The Nobel prize-winning author opens up about beauty standards and the role of race in her novels.
Author Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and comparative literature and African-American studies at Columbia University, spoke with Toni Morrison about the Nobel Prize winner’s latest work and eleventh novel, God Help the Child. Their conversation was rich and wide-ranging, focusing on the book, its relationship to her first offering (The Bluest Eye) and how Morrison handles fame. Generous, thoughtful and brilliant, she still has much to teach us.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Many of ESSENCE’s readers love The Bluest Eye. As with that earlier novel, God Help the Child is, in part, a story about colorism, although it is quite a departure. What made you want to return to this issue, and how do you go in a different direction here?
TONI MORRISON: I wasn’t sure that colorism was going to be as strong a part of this book as it turned out to be. Years earlier I wanted to write a novel about a man and a woman, that was free of sexuality, or dominance, or control or submission. And the only pair I could think of was a brother and sister, where there are elements of protection, elements of knowing each other without the control issues of a mother, a daughter, a wife—all the stress of male-female relationships. That novel was Home. But I started this book before I did Home. I didn’t finish it because it was contemporary and at that time I didn’t have a grasp on what now is; it was too fluid. I came back to God Help the Child years later.
In direct opposition to The Bluest Eye, where [Pecola’s] collapse is via racism within the community and how it hurts and can destroy you, now I know there is no such thing as race, [there is] simply the human race, but there is color, and color determines a lot of what people think about each other. So there is that. And the principal thing was the pain of being very, very Black in a household that has spent a lot of energy on passing or being very, very light. And the reason for this is the privilege it allows. You don’t have to suffer certain kinds of social rejection. And the mother’s horror at conceiving a Black child, with no reason in her family to have it, is the wound that she imposes on her daughter, Bride, and the daughter suffers. She then begins to use Blackness as glamour and beauty. However, things that are traumatizing in youth are like viruses, and poisoning. Even when you are successful it may never go away, and it sort of informs everything you do. So her Blackness becomes her weapon and she wins.
Now, Booker [the main male character] has a different trauma. So I was hoping that I could figure out a way they would get beyond it. And it occurred to me that neither one of them lived an interior life so that only when they were in position and have agreed to really help somebody else, whom they like, together they could grow. It’s not about them.
This is only your second novel with a contemporary setting (Tar Baby, published in 1981, was the first). Why did you set it in the present? What are the challenges in doing so?
It’s only in these times that you can separate race from color and identify racism as something useful to some and damaging to others. In the contemporary world, you have some of it, obviously, but there are so many successful people, so many celebrities, that it is different. It couldn’t be like what Florens (in A Mercy) went through; it’s certainly not like The Bluest Eye. There are different elements to the contemporary world. God Help the Child is set in 2007 or 2008, so it’s quite different. I felt I could hang on to that, I could write about those changes. There is a temptation for her to become a Pecola and just collapse, but she doesn’t. But in both instances, Bride and Pecola, there’s no self-worth. Either somebody tells you, “Pecola, you’re horrible,” and you believe it and it destroys you, or somebody takes what you’ve been taught was horrible and makes it into something precious and attractive so you use that. But I don’t want either of those characters to be defined by color.
What’s the danger of investing in beauty, as Bride does?
That’s all she’s invested in. She’s not complete. Either one of those things is destructive: Using it as a boost or being destroyed by it.
Why have Bride work as a beauty industry executive?
It’s that look. And where is the look more important than anything else in the world? Fashion. Cosmetics. Commerce.
In The Bluest Eye, Pecola is bombarded with images of White beauty. And Hagar, in Song of Solomon, purchases cosmetics that promise to make her look whiter. Bride has her own line of cosmetics, which celebrate multiracial, multiethnic beauty. That’s not enough?
The point is these are obstacles and prisons that come from the outside that you absorb either for good or ill, and in both cases you could skip or miss what being a complete and loving human being is; that it requires certain kinds of sacrifices. For me, books have to end with the acquisition of knowledge. Folk have to learn something.
You’ve received the Pulitzer, the Medal of Freedom from President Obama and the Nobel Prize. Having reached that pinnacle, do you still face professional challenges as a Black female artist?
I was in London and I was being interviewed by a woman onstage. Up in the balcony were rows and rows and rows of Black women who had come a long distance. The interviewer asked, “How would you like to be remembered?” I said I would like to be remembered as trustworthy; as generous.
One of the girls up in the balcony said, “What are you talking about? You are a famous writer and you want to be remembered as trustworthy?” She was furious. And I realized she was thinking about my public self and I was thinking about how I wanted my family to remember me. That other thing is all well and good. But there is Toni Morrison and there is Chloe [Morrison’s birth name]. Chloe is not interested in those things.
How do you maintain integrity when that public self looms so large?
I don’t trust the public self. I trust readers. That’s as public as I can get. I like going into bookstores and signing books, because it’s the only time I can talk to and see readers. I can’t imagine that public self as the be-all for me.