The VIBE Q: Toni Morrison
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1998 issue of Vibe Magazine.
You know her books. So imagine going to her luxuriously spartan Manhattan crash pad, where Toni Morrison sits you down at her kitchen table, makes you a cup of imported herbal tea, and chain-smokes fiendishly while she tells you stories: A black seminarian she knew had been tutoring some urban New Jersey black kids. As he was telling them some basic facts about slavery, he noticed that they kept giving him a strange look. Finally, one of them said, “Man, are you kidding? You mean black people were brought here as slaves?” And they laughed.
“These kids were twelve and fourteen,” Morrison points out. “They knew about racism and being black, but they did not know...” She cocks her head from across the table and gives you a look: “I want to know who skipped that part.”
Then she’s switched gears, and you’re both laughing at the general outcry over O.J. Simpson’s recent interview appearances. “I think Geraldo ought to give O.J. ten percent of his salary,” she cracks. Then she’ll swear you to secrecy and share some truly hilarious (non-O.J.–related) insight, and while you’re laughing at that, Morrison warns: “If you print that, I will sue you and I will kill you.” And she laughs. [Some time after this interview appeared, she published her assertion that Bill Clinton was the first black president in The New Yorker—but it wasn’t as funny.]
“No person is only blank,” Morrison explains later, when answering if she feels pigeonholed by the definitions (first Nobel Prize-winning black feminist author) of literary critics. “When I was a little girl, I was walking down the street in Ohio. A man came up to me and said, ‘Are you a Willis?’—referring to my mother's maiden name—‘I thought so, by the way you walk.’ And I knew he knew my family. It was a comfort to be identified as a Willis. I moved to New York and people said, ‘What do you do?’ So you say ‘I’m a writer, teacher, editor, whatever’—but you know that’s only a part of who you are.”
Perhaps it’s the way she so keenly divines “who you are” that makes Toni Morrison such a force with which to reckon. From her first novel, 1970’s heartbreaking, pigment-envy classic, The Bluest Eye, to her most recent, the gender tragedy Paradise, the 67-year-old writer has fearlessly explored the pitfalls of self-limitation, as well as the horror that is not being seen for who you are. Morrison isn’t an easy writer, and she is often the bearer of unwelcome truths. It’s the weight of her talent that makes Oprah Winfrey curl up with these obsessive, violent parables—then gets the TV personality to recommend them to middle-American homemakers. (Winfrey has produced and stars in Jonathan Demme’s feature film version of Morrison’s 1987 post–slave era ghost story Beloved, due out this fall). And her genius is surely what makes it such a trippy privilege to sit with her for hours and shoot the sh*t.
VIBE: So. Paradise is the story about this women’s commune in the ’70s, and all these completely screwed-up guys who—
Toni Morrison: Got it wrong.
—who got it wrong and feel they have to butcher these women. The thing that struck me was, What if this book had been written by a man?
That’s interesting because I think some people have noted a strong feminist theme in it.
What if it was the same text, and if Toni Morrison was a guy? Would it be attacked by NOW?
But I think that I do write with a very good male sensitivity, because I don’t have axes to grind. I’m not that judgmental.
Those men who mounted that assault were in error, and they came from a whole history of black men and women who were better than that. Much better than that! It’s a parable of the so-called ’60s, really, when the threat of women—free with certain kind of license —was real. And, in a closed, protected, religious society of any kind, that was a major threat. So that patriarchal values, whether they’re white or black, would have been hostile to any collection of women who seemed not to need male control.
But there are all sorts of dialogues that have not yet taken place within the group. There’re generation conflicts; there are class conflicts.
There’s a budding conversation about young black girls in the entertainment world, the rap singers, the dancers, and their contribution to the culture versus their not-contribution, you know, counter-contribution, and another group of women, who consider themselves quite liberation. That discussion hasn’t taken place yet. Those differences.
I wanted to ask you about the violence that women seem to vent today. You know, I just heard that my cousin’s 15-year-old daughter got arrested for killing a cabbie in Florida.
You know? And this is right after these other teen girls up in the Bronx killed a cabbie and then were caught bragging about it.
