Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019) - full transcript

This artful and intimate meditation on the legendary storyteller examines her life, her works and the powerful themes she has confronted throughout her literary career.

She is a friend of my mind.

She gather me, man.

The pieces I am...

she gather them...

and give them back to me
in all the right order.

It's good, you know...

when you've got a woman

who is a friend of your mind.

My grandfather
bragged all the time

that he had read the Bible,

five times, from cover to cover.

I thought, why does he keep
reading that book?

Then I realized
there weren't any other books.

And it was illegal
in his life...

to read. And it was illegal
for white people to teach...

black kids to read.

it was a revolutionary thing.

And that sense
of it being confrontational...

permeated our house, although
I didn't understand why,

so early. Later on I did.

My sister taught me to read
when I was three.

And we used to get down
on our knees on the sidewalk...

with a pebble...

and write...

cat, dog, I hate you.
You know...

or I hat you
because we didn't know the e.

One day we noticed
another word down the street

about half a block away
and we decided to write it.

So we got together,
expanding our vocabulary.

We wrote F...

and then looked over there. U...

and we were just getting ready
to do the C,

when my mother ran out
of the house...

and started screaming.

"What's the matter with you?"

She's furious.

You, go get a bucket of water.

You, go get a broom.

And we were crying
because we don't know

what happened. We have to
get rid of the words...

and she doesn't say the word,
she doesn't say what it is...

she never does.
In my entire life...

I don't know how old I was

before I found out
what it meant.

And she never tells us
what it's about.

But ultimately, I knew...

that words have power.
Words can do that to my mother,

a word I don't even know.

Now that is power.

I get up before the sun rises.

I always get up early.

I want to beat the sun.

So I have to be there
just before it comes up.

It's the best time.

That part of the day
is incredible.

I'm very, very smart,
early in the day.

Later on I... ugh.

What? But early,
I'm very good. Very sensitive.

About three or four hours,
I'll work every morning.

Cause I got up early to write
because I had small children.

And if I got up at
five o' clock before they woke

I could do some work.

Then the children grew up
and went away.

And, I was still getting up
at that hour

and unwilling and unable
and unenthusiastic

about writing after lunch...

or writing at night.

The only time
I really wanted to do it

and was good at it, I thought,

was very, very early in the day.

It's still that way.

Sometimes you're nudged.

And sometimes
you're just searching,

to make the writing
interesting to me.

It's not just writing, it's
I don't know what this means,

but I have to find out
and I have to explore

all the character's attitudes
and so on.

I've got to know.
I really have to know.

And the only way I can know,
and own what I know,

is to write it...

and then let you read it.

So we both know.

When you read
early reviews of Toni's work,

those early,
sympathetic liberal reviewers

and I remember
one of them about Sula.

And the reviewer says,
"She's got a great talent."

"One day she won't limit it

to only writing
about black people."

Like, really,
it's limiting for her

to write about black people.

no one says that when,

you know, an Irish writer
writes about Irish people.

You know, it's only limiting

when you write
about black people.

In spite of its richness

and its thorough originality,

one continually feels
its narrowness.

Its refusal to brim over
into the world

outside its provincial setting.

Toni Morrison
is far too talented

to remain only
a marvelous recorder

of the black side
of provincial American life.

If she is to maintain the large

and serious audience
she deserves,

she is going to have to address
a riskier contemporary reality.

I have had reviews in the past

that have accused me of not
writing about white people.

I remember a review of Sula

in which the reviewer said,
"One day she," meaning me,

"will have to face up
to the real responsibilities

and get mature
and write about the real,

uh, confrontation
for black people,

which is white people."

As though our lives
have no meaning

and no depth, without...

the white gaze.

And I've spent
my entire writing life

trying to make sure

that the white gaze
was not the dominant one

in any of my books.

Toni Morrison's project

resides precisely

in the effort
to discredit the...

notion that this white male gaze

must be omnipresent.

The center of the Negro's life

is the Southern town.

And once a week, the family cat
rattles through its streets.

The rich melodious tones
of Negro voices

hover in the warm air

as the men gather
to discuss the crop

and pass the time of day.

For the women,
as well as the men,

the town is a social center.

The mainspring of gossip
and the human relations.

