'Beloved' in her own right

With her ninth book just published, Toni Morrison is eager to shake off the 'black woman writer' image.

Toni Morrison 88 248 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Toni Morrison 88 248
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
A Mercy By Toni Morrison Knopf 176 pages; $23.95 Toni Morrison dedicated Beloved, her 1987 masterpiece recently named by The New York Times as the best American novel of the last 25 years, to the "sixty million and more" black people said to have perished under America's slave trade. There was no appropriate monument to commemorate American slaves, she lamented at the time: no plaque, tree or statue. Not even a bench by the side of the road. In July, an international society of Morrison scholars and admirers gathered to lay a 1.8-meter bench on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, by what was once a port for slave ships. "I really liked it because it was simple and unpretentious; it was open, anyone could sit there," Morrison says by phone in her slow, whispery voice. "It wasn't some traditional memorial." The Nobel laureate is more than just a literary figure: to many readers, she's an icon who helped reclaim the African-American experience from white history. Even critics sometimes find her prose abstruse, but Oprah Winfrey has endorsed four of her books and they sell in the millions. When Beloved was passed over for the National Book Award, four dozen African-American writers issued a statement of protest and it subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize. Winfrey produced and starred in Jonathan Demme's 1998 film of the novel. Now 77, and with her ninth novel, A Mercy, just published, Morrison is keen to shake off the image of national conscience. At a talk in London, she corrected an audience member who called her a spokesperson for the African-American community: "I don't speak for you, I speak to you." For most of her four decades as a novelist, Morrison embraced being categorized as a "black woman writer," choosing to see it as liberating rather than limiting. "That whole labeling business is just so tiresome - you can't escape it but you can try to own it," she laughs, her smooth voice broken by a gravelly smoker's cackle. "I don't think I was successful at all." Beloved devastatingly shows how slavery deformed the ability of black women to care for their children. The novel was triggered by an old newspaper clipping Morrison read about an escaped slave, Margaret Garner, who killed her own daughter rather than see her returned to bondage. A Mercy explores similar territory, following a black slave, Florens, who is separated from her mother and sent to the smallholding of an Anglo-Dutch farmer, Jacob, as payment for a debt. Yet A Mercy is set in the late 1600s, two centuries before Beloved, when slavery was not yet linked to skin color. Morrison wanted to imagine what it felt like to be a slave but not subject to racism: "That's why I had to go back before the institutionalization of racism, when it became law." Various European nations and empires were laying claim to the land in the 17th century, and Morrison "was interested in who those people who came to the continent were - the ordinary people who were running away from something and hoping to find it in this new world." When Jacob dies of smallpox, his charges - among them an American Indian servant and two white indentured laborers - struggle to hold up in the harsh terrain. After his widow also falls sick, Florens sets out to find a blacksmith with curative powers - a free African man and the object of her sexual obsession. "I was trying to erase racism from the American narrative," Morrison says, "to take it out and see people from different places, different classes, different parts of the world, trying to form a family, a kind of a unit." The working title was simply Mercy - a typical Morrison single-word title, following her previous three novels Jazz (1992), Paradise (1999) and Love (2003). But she felt that Mercy, which refers to an act in the book's last chapter, was too general; so it became A Mercy. "It's just one human gesture, and you don't get anything for it," Morrison says. "You don't get to feel good. You just suddenly do what only humans can do, which is offer mercy." A Mercy was originally slated for publication next year, but Morrison's publishers pushed it forward to time with the American election. The novel's portrayal of racial commingling now has added currency. Barack Obama personally phoned Morrison to ask for her endorsement, and in January she wrote him a letter describing him as "the man for this time." Obama's victory has been seen widely as a landmark for racial progress, but Morrison takes an unlikely view. Her decision to back Obama against Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with race, she says. "I'm not interested in him because of his race at all. It's just overdone. It's like Othello - everybody plays that role like the play is about his being a Moor. They all dress up and blacken their faces and redden their lips and get hysterical. The play's not about that at all!" Observing the discussion of race in the lead-up to