I think women have been in a rage for a long time. And they just didn’t have any guns. But now we have the guns! [Laughs.] The rage of women is still staggering to me. It’s different from I guess earlier days. But, you know, in the African-American culture, women were much more walk-on-water aggressive types than white women ever were, anyway. They really took things into their hands, and they were not about to go slowly into that abused life. You know, if you listen to [blues] lyrics, it’s always, “If you start it, you have to finish it, because I’m not going to take it lying down.” So that feeling of confrontation with whatever was out there, or whatever men or it proposed, has been a very strong survivalist strategy among us.
However, some of it’s a little wanton now, it’s a little narcissistic, a little prideful—there’s the “He Done Me Wrong” or “She Done Me Wrong, Therefore Kill.” Or, there is the “He Done Me Wrong, Let Me Get Out of Here and Make My Life Over.” The latter is the one that I grew up with. The other one seems sort of narrow, and self-absorbed. The slaughter of somebody who was mean to you, or didn’t like you, or hurt you in some way. The slaughter. I mean, it’s the uselessness of another person’s life. That to me seems very recent. The rage has always been there, but the management of it is different. Now, you know, it’s quite easy to not manage it, to terminate the argument.
Somebody has to talk to those girls...You know what they need? They need to go out to Bedford Hills [Correctional Facility] and have some conversations with some of the women, young women who are there. That is the most helpful conversation they could possibly have. They don’t need me or some authority saying, “Don’t do bad things.” What they need are some of the people who have done the bad things.
I have been to Bedford. What struck me was, when you see women in prison, whatever their dealings are among themselves—just the notion that men in prison have on their walls pictures of women. Women in prison have on their walls pictures of children. Anybody’s child. All kinds of children. And they adopt one another. It would be interesting to see some dialogues between the young gang members, women, girls, and some older black women who have been there.
What about the huge rise in what they call neo-natocide?
Is that babies or fetuses?
Babies. Well, you know, we have told those young girls in very clear terms that what you are doing is immoral and expensive and a burden to society and a blight. We have told them that there are ways in which you can avoid doing this. So what these girls are producing, in their minds’ eye—they thought it was a baby. But in fact, it turns out to be a disease. A horror. An embarrassment. Something that no one wants.
When I was a young girl, black girls had children—it was a scandal, but they took care of the children. Somebody took care of those children. They didn’t put them in the orphanage. Somebody took those children and raised them. And people could appear, even in my own family, ten and twelve years later, claiming to be the daughters of various people, and my mother said, “Come on in.” Now that’s not true. So that they’re bearing something that, when they deliver, is already something that society has contempt for, because no one wants to pay for it. So their connection to that child is sometimes immediately distorted because it’s not a person, it’s not a human being—it’s a terrible, terrible illness. And you have this violent reaction; the body even sometimes has a violent reaction to the carrying of it. And we are not putting our arms around those girls.
Listen: I heard, and have heard for years, that a female who is pregnant by the time she is sixteen has no chance of getting any cancer of any of her reproductive organs. Now, I asked an oncologist about this, and he said it seems to be so. Now, I thought now suppose it is so. I don’t know if the baby has to come to term, but any female who is pregnant by the time she’s sixteen, has no chance of her getting these major cancers. Now that’s interesting information, isn’t it?
What would happen to social policy? What would you do with your daughter? All I’m saying is that we’re not looking at this right. We’re looking at it from a Republican-who- doesn’t-want-to-pay-taxes point of view. They don’t care about those girls, they care whether they pay for them. That’s all.
We fought a long time to have “women taking care of children” understood to be work. Now it’s understood to be something else. Do you remember this British nanny case, and there was a lot of complaint about the mother not being home with the child, and she should have, this professional woman. She should have been home with her children, said some people.
On the other hand, if she was a poor black woman, she should not be home with her children. She should work. Even if that work is taking care of somebody else’s children. So that the contradictions and the deceit in that discourse, you know, boggled the mind. No wonder nobody can say anything, because the signals that one is getting from public discourse, government discourse, cultural discourse is meaningless because each sentence contradicts the other one.!4
Now, Breast Cancer Month just passed, you know, all sorts of shows about who has it, and what to do about it. That what I said was never brought up. I mean...it’s very interesting. I haven’t found physicians yet who said, “Oh, no, no, no.” [She pauses for a moment then laughs at herself.] “Toni Morrison is a kook who sits around...”