It is by their spontaneity
in play or at work

that we glimpse the innate
grace of these people.

In this country,

many books,
particularly 40s, 50s,

you could feel
the address of the narrator

talking to somebody white.

I could tell because they
are explaining things

that they didn't have to explain
if they were talking to me.

The assumption is that
the reader is a white person.

And that troubled me.

They were never talking to me.

Even Frederick Douglass,
he's not talking to me.

I can feel him holding back.

And I understand that

because the people
supporting him

were abolitionists,
white people.

And sometimes he even says it.

"These things
too terrible to relate."

Like rape.
He didn't talk about it.

Same thing I felt was true
with Ralph Ellison,

I felt was true
with so many great writers.

Invisible Man.

Invisible to whom?

When she says,
"Invisible to whom,"

about Invisible Man

which is like, how dare
she question the great novel,

she doesn't question
whether or not

it's a great novel.
She doesn't question

whether or not
it's exquisitely written.

She questions that perspective

that you are only defined

by what your oppressor
thinks of you.

It was like, guess what.

There's this whole
other world going on

when they aren't even looking.

"Not until the white folks left

the gravediggers,
Mr. and Mrs. Hodges

and their young son
who assisted them,

did those black people
from up in the bottom

enter with hooded hearts
and filed eyes,

to sing,
"Shall We Gather at the River"

over the curved earth
that cut them off

from the most magnificent
hatred they had ever known.

Their question
clotted the October air,

Shall We Gather at the River?

The beautiful,
the beautiful river?

Perhaps, Sula answered them
even then,

for it began to rain,
and the women ran

in tiny leaps through the grass

for fear their straightened hair

would beat them home."

My world is a black world.

She was doing something
that a lot of black writers

who had come up
in the 70s weren't doing,

which was to write
about the stories

without having to talk
about excising... whiteness.

And she didn't do it in a way
that was about...

saying that the white world
was wrong.

The white world
was just peripheral,

if it existed at all.

I didn't want to speak for...

black people

I wanted to speak to,
and to be among...

it's us.


the first thing I had to do
was to eliminate the white gaze.

Jimmy Baldwin
used to talk about that,

the little white man
that sits on your shoulder

and checks out
everything you do and say.

Sort of knock him off.
And you know, you're free.

Now I own the world.

I mean I can write
about anything,

to anyone, for anyone.

I don't have to have this
white judgmental eye...

checking me, editing me.

Approving of me.

It has nothing to do
with who reads the books.

Everyone, I hope, of any race,

any gender, any country.

But my sovereignty

and my authority
as a racialized person

had to be struck immediately
with the very first book.

Every book I read
about young black girls,

they were props...



No one took them
seriously, ever.

I wanted to read
a book about that

and nobody
was writing about that.

Even when I wrote
The Bluest Eye,

I was really writing
a book I wanted to read.

I hadn't seen a book
in which black girls

were center stage.

I wanted to read a book
that had no codes,

no little notes explaining
things to white people.

And I had a major,

major question in my mind
at that time.

Which was, "How does a child

learn self-loathing?"

Where does it come from?

Who enables it?

How is it infectious?

And, what might be
the consequences?

I'm not black.
I won't be black.


She called me black.
Jesse called me that.

Jessie Pullman,
for shame on you.

It's cause you're black.

You make me black.

I won't, I won't,
I won't be black.


how could you say such a mean,
cruel thing to Peola?

Oh, it ain't her fault, Miss B.

It ain't yours,
and it ain't mine.

I don't know rightly
where the blame lies.

This is The Bluest Eye,
a novel by Toni Morrison.

It begins, "Quiet as it's kept

there were no marigolds
in the fall of 1941."

It looks like
it should look, right?

It's been used right.

It's been held
and over the years, it's torn.

I've thrown this book
across the room

and picked it up, you know,

and then walked down
the steps laughing.

Like you read Toni and you cry,

but you got to laugh.
I say yeah, yeah.

You really got it.
You got us all that time.

I got you in my arena now,
ha, ha.

I got you.
You got to read this.

I got you.

You've got to deal
with it finally. I got you.

And, if you don't laugh,
you know, you don't survive.

"Quiet as it's kept,

there were no marigolds
in the fall of 1941.

