Toni Morrison began her latest novel, Love (Chatto & Windus), to explore the changes wrought by the American civil-rights movement. But her evolving characters drew her deeper into what had always fascinated her — the two things singular about human beings and the effort to be human: “language and love”.
She warned in her Nobel Prize lecture 10 years ago of official language “smitheried to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege”. Part of her project as a writer has been to remake the language, to free it from the “sinister, lazy racial codes” that pervade it.
Awarding her the 1993 Nobel, the Swedish Academy said her visionary novels had given the African-American people their history back. Her eight novels, plus drama and essays, not only challenge restrictive notions of what is and is not universal in literature, but insist that American history and culture are incomprehensible without the black presence.
At a New York banquet in 2001 for Morrison’s 70th birthday, Hillary Clinton and Kofi Annan were among those paying tribute; the opera diva Jessye Norman sang to her. Morrison was one of the first writers to appear on her friend Oprah Winfrey’s TV book club. Her novel Paradise (1998), an Oprah book of the month, sold one million copies within weeks.
Morrison’s most acclaimed, and controversial, novel remains Beloved (1987). It grew from the real story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed her child rather than have her recaptured, and who was tried not for murder but for theft of her master’s property. In Morrison’s novel the dead child returns in ghostly form.
For AS Byatt it was an American masterpiece. Margaret Atwood pronounced it a triumphant hair-raiser written in prose “by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial”. But Stanley Crouch, better known as an American jazz critic, loathed it as a “blackface holocaust novel”, written to enter a “martyr ratings contest”.
While for some her fiction is wilfully obscure, others see her as heir to William Faulkner — with innovations drawn from African-American culture. For novelist Edmund White, she brought “psychological and narrative complexity and subtlety to the black experience”.
“All my books were questions for me,” says Morrison. “I wanted to know what would happen if …? What do friendship and love mean under those circumstances? How far would you go? I don’t want to write about normality, but when there’s a cataclysm and conflict in belief, a complexity of emotion and behaviour.”
Love looks back to a segregated yet upwardly mobile African-American world upset by integration. Though, says Morrison, pre-civil rights days were full of legal, social separation, “out of that came fabulous businesses and schools that were top-drawer — in stances of pride”. Yet “racial uplift” for a middle class brought fear of being dragged back down. The Hotel Resort on the coast is depicted as both idyllic and exclusive, a haven for some that spurned the “stain” of the black poor.
“Every society as it moves forward is fearful of the ones it leaves behind,” says Morrison. “Society is based on who gets in and who doesn’t who penetrates the class, club, neighbourhood – and who doesn’t. The notion of a social throwback or class interloper intervening in a safe haven of money, manners and acquisition is universal.”
Bill Cosey, the hotel’s owner, is a phantom figure adored by squabbling women even after his death. Women, says Morrison, are “looking to men to be, not just a person, but a certain idea – husband, benefactor, handsome stranger. But competing for male approval, or looking to the male as the sum of your fears, is just focusing on something outside yourself.”
A man, like many of her characters, “swamped by his own past history”, Cosey took an 11-year-old girl as his wife. Yet Morrison, who once scandalised a Time magazine interviewer by appearing to make light of teenage pregnancy, is scathing about social hypocrisy (“How old was Juliet or Helen? These are social constructs where the driving force is not morality but money”) and destructive ideals of beauty. “Children are highly sexualised in this country, and parents are surgically altered to look like them. I’d like everybody to gasp, then think what a good-looking girl’s body is supposed to look like: a 12-year-old boy’s.”
In her Manhattan apartment, Morrison speaks softly, with frequent laughter. “It’s only recently I haven’t lived with somebody, whether a husband or a somebody or my children,” she says. When she bought the apartment in 1989, she thought, “it’s so nice: now I have a little batchelorette”. She laughs self-mockingly, “And I was way too old to need it.” The writer Walter Mosley sees Morrison as “very private, shy, folksy and country”, while White, another friend, contrasts her fun, hip side with her “dignified, empress side”. “Toni doesn’t want to be appreciated lightly,” says Homi Bhabha, professor of English and American literature at Harvard. “Flattery or easy agreement get you nowhere.”
She teaches Afro-American studies and creative writing at Princeton each spring. Her main house on the Hudson River in Rockland county, upstate New York, was rebuilt after a fire on Christmas day in 1993. Morrison lost hand-written manuscripts, early editions of Faulkner and Frederick Douglass, and family mementos.
She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, a “little working-class town with a big steel mill” on Lake Erie which drew southerners, east Europeans, Mexicans. “It had one high school, and we all lived together.” The only black child in her class, she was undaunted she was an early and avid reader. Her mother, Ramah, sang jazz and opera at home and, like Ramah’s father on the violin, could “play anything she heard” on the piano. Ramah’s family had been sharecroppers in Kentucky, and all Morrison’s grandparents had fled the Jim Crow south.
