I went to meet Toni Morrison on a grey morning in the winter of 1998. She was living, at that time, in an elegant loft in Lower Manhattan. We sat at the kitchen table, and she served me coffee. There was a large, witty painting of a watermelon that hung high on her living room wall. And she had an immaculate, white powder room that displayed a variety of Crabtree & Evelyn soaps and creams. It had a powdery scent that reminded me of my grandmother.

Morrison and I talked for an hour and a half, with the phone occasionally interrupting. A critique of her latest novel, Paradise, had appeared that morning in the New York Times. Paradise, which takes place during Reconstruction, involves a massacre at a convent outside the all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma. The reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, had not been entirely enamoured of the work. Morrison’s friends were calling to console her, but she only shook her head and gave a series of rueful laughs, resigned to being misunderstood.

Morrison, who died on August 5 at the age of eighty-eight, was adored. She was a Nobel Laureate who also won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988. My favourite Morrison novel is Song of Solomon, which urges us to travel backward to find the essence of African American culture and which excavates the Black vernacular to reveal hidden truths. Her oeuvre constitutes an unchronological account of African American history—from before slavery engulfed America (A Mercy) to our present “postracial” world (God Help the Child).

A challenging factor for readers was her handling of time. After I gave a talk on Beloved, an audience member admitted being confused by the way the heroine, Sethe, travels between past and present. She found it unrealistic. But Morrison’s handling of time is only too realistic. She represents memories on the page exactly as we experience them in real life: as obstacles that stop or divide time, or as a separate dimension of our daily lived existence, a twilight zone.

My interview with Toni Morrison remains the most memorable of my life. I can still hear her voice—a complicated contralto—as she explained to me her ways of seeing, shared her witty, bitter insights, and conveyed her deeply spiritual wisdoms. All in the same beautiful language I found familiar from the written page. We talked about her happy childhood, her theories of a literary aesthetic, white racism, and the value of the black past.

Our interview wrapped up around midday. Much to my delight, Morrison invited me for lunch. We put on our coats—hers was more of a great cape—and took the elevator down to the ground floor. The friendly concierge greeted her in the lobby. The liveried doorman tipped his hat. “Good morning, Miss Morrison,” he said, smiling. We walked a few blocks north to a restaurant with large storefront windows, a kind of fancy delicatessen. When Morrison entered the establishment, everybody froze. For several moments, it was like viewing a museum still-life. Next came the hushed whispers that resembled the sound of rustling paper. A waiter in black pants and a crisp, white shirt hurried over and led us to our table. I ordered sparkling water and a tuna salad. Morrison ordered the same. We ate and drank. We took our time. I could have listened to her forever.

We finally exited the restaurant. All day she had been making jokes about how difficult it can be for black people to flag down a New York cab. But as soon as she lifted her arm, a taxi magically appeared. As I drove away, I looked back. Morrison stood on the sidewalk waving goodbye like an old friend, or like a mother encouraging a daughter who was finally on her way.

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DBN: I am so curious to know: did we really have this past you write about in Paradise—ex-slaves wandering the country in homeless bands, starving, and then some eventually founding all-black towns? Is this a history that is already available to the reader, or are you just piecing it together as you go along?

TM: Some of it I knew about, but not in depth. My parents were what they used to call “race people,” who used to be on top of every law passed, every moment of progress, every retreat. They read the black press and J.A. Rogers. However, I wasn’t terribly interested in all that growing up. I was very much interested in what was going on in the school system, reading American literature, classical literature, what have you. I was a very avid reader. So I got sort of a limited education as far as black history was concerned, in spite of the fact that my parents were intense about it. But like any young person, I told myself that I am going to know better and more than they. Until I left Ohio, which is where I was living, and went to Howard University, which is a predominantly black college. Howard was a deliberate choice on my part because I really wanted to be with smart black people.

I came about black history in depth as an undergraduate. But there were areas that were still unknown to me: one was Reconstruction. Most of what we hear about Reconstruction was that it was all terrible. But in fact it was a powerful, extraordinary eight or ten years. And the fact that following it was this Klan movement was testimony to its success. When blacks get truly powerful, whites always get nervous. The enormous success of blacks during Reconstruction is the reason the period has been distorted and played down in history.

