gave us permission to work, to wake early and stay up late writing, rather than arguing whether we could or should write or exist at all. Morrison gave us beautiful language as an assumption of selfhood, but also as a mirror to look into. I’m thankful that she gave me, as a young writer, that afternoon to sit in the welcome dark, dreaming alongside her.
Today, in my role as the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, my day job — imagine the luck — is to caretake and champion black history and culture in a house that Toni Morrison helped to craft. In our courtyard at Schomburg, just down the hill in Harlem, is a bench in honor of Morrison, part of the Bench by the Road Project by the Toni Morrison Society. This embodies her wish for a monument to slavery and to memory, when she says there is not even a monument, no bench by the road, where you can think of slavery. And that was one of the reasons she wrote Beloved, she said. Now that actual bench is a celebratory place to contemplate, to “set a spell,” as we say, and maybe even to cast a spell.
What Morrison conjured up in her writing and in her being is magic of the daily and extraordinary enchantment of black life. It is Morrison, more than anyone, who measures the trauma and triumph of the enslaved, who creates in her work a living monument to our shared past and our far-off future, one of words and wisdom, of silence shattered and the unsayable named, made legible. She’s a friend to our minds.
I want to end with a poem by Morrison, one she wrote in her work titled Five Poems called “I Am Not Seaworthy.” It’s a work of music and mystery, of words that sing.
“I Am Not Seaworthy”
I am not seaworthy.
Look how the fish mistake my hair for home.
I had a life, like you. I shouldn’t be riding the sea.
I am not seaworthy.
Let me be earth bound; star fixed
Mixed with sun and smacking air.
Give me the smile, the magic kiss
To trick little boy death of my hand.
I am not seaworthy. Look how the fish mistake my hair for home.”
AMY GOODMAN: That was poet Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. We’ll be back with more remembrances of Toni Morrison in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Saxophonist David Murray performing at the memorial for Toni Morrison at St. John the Divine in New York. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Toni Morrison was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also won a Pulitzer Prize. As we continue to bring you excerpts from her memorial, we turn now to David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine.
DAVID REMNICK: Toni Morrison’s earliest work did not reach a wide audience, not right away. But it’s fair to say that, with time, the world caught on. You could stock a good-size warehouse with all the prizes and certificates and honorary degrees and medals that came her way. But she kept the very best of it in her guest bathroom: two framed documents, one near the sink and the other nearby. The first was her Nobel Prize diploma as bestowed in 1993 by the Swedish Academy. The second, the second was a letter dated 1998 from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announcing that her novel Paradise had been banned from the state’s prisons. Paradise, the Texas authorities declared, quote, “contains materials that any reasonable person could construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve a breakdown of prisons through inmate disruption, such as strikes or riots.” Think of it, the idea that a novel could cause an uprising. And as Toni once put it, smiling, “How powerful is that?”
“Powerful” is one way to describe Toni Morrison. Her presence, her talent, her voice were and remain unforgettably powerful. And as much as any artist of her time, she shaped how we thought, how we felt, what we read, what we teach, how we see each other and how we see this troubled country.
It is, as I say, a very humbling thing to speak about her and her immense legacy. It was certainly a humbling thing to call her on editorial business. I once rang Toni to see if she might write something for the magazine. She seemed not to care very much about my editorial desperation. “I can’t, honey,” she said. “I’m baking a cake.” Now, how long it takes to bake a cake was not something I was prepared to ask her. She knew the score.
Toni Morrison began her life and letters as an editor. She did it to pay the bills. But she also found a way to bring honor, originality and political purpose to that job. She respected protest, but she did not march. She edited. And that was, for a time, her political work. She published a revolutionary almanac called The Black Book, a kind of family scrapbook of 300 years of American black life. And she brought to life anthologies of contemporary African-American and African literature, work that had helped to shape her and that she wanted you to read. She brought forward the work of Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and a gifted and original young poet named Muhammad Ali. Editing was a job, but it was also her activism, her community work.