Her mother helped thwart moves to segregate the town. “When they opened a theatre, if the usher led her one way, she’d go the other. They were early in the swimming pools. It wasn’t like the sit-ins of the 60s these were individuals who took it upon themselves to dare somebody to move them.” Her family, she adds, “were all arrogant poor as we were, there was a feeling that we were right and they were wrong”. But her parents were at odds. “My father was adamant: white people didn’t come in our house. My mother thought they had to prove guilt not innocence.” Only four years ago on a visit to Georgia, 25 years after her father George died, did Morrison learn that his father had been displaced as a train engineer by a white rival the year George’s family left town, three black businessmen had been lynched. “Most lynching wasn’t about black guys whistling after white women” – as in the case of the murdered teenager Emmett Till, the subject of Morrison’s 1986 play, Dreaming Emmett – “but about men who owned businesses or land somebody wanted”, she says. “My father thought white people were Nazis – true demons.” Yet her own experience and friends “proved my mother right it made more sense to me that you couldn’t blanket a whole group”.
A child of the depression, Morrison worked in kitchens from the age of 12, but her father, a shipyard welder, told her: ” They don’t decide who you are.” She says: “I felt like somebody from another planet who happened to be scrubbing floors.” At Howard, the famed black university in Washington DC, in 1949-53, she majored in English and took the nickname Toni. She was shocked not only by segregation in the US capital but by a colour hierarchy imposed by well-off African-Americans – later explored in her novels. “I was so ignorant about the world,” she says. “I didn’t know people who had a fear of white people, or about ‘paper-bag tests’: if you were darker than a paper bag, you couldn’t get into places.” After an MA at Cornell on Faulkner and Woolf, Morrison returned to Howard in 1957-64 among her students were civil-rights leaders, including Stokely Carmichael. She knew women’s issues were being set aside by the Black Power movement, but says: “One liberation movement leads to another – always has. Abolition led to the suffragettes civil rights to women’s lib, which led to a black women’s movement. Groups say, ‘what about me?'”
She married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, in 1958, but divorced six years later, when pregnant with their second son. She has talked of a “culture clash” but laughs: “Maybe it was a gender clash.” She left Washington with her sons and, as an editor, reformed textbooks for the dawning civil-rights era the arresting opening of her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), reveals the unspoken racial and gender codes of the Dick and Jane primer. As a senior editor at Random House in New York until 1983, her passion was for nurturing African-American writers: Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, Muhammad Ali (whose autobiography she edited), George Jackson, Huey Newton. “I looked for people who had something to say,” she recalls. “I wanted to be the one who helped with the record.” She edited The Black Book (1974), a landmark scrapbook of hidden history, and anthologised African writers such as Chinua Achebe and Camera Laye, whose freedom from pandering to a “white gaze” inspired her.
Morrison had joined a writers’ workshop at Howard. As “Black is beautiful” became a slogan, The Bluest Eye probed the psychic devastation that made it necessary, through a little girl in 1940s Ohio who longs for blue eyes, and whose self-loathing is compounded by incest. Morrison, almost 40 when it was published, knew she was “never going to stop writing that was what I was about”. She wrote at the kitchen table, an infant son “hanging off my shoulder I had intense powers of concentration”. In the mid-1970s she took a second job teaching at Yale. “I had a lot of friends in my mode,” she says of lone motherhood. “It was hard, but it was high times for us. My family were in my business constantly. I never felt bereft, the woman alone I felt part of a larger group of black folk.”
Her second novel Sula (1974), about friendship between women, reflected her view of black women as “both the ship and the harbour”, both adventurers and nurturers, and of her heroine’s right to exist for herself alone. The historian CLR James, who championed Morrison in Britain, found Sula astonishing and revealing in its implication that the “real, fundamental human difference is not between black and white but between men and women”. Yet for British novelist Michele Roberts, Morrison writes with great tenderness and compassion about men as well as women, and with an “almost pre-feminist sensibility about men as wounded, suffering, tragic beings”. Morrison found a national readership with Song of Solomon (1977), whose main character is male, and Tar Baby (1981), set partly in the Caribbean. She mined folklore for untold history but rejects the “magical realist” tag, which some critics attached to her fiction, as a “silly catch-all that would never be applied to Kafka’s Metamorphosis “. Her settings reflected a small-town upbringing, “neither plantation nor ghetto”.