On the other hand, I knew a little history about the foundation of black towns because I taught in Texas when I just got out of graduate school. But I thought they were like college towns: places like Langston, Oklahoma. What I didn’t know until later was how many all-black towns there were and how long they lasted. And they were not shack towns. They were towns full of schools and banks and stores and mills and so on.

The founding of all-black towns was a very powerful movement. Some of the towns are still there. Recently, I read in the Wall Street Journal about a town called Taft, Oklahoma, and I did a little hiccup because it was founded at the same time Haven in Paradise was founded, and it had four hundred people in it. They were hoping to get funding to have the town made into a landmark. And that was amazing to me. There’s a world of history out there.

DBN: One of my favourite historians is Nell Irvin Painter. She writes marvellously about obscured black history.

TM: Yes. She’s one of the historians bringing attention to that era. But again, it’s in the academy. I’m always disturbed that in the public discourse you are always hearing about how black people ought to take care of themselves. And yet there has always been this historical pressure in the community to make our own way and not ask anybody for anything. Ever.

DBN: Part of what struck me was how the women in Ruby were eager to send their sons away to the army. It was almost as though they believed war was safer for their black sons than the civilian world.

TM: People don’t talk about it. But black children were sent into the army because it was a protected environment. It was safer.

DBN: It’s this odd irony because black people are always depicted as the most violent people.

TM: We’ve been demonized and criminalized, when really we were the ones running from and trying to protect ourselves from violence. When I was young we used to run from white boys. That was the norm.

DBN: I had to run from white boys, too.

TM: We were trained to avoid those people. But it’s my sons who are stigmatized.

(We were interrupted here by a phone call from a friend who wanted to talk about the New York Times review.)

DBN: I am surprised that, at this point in your career, you are particularly interested in what critics might have to say about your work.

TM: I don’t care about these things in relation to my work at all. I do care about the way in which African American fiction is perceived, reviewed, handled, and understood. I teach it. I have tracked it over time from the days when it was patronized to the days when it was treated purely as sociology to these days in which it is taken seriously. I watch and care quite a bit.

I have a dual role. Like a representative role. I have seen the days in which Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, or Gayl Jones and myself, were reviewed abominably, in terms which were inapplicable. And I’ve seen that change in the scholarship, so that when I read reviews of my own work it doesn’t have any effect on my work, how I write or what I am going to write, or how I think about writing at all. I am very cold about the relationship between reviewers and work. Very cold. I have no expectations. It is very interesting to me, mostly because it is so revelatory about the reviewer.

But I care very much that the body of work that black people do in this country is understood to be significant, important, varied. I remember days when I was reviewed along with James Alan MacPherson and Gayl Jones in a book review. The reviewer tried to pull it all together when the work was incomparable. We have nothing in common except the colour of our skin. And the reviewer had the nerve to decide which of the three books were better. She may have been right. But she said James MacPherson’s was better because his view of black life was the more accurate. That should be unthinkable for an intelligent woman.

DBN: It would be in any other situation.

TM: It would be in any other situation. One of the major points of Paradise is how to rate this community where everything—past, present, future—is locked to its citizens being pure black against this other community in which the members have nothing in common except gender, and you don’t know who is white or black or mixed or not mixed. No reviewer has even mentioned this exercise.

DBN: It seems to me that in this book you have gotten away with saying all sorts of very direct truths. Somehow, I don’t think people will be happy with that. You don’t soften things much.

TM: Well this book was going to be called War.

DBN: From War to Paradise!

TM: Yes. Because it was about enormous conflicts that resolve themselves in assault, physical assault. That’s what war is. The reasons people hurt each other. However, it was probably an unwise title, as my publishers persuaded me.

DBN: Why do you think they persuaded you not to use War as a title?

TM: Because it’s not friendly. People would feel it was a bit harsh.

DBN: But what about Beloved? Beloved was very harsh.

TM: With Beloved, I shifted the reader’s attention to the ghost story and just gave the reader little tastes of slavery along the way. Because you couldn’t take the brutality. It was overwhelming, like pornography or something. So I gave them a thing to play with: the relationship of Beloved to Sethe. Once Beloved entered the book, and it was clear that that was a fantastic thing, it distracted readers from this other thing, which is that this woman, Sethe, did not own her children. If you take Beloved out and just have Sethe running around with her daughter, it’s stark in ways you can’t take.