We thought at the time

that it was because Pecola
was having her father's baby

that the marigolds didn't grow.

Our seeds were not the only ones

that did not sprout.
Nobody's did."

I started my career
with The Bluest Eye

of putting the entire plot
on the first page.

So the reader
reads the first page,

he knows exactly what happened.

And if he turns the page
it's because he wants

either to find out
how it happened

or he loves the language.

It's her rawest novel

and her raw is really wonderful.

It's truth
in so many different ways.

Which is why it's still,
you know, I think,

one of her
most controversial books.

You know, people are, like,
always wanting to ban it

and said, you know,
I can't let kids read it.

But all the things
that people have trouble with

is what I kind of love about it.

It's true in all of her books,
what I'm saying,

but I think I like it most
in The Bluest Eye.

I remember an incident
from my own childhood,

when a very
close friend of mine and I,

well, we were walking
down the street.

We were discussing...

whether God existed.
And she said he did not.

And I said he did.

But then she said she had proof.

She said I had been praying...

for two years for blue eyes...

and he never gave me any.

So I just remember
turning around

and looking at her.

She was very, very black

and she was very, very,
very, very beautiful.

How painful.

Can you imagine
that kind of pain?

About that, about color?

So I wanted to say, you know,
this kind of racism hurts.

This is not lynchings
and murders and drownings.

This is interior pain.

So deep...

for an 11-year-old girl
to believe

that if she only
had some characteristic

of the white world...

she would be okay.

She surrendered completely
to the master narrative,

I mean the whole notion
of what is ugliness.

What is worthlessness.

She got it from her family.

She got it from school,
she got it from the movies,

- she got it everywhere. She...
- The master narrative?

It's white male life.

The master narrative
is whatever ideological script

that is being imposed
by the people

in authority on everybody else.

The master fiction, um, history,

it has a certain point of view.

So, when these little girls see

that the most prized gift
that they can get

at Christmastime
is a little white doll,

that's a master narrative

This is beautiful,
this is lovely,

and you're not it.

So we are talking
about The Bluest Eye

by Toni Morrison. I really do
think it's a national treasure.

Everybody should read it.

Don't you think
the world would be different?

In all the years
of the Oprah Book Club

I chose four of her books.
So I wanted the world,

as many people
who could hear my voice,

to understand
the importance of her work.

The reason why I love
the Book Club so much

is because you want
to have enough books

that people feel safe with.
They feel comfortable with.

They feel like,
"Oh, I can get this

when the books are about Robin
and Sue and Daniel and Jake."

Get people to trust.

They feel like,
"Oh, this is something safe

I can read and I'm reading
about people I know

and then bam!
Hit them with Toni Morrison!"

In order to survive,
you should re-read Toni

every ten years
because every ten or 15 years,

we have to re-imagine ourselves

on this American landscape.

You won't survive
if you don't do that.

Someone said reinvent.
I said, "No, no, no.

Reinvent means
you don't like yourself."

There's something wrong.

But reimagine us
on this American landscape.

What I must do now,
how I must live,

how I must rearrange,
you know, my vowels,

how I must rearrange my toe jam,

how I must rearrange my hair,
my breasts,

how I must rearrange
my thoughts.

My grandparents lived in Alabama

and they had a small farm.

They were sharecropping.

My grandfather played
the violin.

Extremely well, apparently,
and chose to go into Birmingham

with his violin to make money.
Street... musician.

My grandmother
got a message to him

to say we are leaving...

and we're getting on a train

and we're going to Akron, Ohio.

She had relatives in Akron.

And if you want to see
your children,

or me again...

you will be on that train.

I cannot stay here.

White boys are circling.

That's all she had to say.

White boys are circling

and we have to leave.

I will be on such
and such a train,

such a such time, going north.

If you want to see us again,
be on that train.

So what she meant was,

her girls were growing up.
They were probably,

I don't know, 12 or 13.

And white boys...

would come around and look
at them, from a distance.

But she knew
what they had in mind.

They called him Big Papa.

The train pulled off
and he was not there.

He was on the train
but he didn't want anybody

to see him leaving Birmingham

because he thought he
would be taken off the train or

arrested or whatever
they do to black people

moving. So he was hiding
on the train.