No, we haven’t got to the “Toni Morrison is a kook” phase yet. You still have a ways to go. But, you know, it’s one of those things where if a white man were saying that, he’d be stoned.
I can get away with it.
Tawana Brawley made an appearance recently and New York newspapers seemed aghast that so many black people believe her story.
Something happened to Tawana Brawley. And she was fifteen. I have never forgiven the people who betrayed her.
Well, who do you feel betrayed her?
When have you ever seen a rape...an alleged rape victim’s picture in the paper? Never. That child was fifteen. I don’t care what she was doing...something terrible happened to her. And everybody is busy saying something didn’t happen—she invented it. I mean, it’s just unbelievable! At the time that happened to her, I had a lot of white women friends call me up to get me to sign on to Hedda Nussbaum as a victim of her abusive, manipulative husband. And I would ask them, “What are you doing about Tawana Brawley?” And there was always this incredible silence. No one even...this is a little girl.
But what is interesting to me, at the moment—and has always been—is this overwhelming urgency to sweep that under the rug. I mean, just urgency to make sure it never happened. That’s very alarming to me. Why is the media all in it? Why is everybody in there determined that it was a hoax? From the beginning, you know?
Well, why is it acceptable to believe Oliver North if you’re white, but not to believe Tawana Brawley if you’re black?
The media freaks out because so many black people believe that there’re all these conspiracies against them.
I wonder why? [Laughs.] Oh, no kidding. No, something terrible happened to her, and I’ve always wanted to tell her that it hurts me to think that there was no respite for her. No haven. Nobody she could talk to. Her going to join the Muslims was inevitable, it seems to me, under those circumstances. The truth was co-opted by several diverse groups. A truth—that suited their agenda. And Tawana got so lost in it.
What was your reaction when Oprah’s Book Club picked your 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, and it sold zillions of copies?
I was astonished by that choice. But somebody last year asked me, didn’t I feel awkward being in the company of some of the titles that she had chosen. I said, “Hey, listen, the remarkable thing about Oprah’s Book Club is not just what you think. But it returns the novel to what it was.” Remember when they told women “don’t read it, it might give you ideas”? It was a thing that men said was dangerous for women. Also, novels are always associated with sleep and death. You know, people say I dipped into it before I went to sleep, or it’s on my bedside table.
But listen—Oprah Winfrey said to her 20 million audience, “Turn off the television, it’s okay to do this in the central part of your day.” No more, “Oh, you know, I used to read, but now I don’t have time.” And it means they can talk about it, and they can be confused about it, or they don’t have to understand it, they can fuss about it. Now that’s returning novels to narrative, or public discourse.
But the consequences of it are twofold. One, it makes the active reading for all those people that we think we have disdain for—the publishers certainly do, they never talk to them. The publishers talk to the man who runs Barnes & Noble, they don’t talk to those people out there, that she talks to. Those people, many of them, have never been in a bookstore, and are intimidated by going in a bookstore. And book shops all over the country are saying, “You know, we’re getting people that we have never seen come in bookstores before.”
This is something coming from someplace else, saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing if you can’t sell to these people.” That’s the implication: You publishers do not know what you’re doing if you can’t sell 800,000 copies of a book to these people.
Oh, all right, she’s done it for twelve months or whatever. But there is no book that she has mentioned that hasn’t been purchased at that level.
Now, I have thought about this a lot because I wondered who is going to buy my book because Oprah says so. Then I realized that most book shows on television miss the point because they’re teacherly, I-know-it-you-don’t, elitist. It’s not open, friendly, we’re both in this together. And it’s off-putting for the non-reader, non-browser, non-academic person.
The bestseller sells to people who don’t buy books. That’s why it’s called “best.” You know it’s out there when people who buy two books a year, buy it. Not just buy it, but actually read it and talk about it. I was in a chat room—it’s amazing what’s going on out there: quarrels and interrogations, a marvelous series of conversations from hundreds of people about my book. It’s a dream.
It’s sort of like when I was an undergraduate, when you used to fight about books—that kind of fervor, that kind of passion is out there. I don’t need this sort of cool New York critical eye. It’s something else.