DBN: The shameful thing for me was that I was taught to see slaves as anonymous, even though I’m black myself. How did you get such a clear sense of these individual people and their individual stories?

TM: I just investigated it. I learned a lot. Novel writing for me is an opportunity to learn about an issue I don’t know a great deal about. I thought I knew a great deal about slavery until I started writing Beloved. Then you say, “What?! They did what?” It’s overwhelming. And then you understand why your parents, your grandparents, and everybody didn’t talk about it. They didn’t want you to know, because they don’t think you can take it. They know it’s untakeable, and that you shouldn’t be able to take it. They want your life geared to the future. So that whole business of remembering is an act of the will, because you have to remember in order to forget.

DBN: It’s truly traumatizing.

TM: Writing Beloved was very hard for me. Emotionally it was devastating. I would get up from the table and just walk until I could calm down enough to write the simple sentence.

DBN: What’s the toughest sentence you had to write?

TM: “…little nigger-girl eyes staring between the wet fingers that held her face so her head wouldn’t fall off.” If they could live it, I can write it.

DBN: And we can read it. I studied Beloved in school, and I found that a lot of the women, who were white, were down on Sethe. They couldn’t see how she could kill her child. They felt she did not have the right. But I was thinking I could kill my child to spare her from slavery.

TM: Different black people responded to slavery differently. Some people were brave. Some people were not brave. Some of them ran away. Some even adopted the manners of the slave owner.

DBN: I like what you say about freedom in Paradise. “Here freedom was a test administered by the natural world that a man had to take for himself every day and if he passed enough tests long enough he was king.”

DBN: I know you don’t like to talk about your personal life, especially your divorce. But I did read where you said that even though divorce was painful, you felt a certain kind of freedom. Could you talk about that?

TM: Freedom is when you are in a position to choose your responsibilities and every day you meet them. I don’t want to be owned by somebody else. I don’t want to be told what to do. Constantly. But in the case of being alone with children, there was a certain kind of liberation. It was very, very, very hard. Very hard. But it was like what Sethe said: it was me doing it. I call the shots. I’m that big. I can get all of my children in my heart. And when I became a single parent, it was something about me doing it, knowing at any moment I might fail, that I might have to go home and stay with my parents. They were fearful for me. But I had to try. I wasn’t jubilant. But I really felt coherent when I had to separate out my activities into those that helped my writing and my children, and those that did not.

DBN: In Paradise, you write about a kind of macho masculine culture, but you often draw very tender male characters. You seem to have a tender place for black men.

TM: One day a black man who taught at a university where I was reading said, “I tell all my students that you love black men.” And I said, “Yes, I do.” But I get very annoyed because there are some people who accuse me of being anti-male. They act like I’m a sort of feminist kamikaze. And this becomes part of the public discourse. People ask me in Q&A sessions why Paul D in Beloved is such a wimp. A wimp? Look what that man survived! Intact. I really think men like to see themselves in wrestling terms. Like, grrr. The complexity of a man, particularly a black man, to me is just amazing. How they learn to be who they are, and sometimes the obstacles to just being men, let alone black men.

DBN: And yet they are the most beautiful creatures on Earth.

TM: They are the most beautiful creatures on the planet. And everyone loves them.

DBN: And everyone loves them.

TM: And is worried about them to the point of envy so great, so overwhelming, so large, that only in little ways do you see it dribble out, provided a black man doesn’t say anything political. But even if he does say something political, there is still this adoration. They are the adored people of the Earth.

DBN: I feel your novels come closest to offering me some sort of literary definition or theory of what constitutes black experience.