And yet, in those days, Toni’s most profound work was furtive. It took place at home, in the dark, beginning at 4, 5, 6 in the morning, while her young sons were fast asleep. She knew precisely what she wanted to do. She wanted to write about black people, for black people, in the language or the various languages of black people. And this struck her as no more or less peculiar than Tolstoy, who wrote in Russian, about Russians, for Russians. And as a reader, she noticed, long before most academics, how black people were barely visible in nearly all of the novels of the American Renaissance, in Poe and in Hawthorne. She was determined to assert the primacy, the complexity, the specificity, the pain, the beauty and the endurance of African Americans, and not have to go about explaining it all, all the time, to anyone else. White readers were welcome, of course, just as French readers were welcome to Tolstoy. But as she told her good friend Hilton Als, “My sovereignty and authority as a racialized person had to be struck immediately.”
And so, in those stolen early-morning hours, she worked and reworked a manuscript about a young girl who was consumed with tragic self-hatred. And her name was Pecola Breedlove. “I wanted to read a book about the most vulnerable person in society — female, child, black — and it wasn’t around, so I started writing it,” she said. And the result, of course, was The Bluest Eye. Then came Sula. Then came Song of Solomon. And it was at that point that the artist no longer had to work an office job. She was free.
Toni Morrison’s novels are not only about subjects, about race and its construction, about family and community, friendship and love, about all that is human. They are also exquisitely built. They are like music. They are as intricately structured as an Ellington suite. Countless passages feature the crafted chaos and the intentional dissonance and dignity of a Thelonious Monk solo. Other passages are as purely melodic and as fearless as something by her favorite singer, Nina Simone. At a celebration of Nina Simone’s life 15 years ago at Carnegie Hall, Toni said of Simone what so many readers have come to say of Toni Morrison: “She saved our lives. She led us to believe, with little true-to-life evidence to support it, that we could do it: fight injustice rather than suffer it; survive loss; come to terms with betrayal; be brutally honest, disarmingly tender; have regrets minus apology; and not just taste the fullness of life, but drink it down.”
Toni Morrison was also an invaluable thinker. Her capacity to see this country for what it is, to see our best and worst political actors for who they are, was uncanny. Just after Election Day in 2016, the editors of The New Yorker called on a number of writers and thinkers, among others, to make sense of the inexplicable. It was not inexplicable to Toni Morrison. This time, thank goodness, she was not baking a cake. She emailed back, “Regarding the future, I am intellectually weaponized.” Then she wrote this about the election of Donald Trump:
“So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”
As an editor, as a thinker and then as a novelist, Toni Morrison refused to allow racism to overcome her. “Racism,” she said, “keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms, and you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Toni Morrison struggled against the hate, and she was fearless. But she also refused to get lost, to lose her sense of mission. She carried through on the promise and the mission that she embarked on a half a century ago with The Bluest Eye. Great novelists illuminate worlds we dimly know, or they explore new realms of experience that had been sequestered from the canon. That is, great novels either open a door or they turn on the lights. Toni Morrison did it all. She opened the door, and she turned on the lights.
AMY GOODMAN: That was New Yorker editor David Remnick, as we go back now to Oprah Winfrey, who concluded the evening’s celebration of Toni Morrison’s life.
OPRAH WINFREY: I’d like to close the evening with an excerpt from Song of Solomon. You know, I have many favorite passages when it comes to Toni’s body of work. One that you just shared, Kevin, “She is a friend of my mind” from Beloved, I love that. “Mamma, did you ever love us?” and the mother’s response in Sula. But this one from Song of Solomon never fails to inspire awe for me. And for that and so much else, I say thank you to this singular, monumental, gallant writer.
“He had come out of nowhere, as ignorant as a hammer and broke as a convict, with nothing — nothing — but free papers, a Bible, and a pretty black-haired wife, and in one year he’d leased ten acres, the next ten more. Sixteen years later he had one of the best farms in Montour County. A farm that colored their lives like a paintbrush and spoke to them like a sermon. ‘You see? You see?’ the farm said to them. ‘See? See what you can do? You see? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,’ it said. ‘Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. We live here! On this planet, in this nation, in this county. Can’t you see that? Can’t you see? We got a home right here in this rock, don’t you see! We got a home in this rock, and if I got a home you got one too! So grab it. Grab this land! Take this land, hold this land, my brothers. Ain’t nobody crying in my home. I want you to take this land, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on — you hear me? Do you hear me? Pass it on!’”
AMY GOODMAN: Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Edwidge Danticat and other writers and musicians and editors, remembering the groundbreaking author Toni Morrison at her memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in November. To see my interview with three remarkable writers who knew Toni Morrison well — Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni — visit our website at democracynow.org.