The family was thrilled to
death that Big Papa was there.

My mother says she was so happy

because for the first time
they saw and ate white bread,

which is easily
the worst thing in the world.

And they made
their first stop in Ohio.

What in the world
was in the water in Ohio...

because there was something
in that water in Ohio

that made you and Rita Dove
come out of Ohio

and write what you wrote.

It is my birth name.

My saint's name, Anthony.

My maiden name, Wofford.

People would mispronounced it
all the time.

They said Chou.
Even my teachers.

Chlow, Clough.

Or, Clovis!

So I just shortened it
to my saint's name.

And then, of course,
the married name, Morrison.

It's a way
of dividing your life.

One of those names
is the person who is out there.

And the other one is the one
who isn't,

who doesn't do documentaries.

Middle America is her place,

because it's the South,
and it's the West

and it's the East,
and it's a river

and it all comes together.

Toni's Lorain. It's her beat.

Really, it's almost, sort of,
taken out of the pages

of The Bluest Eye.

It was a steel town

on the shore of Lake Erie.

And there was work there.

Full of immigrants
from Poland...


some black people from Canada
who had escaped,

you know, and gone to Canada
and come back.

So it was highly mixed...

in terms of culture and race.

You had this poor labor class

and very few
middle class people.

We were very, very poor.

We moved a lot

because we couldn't afford
the rent.

Which was four dollars.

My mother cooked
and washed, and so on.

My father worked,
steel mills different hours.

So it was irregular,
when he was home.

I'm not sure
that people understand

that poverty was not shameful

as it is now.

There was no pressure
to get ahead.

You know really ahead.

What you wanted
was your family and your health

and enough resources
to get food,

and to pay the bills.

And if that happened,
and you had your churches

and your friends,
and that was it.

The people who lived next door

when we moved to 21st Street
were Russian.

My mother and the woman,
they use to trade recipes.

My mother learned how
to cook some kind of cabbage

thingy from her.

And the people
who lived over there,

you know, we're something else.

Those people were black.

There were like
two black families

on that street.

There were neighbors
and they watched.

Nobody was in there
messing with anybody.

It was calm.
I thought it was boring.

I read all the time.

And my mother
and my grandparents

were very eager
that we keep that up

because they had come
from a place

where you couldn't read.

There were no schools

and they felt very strongly
about that skill.

My mother joined the book clubs.

It was a very precious thing
and they were proud of it.

We were appalled to learn

that Ohio school's leader
Debe Terhar

has called for banning
Toni Morrison's 1970 novel,

The Bluest Eye

from the state's Common Core
recommended reading list

for 11th graders.

Now Terhar describes the book

as pornographic and said, quote,

"I don't want
my grandchildren reading it

and I don't want anyone else's
children reading it.

It should not be used
in any school

for any Ohio
K through 12 child."

I think history
has always proved that books

are the first...

uh, plain on which certain kinds
of battles are fought.

Parents have a right
to restrict books

in the home.

They have a right

to tell their own children
what to read.

They don't have the right
to tell my children

what to read,

which is what happens
when you ban a book publicly.

I have a little framed document
in my bathroom,

a letter from, I think,
Texas Bureau of Corrections,

saying that Paradise
was banned from the prison

because it might incite a riot.

And I thought,
how powerful is that?

I could tear up the whole place!

There's something
about her skills with language,

so that not only do
the reader's feel

that she's talking to them
and they can talk back,

that they're finding in Morrison

a new language about themselves,

about the condition
they live in.

And that discovery gives them
a sense of transcendence.

Toni Morrison's work
is for all of us,

her words her languaging,
is a friend to our minds.

That's what you're feeling

when you're in the midst
of a read.

It comforts you and consoles you

and allows you to understand
that pain is okay.

She reaches into the depths
of pain and shows us,

through pain,
all the myriad ways

we can come to love.
That is what she does...

with some words on a page.

That is what she's doing
all the time.

She's teaching us, all the time.

There's not a sentence
that is not filled

with depth of meaning
and knowledge

and information.

Books were interesting to me.

I read everything
that was in the library.


But mostly, it was the language,

you know, different ways
to say the same thing.