TM: I feel I haven’t been able to articulate it in a satisfactory manner. I’ve sometimes thought there’s a kind of exchange in churches or in jazz and in music that black people do with each other. They anticipate that the audience has some power in the performance. Therefore, when I write, I expect the audience to argue, to fuss, to do whatever in the book. It’s not just about delivering something. It is about an interactive response. And I think that is part of the cultural phenomenon of the close association between an artist and the community, the artist and the viewer, the artist and reader. A reviewer once said that I’ve been more influenced by James Joyce and other modernist writers than by black culture. I don’t know. My perceptions can be wrong. But the fact that I have them is the fact that I have them. I’m not sure enough about my ideas, however, to articulate them as a formula or even a theory of black art. The only thing I can do is do it, and make certain kinds of assumptions about the work, about the people, about the race. One of the first things I decided was that I didn’t have to explain anything to a white reader. So that if I’m talking to you as a black person, I could tell you all sorts of things that would depend heavily on your knowingness—not the historical knowingness, but just the interchange of language: what this would mean, what that would mean. Culture.

The other thing I decided was not to focus on the one-on-one white–black confrontation issue, which has been the major focus of a lot of African American fiction. One major exception to this has been Jean Toomer.

The point is, I feel I can’t fool black people. Now, there are people who want me to fool them. They want me to write books in which all the black men are powerful and steady and moral and they never have a moment’s doubt. But I am certain they want me to do that because they want white people to read it and think of them that way. There again the white gaze has penetrated.

Now, it didn’t with jazz, and it didn’t with a lot of art forms that were ours, because we had to prove our value to each other. Those musicians were playing for each other, and the mediocre ones just fell away. If I could use that analogy for writing: if I wrote so that a fastidious black reader would know everything, that would elevate the goal and elevate the writing.

DBN: With your novel Jazz, I think that was the first time I thought to myself that these words are really reflecting black experience the way black music does, like notes, almost.

TM: Jazz was a very experimental book. I thought it was radical. Some people acknowledged certain things, like the whole ensemble feel and the notion that the narrator cannot be relied upon to know the truth. No one person in a jazz combo is the only one. The most magnificent thing about watching Miles Davis is the long moments where he listens. To see him on stage listening to other musicians. Totally concentrating. And you know that whatever he heard, he’s going to have something to say about it when he next picks up that horn. It’s the most democratic thing. It’s amazing. In Jazz, the narrator has to listen to the characters in order to tell the story. What the characters say may change what the narrator thinks they know.

DBN: I read that when you were a little girl you wanted to be a dancer like Maria Tallchief. Did you use to dance a lot? Did you study ballet?

TM: No, I didn’t study dance. We danced for other people. Me and my sister, and then me alone. She stopped because she got shy. I was six or five. I danced. At a party or a gathering like the Fourth of July, we would all be dancing. If they saw one child who was good at these things, they would display that child. I was good at dancing, and I was good at storytelling. The adults would ask us to tell stories that they had told us many times. And we would repeat them and they would laugh like they were hearing them for the first time. It was a very performative thing. We didn’t have television. For many years we didn’t have radio. We had to sing, play the piano. My mother was a brilliant singer. My mother was a fabulous singer. She had the most beautiful human voice that I have ever heard. She was a soprano. And it made me not enjoy other singers. You know, I liked them, but they were nothing like my mother. When I woke up I might hear her singing blues, or she might be singing spirituals. She sang Carmen. She sang in church. She sang at every funeral. We were African Methodist Episcopal. But in my day, people sang in the streets.

DBN: Music is everywhere in every book.

TM: I live up in Rockwood County, and about three years ago I heard a male voice singing in the streets. And I ran upstairs and looked out the window and there was this black man coming down the street. He was delivering mail. I was smiling. He did that another mail delivery day, and then he stopped because the people complained. And that made me realize that I had been missing that for twenty, thirty years. That people sang. The iceman sang. The man with the horses and the drays sang, and the children.

DBN: That world you write about and sound nostalgic for—the black towns, the black clubs, the church, the community—that was really out there, right?

TM: Yes. That was real.

DBN: Is it gone?

TM: I think so.

DBN: Are you trying to bring it back?

TM: Some of it. The responsibility we felt for each other. All those mothers on the street, everybody who could tell you what to do as a child, who protected you. I remember I resented that type of intrusion then. But I miss it now.

Adapted from What’s a Black Critic To Do? (Insomniac Press, 2011).

Donna Bailey Nurse
Donna Bailey Nurse is the editor of Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing and runs the website www.blackiris.co. She was a juror for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.