Now whatever that is she’s tapped into, has always been there, and nobody knew how to get to it, or work it. But Oprah just reads books, and she reads them all the time. And, she just likes them, for all sorts of reasons, some good, some perhaps not. But it almost doesn’t matter, because the phenomenon is the thing and I am not going to do what authors triply do to themselves, which is to identify so quickly with an elite, so that they’re pleased because only ten people read them.
I was wondering if there’s another talk show host who could establish a book club?
[She feigns innocence.] You think?
Has her purchase of the movie rights to Beloved and Paradise changed you in any way?
Not really. I had reservations about selling Beloved, because it wasn’t an option, it was an outright sale. But I thought it was interesting that there was a black woman in the world who could buy the property and just write the check. Every other option was sort of “Can we go beg a white guy?” and this was something so different that it was just seductive. She wanted Beloved, and she got it. She went in her pocketbook... [Laughs.] I am very wary—not just of people, but of people in media. And she is forthright. It’s like being in the company of the genuine article, as opposed to the developed one. Oprah is evolved.
What are the reasonable expectations that minority readers should have toward minority writers?
They should not be easily seduced by calls to simplistic arguments, and, you know, I guess you call it black exploitation—where you sort of use your essentialism in order to get attention that way. They should pattern it after the demands of the music, complicated, simple, but easily demanding. Early black music was not tampered with by other forces. The best floated to the top. And the critical audiences, the demanding audiences, were black. You couldn’t get away with junk when you were delivering to a black audience. That’s the way I feel when I write. I can’t get away with silly stuff, patronizing stuff, misleading stuff.
As a writer, I don’t play that game. Of course, a lot of people don’t read me because I don’t play the game, but it has to be the highest possible standards, like the precedent that we have, which is obviously in music. My feeling is that wherever minorities enter into a previously all non-minority field, they always raise the standards. You can never play basketball like that again, ever. You can never play this after Coltrane. We always make it harder and better. And I think that’s true—if we let it be—in literature. The promise has been filtered through other gazes and other eyes, but once it gets unpoliced and not so much about celebrity, when the work itself is unpoliced—and it has to be in your feedback, the tough black readers; even if there are only four, that’s what you go for.
I know how to write difficult esoteric books, and I probably do write them. But I’m always, always focused on the story, the plot, and I think those books that are well done can be enjoyed by non-discriminating readers. And there also is a lot in there for very fastidious readers.
As a writer, who do you think of as your peers?
Oh, there’s a woman I used to edit that I always thought of as my peer, she died recently —Toni Cade Bambara. I just miss her in every single way. She was for me, artistically, the closest. And I still sort of identify myself with that whole generation of emerging black women writers. Whether Book A or Book B I liked, it was that whole movement. I was not early. I mean, Alice Walker published before I did. Maya Angelou published before I did. June Jordan had published. Lucille Clifton was publishing. But I feel a part of that community. Sonia Sanchez.
And I’m just delighted because there’s so many other women who are a third of my age who are doing it. And seeing that happen after 20, 25 years is the best news there is in the world.
Who do you like now?
Well, I like this girl A.J. Verdelle. There’s a girl who wrote this interesting thing called Push.
Yeah, interesting stuff. I like the later books of Jamaica Kincaid. June has a new thing out. Lucille, I did her book, Generations. And now I saw a book, somebody handed me a galley by Gayl Jones. I haven’t heard from her in years and years. It’s called The Healing. I mean, this is fantastic stuff these people are still doing, because a lot of people aren’t. You must know that most of the young people now, when you ask them what art thing they want to do, if they don’t do music, they want to make movies.
They want to go where the money is.
That’s right. They don’t want to sit around and do this long and boring, isolated, no-money job.
Do you have an opinion of rap as an art form?
I find it totally compelling. I don’t know why. It’s a stopper, as they say. But I don’t have a lot to say about what is probably the most interesting part of it, which is the language. My sons listen to it all the time, and I keep saying to them, [Laughs.] What was that again? It’s like when they used to hit—you know, do graffiti. And I’d say, “What does that mean?” They’d say, “Mom, the point is that it not be overtly clear.” It’s like an underground railroad of communication. And that’s when I found it fascinating—not only in the sounds, but what was going on.
Recently, it seems to be so over-merchandised that it’s being driven by something else other than maybe the performer’s interests. There’s something about it that seems a little slick right now. I’m not sure that I’m right, but it doesn’t have that unpoliced quality. Now it looks like the police are there telling them how to misbehave. It feels so marketed. I like to see everybody get rich, but I hate to see the whole field manipulated.