Choices that the authors
were making in order

to tell me something
or make me see something.

That was what was fantastic.
Still is.

My sister, when she graduated
from high school,

got a job in the library.

And she very sweetly
got me a job as a pusher.

You would take the books
off of a cart

and put them back
in the shelves.

The children's part
was on the bottom

and then above was Dostoevsky.

I mean,
they didn't have young adult.

That didn't exist.

It was just little kiddy books
and then the real world.

But I was slow
because I kept reading the books

instead of putting them back,

So I got promoted
to the catalogue department.

Where I worked
until I went away to college.

I remember reading at 13, Sula.

There was a group
of girls on my block.

Believe it or not in between
jumping Double Dutch

and playing jacks,
we also shared books.

And somehow in that circulation

there was this book Sula,

with this black woman
with a soft afro on the cover

and we read it.
And I remember my friends,

they could not stand Sula

because she slept with her
best friend's husband.

And actually that just made her
more interesting to me.

you know, she broke a taboo.

Seeing that

there was a character
like Sula in the world,

it just gave me a world
of language to escape to

but also a world
that I recognized

as a young black woman
in a working class community.

It showed me
the magic of my own world

that I didn't see.

And after reading her
it was hard to see

my own world in the same way.

The novelist job
is to take you someplace

that you couldn't even imagine.

The novelist job
is to turn you back

into a child,
who's just learned how to read.

And just learned how to imagine

what the language is saying.

Toni tells
extraordinary stories,

that touch people
in a very deep place.

The story is almost
kind of like the bait.

Some people read those books.

Some people make those books
into movies.

Some people tell those stories
to other people.

Some people teach those books
to people

who have no interest in reading,

but when they hear the story,
it transforms their lives.

They go, "Wow, I never thought
of that before."

Books have an incredible
impact on our culture,

even though most of our culture
doesn't know it.

In 1995 I traveled
with Toni to Mexico City.

But when we arrived
we couldn't get out of the car.

There were so many people
that were there

to see Toni Morrison.

Somebody else on the stage said,

"Would you like us to translate,

to have a simultaneous
translator into Spanish

of what Toni Morrison
reads and says?"

In unison, from the audience,
it was, "No!

We want to just hear
Toni Morrison.

We understand her

because we are in her
language, too."

They know that there's a freedom

in this woman's language.

She took the canon
of the written language

and she broke it open.

She's the Emancipation

of the English language.

I've traveled in the world,

I go to a bookstore.

There's always
a Morrison section.

I get emails from women in China

or in Japan
who are studying her.

I have graduate students from
Asia, Africa, Latin America.

Morrison is a global figure.
She's a global phenomena.

And she speaks
to people everywhere.

If there's life on Mars

they're reading Toni Morrison
to find out

what it is to be human.

They were so physically
strict with us,

when I was a kid,
I mean, you know, side eye.

You don't sit next to no guy.

You know, they were
very serious about that,

particularly with the girls.

I don't think they did that
with my brothers,

the younger ones,
but with the girls, you know.

There was a wonderful place
where we could all go and dance,

down south Lorain.
My mother walked us there...

and walked us back!

My sister got married
out of high school.

I didn't...

so I was, sort of,
a wild card out there.

I really wanted to go
to college A

to get away from my family
since I was...

15 or 16. And you know
how families are,

they tell you
"take off that lipstick",

you know, stuff like that.

But for me
it was leaving home...

as well as going toward a place

where I could read.

I had an uncle
who had gone a year

at Ohio State.

And I lived very close,
like seven miles from Oberlin.

And my mother said,
"Okay, well, go to Oberlin."

And I thought, uh-uh,
she's going to call me up

and she's gonna say, "Come here
and wash these clothes."

So I wanted to go a distance.
And I knew about Howard

so I applied and went.

When I got to Howard...

I was loose.

It's lovely.
I just loved it.

I'm sure I overdid it,
but I don't regret it now.

I was just the best baker.
Particularly my sweets.

And I made the best carrot cake.

It's still the best.

No one, not even my sister,
who's close.

They don't put
enough carrots in!

There were guys on the faculty,
young guys...

and they used to pay me
25 dollars

for one of my cakes.

And they always said, "Toni,
no matter what you do in life

you will always be
the woman who bakes my cakes."

