On April 27, 2015, Farah Jasmine Griffin interviewed Morrison before a standing-room audience. Here, exclusively to ESSENCE, we present the full conversation between two powerful intellectuals—portions of which appeared on the tablet edition of the magazine.
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, but not only that. However, this book is quite a departure. What made you want to return to those issues, and how do you go in different direction here?
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 sister where there are elements of protection, elements of knowing one another without the control issues of a mother, a daughter, a wife—all the stress of male female relationships. That novel was Home. I started this book before I did Home, but 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 this years later. In The Bluest Eye, [Pecola’s] collapse is via racism within the community and how it hurts and can destroy you. I know there is no such thing as race, simply the human race, but there is color, and color determines a lot of what people think about each other. So there is that. Here the principal thing was the pain of being very, very Black in a household that has spent a lot of their 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 not ever go away and it sort of informs everything you do. So her Blackness becomes her weapon, and she wins. Now he [the male character Booker] has a different trauma. So I was hoping that I could figure out a way, how they would get beyond it. And it occurred to me that neither one of them lived an interior life. It is only when they were in position and have agreed to really help somebody else, whom they like, together, that they can 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 want to about 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’s 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. This 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 her work as an executive in the beauty industry?
Where else would it be? She going to be a schoolteacher? 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 multi-racial, multi-ethnic 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.
One thing that seems especially different here is a distinction you make between race, which is a “non-thing”, and racism.
Which is a THING thing.
Yes. Both race and racism function differently than they do in your previous novels. Bride suffers from Sweetness’s internalized racism and then she, Bride, exoticizes herself. But, neither race nor racism seem to be any more of a determining factor than are other issues. Is that right?
Bride has small encounters with racism. She is used to them and they don’t matter because she knows she can knock them out. In terms of skin color privilege, I first noticed it when I went to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University in the fifties. It was all over the city. There was an advantage to being light-skinned. There is a long history of separating ourselves from each other. As I said, there is a reason: You don’t get punished as much socially. But color difference becomes a judgment about what is better and what is not. A is better than B because of color, or if B is very, very Black, that is an instance for pride. That’s what I tried to do in Paradise. I saw pictures of those Black towns in Oklahoma, and in all the pictures, all the mayors and leaders were light-skinned.
In Paradise, the dark ones have been rejected so they create their own town. They are “pure.”
Their purity would kill them. Color as a sign of something pure and wonderful or something degrading always struck me as strange and absurd and fundamentally silly, although it is universal I suppose. I didn’t want Bride—having escaped the condemnation of her mother, to get to a place where the thing her mother despised was the very thing that she flaunted—I didn’t want it to be the ONLY thing. There is a human being in there somewhere.
In God Bless the Child, there is a line in Booker’s writing: “Trying to understand racist malignancy only feeds it.” Is that you speaking?
No. He is an intellectual, he is a thinker. He has plans to write these books, he writes notes, ideas. He responds to world, and to her, with his thoughts. In that passage, he is thinking if you keep feeding racism, if you keep talking about it, it just gets bigger and bigger. It is already a soiling thing and it has to float.
In previous works, you have been attentive to the specificity of a particular people’s experience, their language, their culture. I didn’t get as much of that specificity here. You are not writing about a neighborhood inhabited by Black people or a historical moment that weighs heavily on Black people in a particular way.
Those things come. I don’t search for them. The White people in this book are very helpful….Somebody once said to me, about Beloved, “Why do you have all these mean white people?” I said, “What are you talking about there is one mean guy?” One helps her have the baby.
In this novel, Raisin reminds me of Beloved’s Denver.
She is very tough I suppose that Brooklyn, Bride’s White friend, who isn’t her friend, is still very helpful.
Yes. At first I wondered if Brooklyn’s disloyalty is because she is White or because she is self-serving and opportunistic?
She is about herself. Wherever the door opens, she’s in it.
Bride is very mobile in this book. Milkman in Song of Solomon and Florens in A Mercy both take journeys. Bride does too.
Traditionally in literature, women stay at home. I like to change that. So Florens was out of the house, and Bride travels.
Bride is driving her own car. She has her own money.
She’s determined. Sometimes she is reckless.
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 woman artist?
I was in London once, and I was interviewed by a woman on stage. 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…my mother, my sister, my sons. That other thing is all well and good. But there is Toni Morrison, and there is Chloe. Chloe is not interested in those things.
How do you maintain integrity when that public self looms so large?
I don’t relate to the public self. I trust and relate to 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.
How do you maintain the distance? How do you protect yourself?
My interests are very different now. I used to like to travel. I did [The Foreigner’s Home] the Louvre, and I had something extremely important to say and it was worth it. When I taught at Princeton, you learn so much when you teach, some classes became the lectures and the book, Playing in the Dark. That was important to my curiosity and my intellect. When I wrote lyrics for Kathleen Battle and Andre Previn, that was something I’d never done before. That kind of experience was shocking and marvelous. The hunger for new creative things compels me. I do less of it now because I’m not working in a university setting. But recently someone asked me to do an introduction to an edition of Primo Levi. I had read one or two of his things years ago, but for this I read all of his books in order to get a hold on what he was about. It really interested me. He wasn’t only attentive to the Nazi’s and the camps. He was so overwhelmed by human beings and language, not even resistance, but how to maintain what they, the Nazi’s, were trying to erase. That is everywhere in his work.
All of these are projects that allow you to keep learning.
Yes, being curious about something, thinking about it, writing about it. I am in control of that, if I am in control of nothing else. It’s the way I am in the world.