As an African‑American writer working in a language that assumes whiteness, Toni Morrison says she's had to explode a few literary traditions.
By Terry Gross
Jazz depicts the ideal New York of the '20s: the innocence and the sin, the excitement and the comfort of a huge metropolitan area. I think that compelled African‑Americans as it did immigrants.
Black characters in the classic writings of white Americans have been as shadows, reflections in a mysterious pool that telegraphed fear, or desire‑or any idea the writers could not own themselves. So argues Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark, her new book of literary criticism. And though some reviewers have questioned Morrison's claim to a dispassionate stance, none could question her authority: In novel after novel‑The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby and the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, Beloved- Morrison's own African‑American characters are rendered with astonishing clarity and depth. Reviewers speak not of her shaping characters, but of her ability to conjure them.
Morrison grew up in a close‑knit, interracial neighborhood in Lorain, Ohio, and the community she found both supportive and smothering shows up in her work. She did get out of her small town: Morrisson went on to study at Howard University, then Cornell, married and had two sons. And she's said the heightened responsibility her town schooled her in served her: After her divorce, she raised the children herself, went to work in publishing and began her own writing. Eventually, at Random House, she edited the work of Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.
At the same time as the release of Playing in the Dark, she also published a highly acclaimed new novel that's garnered much more attention. Set in 1920s Harlem, Jazz is about African‑Americans who moved from the rural South to the urban North, and brings to life another set of private worlds: There are Violet and Joe, an older couple, and Dorcas, a young woman who becomes Joe's lover and whom he shoots in a fit of passion. Violet goes to the funeral intending to slash the dead woman's face, but the mourners stop her. She runs back through the snow, takes her pet birds from their cages and puts them out her windows, "to freeze or fly." Including the parrot that says, "I love you."
Gross: A character in Jazz later says to Violet, "I don't understand women like you, women with knives." Do you understand women with knives, crimes of passion?
Morrison: Not entirely. I think part of the reason I was interested in this story and in this period was to figure out the impulse for violence as a notion of solution, and how it plays into notions of license and freedom. It was a quest on my part. I'm not sure I understand that kind of excess.
Gross: Was there a particular crime or particular woman that you wanted to understand?
Morrison: The woman I really wanted to understand was Dorcas, the young girl, who is based on a historical figure -a young girl who died in Harlem at a party, shot by her lover, with a silencer, and who refused to let anybody help her because she wanted to give him time to get away. She waited so long that she bled to death.
That was extremely provocative to me, that kind of romance, which is probably representative of someone that young: Her acceptance of his violence, the way in which a young girl or a woman deals with assault, under certain circumstances in certain eras.
Gross: What's the closest you've seen to this in real life?
Morrison: I've never seen any of it. If I had seen it, or participated in it, I probably wouldn't be so interested in writing about it! It's what is outside one's own personal experience that is compelling.
Gross: No family legends or neighborhood legends from when you grew up?
Morrison: Not about women. About men, yes, who were championed because of their endurance and their response to violence, but the women that I knew were, I suppose, able to deflect violence verbally.
There's a passage in Jazz about the kind of women who needed a certain kind of protection. There were those who had razors taped to their hands; there were those who were willing to boil lye and those who were willing to put ground glass in food. And there is a secondary passage that explains what a large majority of black women did to try to protect themselves: the church, the club movement, the acquisition of property. I think the line goes, "Any black woman in 1926 who did not share some of those protective gestures was silent or crazy or dead."
Gross: You give the sense in Jazz of people coming to Harlem, coming to the city, and feeling more like themselves there‑more like the people they always knew they were, is the way you put it.
Morrison: In literature sometimes we romanticize the freedom of the countryside, the ability to commune with nature and be one's transcendent self. There is that mythos, and there's an accompanying one‑the freedom of the city. On the one hand, there's a kind of anonymity, but, especially for African‑Americans, it meant moving into an area where there were many of you. You could see yourself in your number and there was a certain kind of protection in that, as well as some license.
There's also the idea of a city as a place where there is a mix‑many classes, many kinds of people‑and however eccentric you are, there are at least 100 other people who are eccentric in precisely the same way. So that one has solitude, individuality and community in a city.
I'm not sure we can think up a city like that anymore. But that's the ideal, what we think of as New York in the '20s, in invented mechanisms or actually, historically: the innocence and the sin, the excitement and the comfort of being in a huge metropolitan area. I think that impelled and compelled African‑Americans as it did immigrants. There was risk, but there was enormous opportunity and some safety.
Gross: Would you share with us one of your parents' migration stories?
Morrison: Yes. One of the ones I remember best was when my mother's parents left the South, left Alabama. My grandfather had gone to a large city to earn some money playing the violin, and my grandmother was alone on their farm with children who were very young‑I think my mother was five.
And there was some danger. It was a time when a woman alone with several children was a target. In my grandmother's words, when she noticed white boys beginning to circle that house, she had to leave immediately. She sent word to her husband, to my grandfather, by somebody who was en route to tell him that she would be on X train at X time and that if he wanted to see them again, he should be there. And so they left in the middle of the night, because there was always debt in the sharecropping situation that most post‑Reconstruction black people found themselves in‑you know, the general store you need for the feed takes the crops, etcetera.
They went to Birmingham and got on the train and as the train pulled out, there was no Papa. The children all began to wail and cry. Then a few miles outside the city he appeared. He hadn't felt that he could show himself at the station and get on with them because they were escaping that cycle of debt. It was a happy event for them, and that's a very typical story. There were subsequent stops on that route, looking for work, and they ended up on the shores of Lake Erie, where I was born.