I was an English major
at Howard University.

But in the drama department,
they read things differently.

You have to know the emotions,
you have to know the conflicts,

you have to know, you know,
all these subtleties

that are in the language

which you express
physically and so on.

So I always preferred
the drama department

and the Howard Players.

I was very very good
in one part, Queen Elizabeth.

I was excellent.

And I turned out
to be a star in that one play.

They wouldn't teach
any Black stuff

in the English department.

The closer you got

to whiteness, culturally,

the better off you were.
Now this is a black school

funded in large part
by the government.

I remember going
to my Shakespeare teacher,

who was very good,
describing to him what I wanted

to write my paper on.

And I thought I would write
about Black characters

in Shakespeare.

And he was so outraged.
He said, "What?

We... we're not."

Like it was sullying
Shakespeare's name.

There were just four characters
I wanted to talk about.

No, he wouldn't let me.
So I wrote something else.

You went away to Howard

- and then to Cornell.
- Mm-hmm.

Did you dream
of teaching or writing or what?

- Oh, teaching.
- Teaching.

I wanted to be a teacher,
and I was.

And I did that. I mean,
when I left graduate school,

I taught
at Texas Southern University

and then I went
to Howard University again

as a teacher and stayed there

until I couldn't
stay there any longer.

- Because?
- I didn't have a PhD.

When I was teaching
at Princeton,

I had one course
in creative writing.

And I would tell the students,
I do not want you

to write anything
about your little life.

I know you have been taught
to write what you know.

I'm telling you, do not do that.

You don't know anything.
So I want you to invent.

I want you to write
about a Mexican girl

who doesn't speak English,
who has a job in Houston,

as a waitress,
as a counter girl.

And I would throw out
these ideas

that were far distant
from anything in their lives.

And I have to tell you,
they really took it

and ran with it. It was almost
like a door opened.

If somebody were saying
what do you think

Toni is in literature,

I would say she had come to

an ideal place
and what that place is,

it's Shakespearean,
but pedestrian.

In the old days everybody
in the tragedies

were kings and princes
and you know,

really important people.

Toni's characters,
the level of drama

and tragedy was about
people living everyday lives.

Black people, poor people,
women, men, you know, whatever.

But the big thing about it was,
is that it was pedestrian.

They'd never been seen before.

And something else
hadn't been seen,

which was a book

that revolved around
the friendship of women.

That was the centerpiece.

She puts women at the center
of these epic narratives.

She said, you know,
if you don't understand

the history
of African-American women,

you don't understand
the history of America.

It covers four centuries.

There are four centuries
covered in her work.

And so what she does
is to step into those times...

and places...

and just re-imagines.

You imagine the past

because the past
has been ruptured.

The record of the past,
of your people,

has been degraded.
It's been burned up.

It's been taken away.

And therefore you need the Toni

who comes into that past
and imagines it historically,

by putting together fragments
and pieces and narratives,

that you know, the white world
and the white libraries,

they've ignored,
they've kept out.

When I was teaching at Howard,

I got married, had my sons,
And got divorced.

I had subscribed to the
New York Review of Books

before I left Washington
with my infants

and moved in with my mother.

One day, three copies
of the same issue appeared

in my mother's mailbox.

And I thought that was odd...

but I looked at it
and in the back

there were all these

for professional jobs.

And among them was an opening

for a job in Syracuse.

"A major publisher
requires an executive editor.

Male or female.

Originality and imagination
are necessary.

We prefer a person
between the ages of 35 and 45,

with a master's degree.

Some experience
in teaching is desirable.

All replies will be held
in strict confidence.

Box Z
New York Review of Books."

And I remember saying,
"Ah, that sounds like me".

I left my babies
at home with my mother.

My sister and I
got in my father's car...

he had an Oldsmobile by then,

which he treasured,

since the car he had before
had no brakes

and we had to jump out
whenever we got

to the place he was taking us to

or he hit the curb
and say, "Go."

So now we have a car.

We drive, my sister and I...

to Syracuse.

I interviewed and I got the job.

That's the beginning
of my work there

before Random House

bought that company
which was called

the L.W. Singer company

and everybody
had to go to New York,

that they wanted
to go to New York.