She wanted a style that was as irrevocably black as black music, using orality and a neighbourhood chorus that echoed ancient Greek drama. “I wanted to make black vernacular audible, not as illiterate but powerful,” she says. “But I was as guilty as others who made black speech ungrammatical or dropped the ‘g’. I tried to get away from that.” She said she wrote for and about black people “because that’s where the aesthetics, authority, authenticity are”. That, she says, is still true, “but it’s been misunderstood as exclusive. I meant I’m writing for black people’s sensibility, not for black buyers. I had trouble making people understand that my choice was as effortless as Dostoyevsky’s, and if no one could ask him why he ‘only’ wrote about Russians, why ask me why I ‘only’ write about black people? White writers are seen as unraced – the norm. It’s a dysfunctional argument.” Margaret Busby, co-founder of publisher Allison & Busby and editor of Daughters of Africa (1992), says: “Toni is doing something very natural by presuming the reader is someone like her. She’s not translating mythical black experience for white people – though anybody can listen in.”
It was a departure from male forerunners such as Ralph Ellison. ” Invisible Man  begs the question, invisible to whom? Not to me,” Morrison says. “It was amazing how freed up the canvas became once I took white people out as predominant figures. The only people who did that were black women black men write about white men because they’re their nemesis.” Yet shifting the focus on to conflicts within the African-American community, to “unspeakable things spoken at last”, drew criticism. “The push in any minority is to reassure and celebrate, to contradict the negatives – which is good medicine, I suppose. But that’s when you’re writing for the Other. Nobody has to prove to me how wonderful we are I know that.”
One reviewer of Sula, Sarah Blackburn in the New York Times, provoked protests from among others novelist Alice Walker, by opining that Morrison should take on larger subjects than black women. As Morrison told Busby in a British TV interview in 1988: “Whatever I know as a black person, and my perceptions as a woman, aren’t marginal – they’re an enhancement.” She is scornful about being praised for “transcending” race and gender. “Some people say, ‘I never think of you as a black writer, or a woman writer’, and when they say, ‘why don’t you write about white people?’ it’s meant as a compliment, that ‘you’re good enough to write about me’.” She adds: “In trying to break open the critical language you have to take risks. I was up against a wall of assumptions, and I was trying not to say, ‘I’m a writer and race isn’t important to me’, or to exoticise myself like Langston Hughes, or be pompously literate. And I didn’t want to sneak into the non-black box I wanted to take centre space and say: ‘I’m a black woman writer and I write about black people.’ I didn’t win friends, but the writers who followed have a better chance of not being ‘labelled’ because of my generation. I thought I’d ride on the quality of the work if that failed, the argument would fail with it.”
In 1983 she left publishing and moved to a converted boathouse on the Hudson river. The Beloved trilogy, which includes Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1998), was conceived as a single novel about the “ways women love” – whether children, men or God – to the point of self-destruction. Beloved is set in post-civil war Kentucky Jazz in 1920s Harlem and Paradise in the 1970s, in an all-black town in Oklahoma founded by freed slaves. She wanted to show how the “erasure of history, and responses to it, are very much what we’re still wrestling with”, though she also cautions against “putting what you remember in as pic”. So much of history, she says, is “selecting what to remember deifying or reifying aspects and forgetting others. Most American history was erasure, forgetting Europe, because this was the new country, the frontier. It was trying to forge an identity that was race-neutral – unsuccessfully because the oppression was devastating for whites and blacks. Until one comes to terms with it, the past will be a haunting – something you can’t shake.”
For Bhabha, Morrison’s notion of “rememory”, the term she used in Beloved to describe the process of remembering what has been forgotten, has been simplified as “recovering the history of the oppressed”, when the interplay of history and psychology in her novels is more complex. Rather than a novel “justifying the killing of Beloved as an act of emancipation or revenge by an unblemished race heroine, it’s a profound inquiry into the ethical consequences of her act, no matter how deeply pushed she was to it. She can’t exonerate herself through history.” Henry Louis Gates Jr, Harvard’s head of Afro-American studies, says Morrison devised a new mode of narration: “Unlike modernists, she doesn’t underplay the role of larger forces: history, race, class”, but nor, like social realists, does she “underplay individual will or the imagination”. When Beloved failed to win the National Book Award, Gates and 47 other African-American writers and scholars, including Maya Angelou and Walker, placed an open letter praising Morrison in the New York Times in January 1988. Their affirmation, Morrison says, was an “undistilled, pure blessing”. Beloved won the Pulitzer.
“Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created,” Morrison said in her Nobel lecture. Jazz is a “talking book” which narrates itself, in a parallel to jazz improvisation, calling on readers to participate. Unmoved, novelist Edna O’Brien thought Morrison “bedazzled by her own virtuosity”. But in Busby’s view, “You can hear blues and jazz in her writing: it’s oral and musical.” In Paradise, a convent-turned-women’s refuge is stormed by townsmen, a midnight-skinned aristocracy who ostracise “yellow” outsiders and restrain women to keep the bloodline pure. “The very people outraged by being rejected by whites and [lighter-skinned] blacks become the most rejecting community,” says Morrison. While the drive to separatism mirrors real debates in African-American political life, some thought the novel Morrison’s most overtly feminist book. She scorns the label (“I don’t write ‘ist’ novels”). Paradise also con fronts the reader’s assumptions from its opening sentence: “They shoot the white girl first.” Which of the women is white is left unclear. “The reader is either preoccupied or forgets about it,” says Morrison, “but whatever they do, it’s about them . There’s all this stuff in the language you try to dig out, to clean it up.”
In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination (1992), Morrison argued that American literature was shaped by an unspoken “dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence”. It was an insight presaged by Byatt, when she wrote of Beloved : “Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, wrote riddling allegories about the nature of evil . . . the inverted opposition of blackness and whiteness. Toni Morrison has . . . solved the riddle, and shown us the world which haunted theirs.” In what Morrison calls an “obvious debt” to Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), she identified “American Africanism”, the habit of using black characters in literature as “metaphorical shortcuts” for what is dreaded or desired.
For Morrison the Nobel was a “deep honour. I invited everybody I loved and we had a huge party.” Of the carping, she says: “I’ve never read of a controversy over an American winning the Nobel except when it was a black woman.” In her view, the “political correctness” debate is “about the power to define: the definers want the power to name, and the defined are now taking that power away from them”. Yet Caryl Phillips discerns “resentment among some African-American men that their literary voice has been pushed to the shadows for 20 years”, perhaps owing partly to the “crossover” appeal of black women’s writing, with its intimations of “self-sufficiency and survival”.
Morrison’s mother died in 1994, after a long illness (“I was so happy she’d held on for the Nobel”), but her sister, Lois, still lives in Lorain (“We’re on the phone constantly”). Morrison came close to remarrying a few times, but never did. “My reasons were pathetic,” she says. “It was whimsy or fatigue, not an intelligent decision.” Yet she says: “I have companionship and friends. A man alone is understood to be a hermit a woman alone is without a man. It is true that I do not live with a man but I’m not alone. I’m not dependent on anybody except on my own efforts.” She collaborates with both sons: writing children’s books with Slade, a musician and artist while Ford, an architect, is designing an arts centre for her artists’ residency scheme on the Hudson.
She has written song cycles for Jessye Norman and, with André Previn, for Kathleen Battle, and a libretto. “I like being up and engaged,” she says. “When there’s no project to think about or fix, make elegant or clear, that absence is truly melancholic. As long as I have something emerging or steeping or trying to be born, it feels good.”
She edited Race-ing Justice, En-gender-ing Power (1992), essays on Clarence Thomas, the supreme court judge, and Anita Hill, the law professor who accused him of sexual harassment, and Birth of a Nation’hood (1997), a collection on the OJ Simpson trial. In her essay “Dead Man Golfing” she likened the Simpson trial to that of slave mutineers in Melville’s fiction, and has always believed OJ innocent (“I don’t know if white people are fully aware of how evidence is manipulated by police”). During the “fiasco” over Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual misconduct, she backed the man she controversially described in a 1998 New Yorker article as America’s “first black president”, since he displayed “almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas”. While she did not grow up feeling American (“I had limited citizenship and rights”), that has changed: “I wouldn’t feel such a deep anxiety about US adventures now if I didn’t feel so much an American.” She found the rush to war with Iraq “reckless, sinister and unnecessary: when you don’t have diplomacy, all you have left is the bullet. But waging war is unmodern the language is puny.”
Morrison, who has seen some of the fissures in American society reopen along class and race lines since the advent of civil rights, mourns the collapse of many historically black institutions. “I happen not to think it’s either/or: you could have black schools and integration at the same time. It should be about increased freedom, not identifying the one road.” As for the continuing debate on ending affirmative action: “We’re in some insane dialogue about what’s unfair, coming from the people who invented unfairness. Race was never biologically important, but some people would like to erase it a little prematurely. I don’t trust the motive.”
Morrison stages her fictions largely within the community into which she was born, between social classes, generations, or men and women. Yet her recent novels question why all ideas of paradise, our nations, idylls and havens, should be built on separation and rejection. She has no answers, she says, “just maps and questions – an awareness of the journey and the loss”. An abiding preoccupation has been with restoring intimacy across social chasms. Through its central tale of two girls pulled apart and forced to hate one another, Love hints at such rifts between groups. “You have to talk, and exercise those feelings of almost witless affection for another human being. If we lose that feeling for the other, or the ability to talk to one another, there’s really not much left. Personally, politically, culturally, it’s death.”