But I have to tell you, I have heard rap in practically in every language in the world, there’s nothing like the rap that comes out of this country¡ I’ve heard it in Russian, German, French—it’s really everywhere. It’s just amazing how they can come up with playing the music against the music. [Laughs.] The innovation, it does my heart good to see that happen.
"I think women have been in a rage for a long time. They just didn't have any guns. But now we have the guns! The rage has always been there, but now it's quite easy to not manage it."
What do you think of someone attacking the form, like C. Delores Tucker?
All young people’s music is hated. I mean, even Mozart. Jazz. Their music was despised —because they were young. Rock. Blues. Like reggae was when it first came over here. So I always have a healthy respect for young people’s music because I know the part of it that makes other people shudder is the part that means it’s new.
I like those arguments a lot. When there’s a big canvas and a map and something happens, and everybody is in it, because that’s the only way something new and something resolved, or unresolved—it doesn’t all have to be resolved—happens. It’s the not talking that’s a problem for me.
Somebody told me at the Million Women March, there was an interesting attack by Sistah Souljah on some of the young rap girls, and their response, and some Christian-singer- type woman—all quarreling with each other. I like that kind of interrogation among these!9
various streams. I mean, I know it’s sort of antagonistic, but nothing has only two sides. Think of a young girl, like Lil’ Kim, versus an older Sistah Souljah-warrior-type versus, you know, someone who wants to sing Bessie Smith...those conversations can be quite valid. We have to talk about this stuff. And besides, people change, you know? One day Lil’ Kim will be 50.
That’ll be an interesting day.
And she’ll sit around and say, “You young people today [laughs] are outrageous.”
Are you religious?
I have a problem with institutions. I don’t have a problem with faith of certain kinds. Magic. Meanings behind the meanings of things. Incoherence. Power—you know, all these aspects of religion. But I have a problem when it gets institutionalized and frozen, and becomes formidable. So I say that I’m religious because I can’t deny my perceptions. I’m a Catholic, and I have been very much involved in my mother’s church, which is AME. And so I have always gone back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism. And, I guess. ended up nowhere—except I feel nevertheless as though I am a deeply religious person.
Do you get the sort of thing that I remember García Márquez talking about—how people would ask him what the angels in his stories symbolized? And he answers, “Well, they’re angels.” [Laughter.]
Well, they think I’m sort of mystical, and...
But they don’t get that you’re not kidding.
No, they don’t. I’m not kidding, you know. I’ve had visions. I think many of us have. And some people may not recognize them as such, but those of us who are interested in an enchanted world...Even physicists talk that way. When they get to “The End,” their language becomes wholly theological: A “hand” being back there where they can’t get it. So the language runs in that area when you’re very, very deep into practically any discipline, scientific or not. But the other thing, of being deliberately alert to or just available to sights, and inner voices. If you’re really clear and focused, it seems as though the universe cooperates and reveals to you the ways of which to go. [She shrugs, and smiles ruefully.] Now, what it means is that the mind is fantastic and fabulous. Each brain reads the world a certain way. I can, I suppose, become a total rationalist and eliminate a large part of life’s experiences, or my own imagination. I choose not to do that.
I think I’d like to exhibit the best qualities of my grandparents and my parents, which was a very shrewd, practical, down-to-earth approach to life, coupled with a religion that placed them on the moral high ground—and added to that a dash of the magic, of reading the world, and understanding its science as some kind of conversation that they were having with the universe. That’s the way to live with the world.
What about when spirituality gets confused with a kind of X-Files reality where people need to believe just about anything?
Well, spirituality is like anything else. It’s hard work. You can’t just become a great net and just attract everything. You have to work at it as if you were going to law school, medical school, or whatever else—if you want to be a brain surgeon. You have to think about those things very carefully. And some of it is innovative, and some of its laws already passed down and information you have before you. But spirituality requires the same amount of intense intellectual brainpower to think about it. It doesn’t mean you just sort of drift off into Tarot cards, and you want something other than your own mind to tell you what do to. It’s an active-aggressive relationship. It’s all you, you know?
You’re rebuilding the house you lost on the Hudson River a few years back. Having your home burn down—it must be like a death.