Gross: What was Lorain, Ohio, like when you were growing up?
Morrison: It was an interesting place. It's remarkable that, in that part of Ohio as happened in many of those states, I never lived in a black neighborhood. What we were living in were really just poor neighborhoods, and I grew up with all of the other immigrants who were coming to this country.
Around the house where my mother lives, the people on the street are named Tershak and Gallini, and there's my mother and a black woman named Mrs. Ross, and so on. That's always been the case in that town, because it was a steel town. People came from Mexico, from Eastern Europe, from Scandinavia, and black people came to these centers just after World War I, and in some instances before, in order to find work. So we had a town where all the ideals that seem purely rhetorical existed. Everybody, whether they were Polish or what they used to call Slovenes in those days, had their own halls, churches and family life. That was not mixed. But there was one high school, four junior high schools, and we all went to the same ones.
Gross: What was the African‑American cultural center? The church?
Morrison: Absolutely, the church.
Gross: And you'd go every Sunday?
Morrison: Well, it involved a very complicated social life. Part of it was Sunday, part of it was Sunday School, and a lot of it was taking care of each other.
What I remember most is the impetus for all of us to take food to people who needed it or to go clean somebody's house if they were bedridden.., all sorts of chores were taken for granted. When people got old, if they didn't have any place to go, or if their families were indigent or couldn't take care of them, that was the responsibility of the women of the church or of the neighborhood. It was just a constant part of one's life.
In The Bluest Eye I recorded something similar that really happened. My sister and I would sleep in the same bed, and sometimes we would wake up and there would be a child next to us‑somebody who was in difficulty or the parent was sick or gone. The women in the neighborhood would take them in, and there might be some children living with us for two or three weeks, or months. It was a violation of what everybody now seems to think is important, intimacy and privacy, and of course as a young girl, I wanted to leave it. But at the same time, it was a kind of sharing. No one said to anyone else, "You ought to be a responsible member of society!" People just did everything that way.
Gross: It would seem to me that in your adult life as a single mother, writer and editor, you would have had precious little time to devote to the community.
Morrison: That's true. I had precious little time. I didn't think of it that way because I understood my work to be very much bound up with service to the community. What I came to miss, I have to tell you, was the community service to me!
I understood that if I lived in Lorain, Ohio, and was working and had small children, that I wouldn't have to get a babysitter. Somebody would do that; on your street people would watch your children. They took that as part of being an adult.
Gross: In Playing in the Dark, you write that until recently, American readers were assumed to be white, and you wonder what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination in America. When you started reading, were you conscious of reading books in which there were few, if any, black characters?
Morrison: I was conscious of there being a sort of disruption in some books when black characters did occur. And there was a kind of embarrassment, a need to skip over those parts when I was, say, in the 10th grade and read Uncle Tom's Cabin, or saw children's books with the character Sambo. You politely erase these things from your consciousness until you get older.
When I became a writer, I had to function in a language that was coded in a number of ways, and I had to work with those codes. I didn't have access to some of the metaphors used by, say, white writers, who feel they are un‑raced and take for granted the centrality of their experience because it is white. Everybody else has race; white people don't. Taking that for granted, they could use cleverly, brilliantly, effectively or not‑as the case might be‑the presence of black people, just as they frequently did the presence of women. That's just something they had in their kit.
Gross: You say that the language was coded. Could you elaborate on what you felt you had to cut through or work around?
Morrison: Well, calling slaves slaves instead of laborers or workers is one code; or using black women ‑and men- in a scene for no reason other than to provide a tension suggesting illegal sexuality or violence. They have no other function. They may never be picked up again. But they have this impact.
In classical American literature there is the need to establish virtue, power and dominance over something, the need for an obedient black person or someone who loves irrationally. Mark Twain's Jim is irrational in that sense. His love is boundless. He's a grown man, talking to children. I could not do that, say, with a white man who was an ex‑convict.
Gross: I think it's fair to say that, in your fiction, there have been very few significant white characters.
Morrison: Well, yes.
Gross: How does that relate to what you're talking about?
Morrison: It would be silly for me to concentrate on major white characters, because I'm not interested in that. And it destabilizes the progress of the narrative. For example, putting a young black girl center‑stage seemed to me a radical thing to do in 1965, when I first began writing The Bluest Eye. Once you begin to permit the reins of the narrative to be held by a white person, you lose the agency; you lose the terrain, the imaginative terrain. You may be forced into responding to a white presence, instead of examining your characters' interior lives without the constant need to explain, to editorialize and to fix. So it was an enormous liberation for me, and one that I find repeated a lot‑particularly in the work of black women. Once you take those people out it's as though the whole world is available for your own creativity.
But in a sense it's a little bit more real than that. White people were not central to my life. They were out there on the edge, sometimes wonderful and enabling, sometimes hostile and disabling. The heart of life, even in the town that I described, was in our household, in our family. We weren't required to consistently think about what white people were thinking. It would make you reduce them into some sort of stereotype that I would shy away from.
But certainly I was fascinated and thrilled by a number of secondary figures, enabling figures, who are white, such as Amy in Beloved, who is not required to be a white person in that scene, because she's not around any other white people, so she can go ahead and be a person. And she does something that almost never, if ever, happens in American fiction‑a white person touching a black person with a motive other than sex or violence.
Edited for print by Eileen Fisher from an interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.
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