the election, Morrison felt as if a boil was being pierced - a cleansing process that, once complete, will allow people to talk about something else. "People tried to say it and not say it, then use it and reject it, then try to develop a language that was about race, where you could say alien, foreigner - everything except race." UPON AWARDING Morrison the Nobel Prize in 1993, the Swedish Academy praised her as a writer of "visionary force and poetic import" who "delves into language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race." A small but vocal coterie of black writers construed her victory as owing more to political correctness than merit. "Attacks?" Morrison protests. "What attacks? Who attacked?" Stanley Crouch, for one, who called Beloved a "blackface holocaust novel." Morrison softens, refusing to be drawn into sparring: "Oh Stanley, that's his living." The black novelist Charles Johnson has criticized her for negatively depicting men and whites. Yet Morrison once opposed the attempt by a prominent African-American lobby group to censor Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn because of its use of "nigger." She also defended O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton against the charges of feminists. Writing in The New Yorker magazine in 1998, Morrison described Clinton as America's first black president - a remark she must now regret? "I didn't even say that" - for the record, she did - "I said he was treated like one, that is, with complete disrespect, complete, 'You're guilty already.'" The author grew up in the poor steel-mill town of Lorain, Ohio, which was divided along lines of class rather than race. Her neighbors and schoolmates came from many cultures. Racism was an abstraction: "My parents were from the Deep South, so I knew there was another world, but it was their past, not my present." Her father, George, a welder, didn't let white people into their home. But her mother, Ramah, a homemaker, "always judged people one person at a time"; a strong believer in political change, she once wrote to president Roosevelt about the weevils in their flour. AS AN undergraduate at Howard University, the so-called Black Harvard in Washington, DC, Morrison was derided for proposing to write a paper on Shakespeare's black characters. At Howard, the author, born Chloe Wofford, picked up the nickname "Toni" (an abbreviation of her middle name, Anthony). She wrote her master's thesis at Cornell on alienation in the novels of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Later she returned to Howard University to teach before becoming a book editor. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), was about a black girl who dreams of blue eyes and blonde hair. The novel was hardly autobiographical, but Morrison wrote it because "I never read about 'me' in any of the literature I loved - 'me' meaning one of the most vulnerable people in the society: a child, a female, and a black female child." Morrison worked on it for over five years, waking up every morning at 4:30 to write while employed as an editor at Random House. She was also alone in raising her two sons, Harold and Slade, after divorcing their father, Jamaican architect Harold Morrison, in 1964. Morrison never remarried and has said that she and the older Harold clashed because he expected her to be subservient. Of her late turn to writing, she remarks: "I enjoyed having something of my own to think about so much." There were few black female literary voices in the 1960s, and they didn't offer models for the gritty fiction she aspired to write. "Most were about how really and truly and noble characters were in the black world. I was writing about what the pain really was." She says that her own emotions are inimical to writing. "If I'm angry or depressed or even joyful, those are not useful feelings. You really have to become your characters." At Random House, she nurtured the literary careers of African-American writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Alice Walker, and edited a groundbreaking scrapbook of black history, The Black Book (1974). Only after publishing Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977) and Tar Baby (1981), did she leave to write full-time. Morrison felt economic insecurities which she traces to her Depression-era childhood. Since 1989, she has been a professor at Princeton, where she is currently teaching her final course on "the literature of dispossession." In her 1992 book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison argued that black characters are central to the American literary canon. The white view of Africanness, she wrote, "deployed as rawness and savagery … provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity." It heartens her that critics no longer read African-American fiction mostly as sociology. Morrison recalls a review of Beloved in The New Yorker that opened by comparing the family in the novel to that of the black television sitcom The Cosby Show. Now, she says, "They talk about it as literature - about the language, the structure, its relationship to other kinds of novels. You can't just get away with saying, 'This is a black world novel.'"