It’s very sad, and the sadness goes on a long time. Somebody was asking me the other day for pictures of me and my sons. I had to go through it again and say I don’t have any. Or, if I do...it’s somebody else's stuff.
So you don’t con yourself into thinking of it as a liberating experience.
Well, we’ve made a better house, but we lost a lot of things. Not in value, but the irreplaceable things. And my memory’s failing, so I need all those little documents.
Did you feel like you had to start all over?
I was rocked. And I thought about Native Americans, some of whom say, “When a house burns down, leave.” So I thought, Okay, I’ll sell it. But it has such a lovely aspect, on the river...I put it on the market, but then I thought: I’ve written all these books to the sound of that water, and the water is in my dreams. The weather was never bad on that river— I’m not leaving it! So then I changed my mind.
That helped a lot, to rebuild that house. For a while, I couldn’t talk about the fire to anybody—except people whose house had burned down. [She starts to laugh a little hysterically.] It’s surprising how many people’s houses have burned down!
I hear it’s the latest thing.
My mother’s house was burned. I was living in New York then. Her house was set on fire, I guess, and burned, and she was out of it...And she rebuilt. And I remember her during those months, she was living with my sister—and it was obsessive and debilitating and horrifying.
Jesus! Who burned down your mom’s house? Did they ever find out?
That’s an entirely different story...an interesting one, but I’ll tell it later. [Laughs.]
Another thing I wanted to know: You seem so utterly fearless on the page—
Oh, I am fearless on the page. Oh, yes! You mean in real life?
Yeah. I mean, what scares you? Is that what you write about?
I’m sometimes frightened of that, what I write, but I can’t look away. Not there. I will not look away; that’s the one place where I’m going to, you know, make eye contact. Just feel it, and do it—it’s a free place for me. It’s not always safe, but that’s the one place where all my little vulnerabilities, and cowardices, cannot come to the surface. Not with the work.
What about the sense of that place for your characters—where the place is violated? So much of what you write is about people not respecting boundaries. Especially in Paradise, where the place is violated? People move in on it. Are you like other writers in that, you know, you have this conceit that if you put it on paper, you’re marking your spot: “This is the line. I dare you to cross the line, and come in.”
Part of the history of the race is dealing with personal transgression. You have to remember we were an owned people, in the most finite sense of that word. That is unique, and interesting, and the exodus from that is a very complicated journey. Where is the territory where you’re free? Where is the territory where you’re safe? Where is it that it’s okay to love somebody else, and know that they’re not going to be taken from you, for no reason or nothing rational? The idea of Home, or Paradise, or mine, or this domain, or language that’s ours, mine, you know—struggling to hang onto it, struggling to know what it is—is an important aspect, I think, of the life that African-Americans have led. And also the fear that somebody can just walk in your house in the middle of the night, and say, “Give me your nephew.” And your house is [she laughs bitterly]—open. So, there is that constant sense of tension and how to defend it, how to protect it, how to transcend it, or travel away from it. That seems to me to be particularly acute among African-Americans, but I think it has resonance for everybody. Resonance in terms of territory.
The biggest thing going on in the world now is the movement of peoples. Not necessarily war refugees, but just people are moving. And all of the legislation is to keep them from moving or to deal with them once they have moved, or to educate them, or to not educate them, or to throw them out or burn them or—you know—whatever. That’s what global policy is now about: What are we going to do with the people outside who are now inside? Do we keep them? Do we starve them to death and send them back as we have decided to do in the United States, you know, vis-à-vis immigration.
Now you have public spaces being treated as though they’re private. Not homelessness but streetlessness is what I call it. Privatizing all of public space: parks in which people are not welcome, streets that belong to the buildings, getting people off the street. This man was killed yesterday, right? Picked up in the garbage. A family living out in a lot, I read in the paper yesterday—a forklift ran over them. So the city has to go through the garbage to find the people because Mayor Giuliani said they cannot be in the public view? “We have to get rid of these people.” So we have put the human garbage in there with the garbage. It’s an intolerable situation. And to have your garbage home invaded? I mean, those are real conversation stoppers for me. It’s just too terrible.
It’s like writing while there’s a war on—how can you not mention the war, and what’s really at stake? You can’t sugarcoat this stuff. And you cannot look away.