And, they took me.

I was in a secretarial pool

at Random House in 1969.

Toni came and was an editor
in the trade division

on the floor
where I was working.

My friends and I
got to know her better

when one day she came to ask us

to do some typing for her.

And we said, "Sure."

And she said,
if you type it, you know,

I'm going to come
to your apartment

and I'm going to make you
the best carrot cake

you've ever had.

So we thought
that was a very good deal.

And sure enough Toni
came one day

and made the best
carrot cake yet

I still have ever had.

And it was not until later
that I realized

that we were typing
part of The Bluest Eye.

I was 39. Toni was 39.

We both worked at Random House.

Within the overall
Random House exists

Alfred Knopf, which I ran
for many many years,

Vintage, Doubleday.
It's got many many parts.

Toni was an editor at what
we call a Little Random

and I was running Alfred Knopf.

I think, they don't know
that I'm a writer.

I'm going to keep it that way.

Editor, that's what they want.

They don't want a writer.
Editors are not writers.

So I don't tell anybody.
And I think that works?

No, it doesn't.

I became aware
of her as a writer

only when she published
The Bluest Eye.

And of course,
since she was a colleague,

I was quick to read it.

I thought it was just wonderful.

And after
the impression it made,

the then head of the overall
Random House, Bob Bernstein,

quite wisely said,

"We have this wonderful writer
who works for us,

we should be publishing her."
But it couldn't be Little Random

because she was working there,

so Knopf,
which was the more literary arm,

was the obvious place
and I was the chief editor

and it was a natural meeting
because we knew each other.

And with the exception
of one novel

I've edited
all of her books since.

He's the best editor there is

and Knopf was like
this very special...

So I had the great fortune

of being upstairs
with an editor, as an author,

and downstairs as an editor.

And I did both well

because I could make
the distinction.

The assumption is, when you edit

somebody else's book,
you put your own stuff.

I had that separation

because I was a teacher
for so long.

You're looking
at student's work.

It's not yours.

You make the distinction
between the two crafts.

And I was good at that.

I heard two people
talking about Toni once.

The first one said...

"I love Toni Morrison
because her novels

transcend race."

And then the next person said...

"I love Toni Morrison

because she's not afraid
to be black."

And the room broke out
into, like, applause.

It was the most amazing,
kind of, experience.

The Civil Rights
movement had morphed

into the Black Power movement.

So it was a period of lots
of confrontation.

Of lots of rethinking
what race meant.

What the relationship of race

was to the country
and to the state.

Important black leaders
were also emerging

and talking about
a very different way

of thinking about protest...

and thinking about
changing the country.

It was an extraordinary time,
a very heady time.

Lots of people
were beginning to publish.

The Black Power movement was
really very centered on men.

The predominantly
white women's movement

was very centered on white women

and there was always
this question

about where black women
and women of color, in general,

belonged in this period.

I think that
her profound contribution

to American publishing
has everything to do with

the voices that she brought into

a largely white institution.

Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton,

Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis.

These were all her writers.

She as an editor said,
it doesn't have to be this way.

Let's break down
the ivory tower walls

and get
all these people together

and make
a kind of wave of literature.

I've heard her say,

"That I'm not out on the street
in the trenches.

I'm not marching.
What can I do where I am."

There's the lesson, right?
What can you do where you are?

So where I am is, I'm an editor.

I thought it was important

for people to be in the streets.

But they couldn't last.

You needed a record.

It would be my job
to publish the voices,

the books, the ideas
of African-Americans

and that would last.

She approached me

on behalf of Random House

with the proposition
of writing an autobiography

which I must say
I thought at that point

was rather preposterous.

Who writes an autobiography
at 28?

In America supporters of
the Black Liberation movements

are stepping up the pressure

in the campaign to free
Angela Davis,

the black philosophy lecturer
and communist

who is now facing a charge
of murder in California.

Toni Morrison
can be extremely persuasive.

She finally persuaded me
that the book

she wanted to publish
was the book I wanted to write,

only I was not aware of it
at that time.

I learned about the importance
of the imagination from her

in ways that were
radically different.

She would look at something
that I had written

and she would try to help me
make it more evocative,

than simply analytical.

She would ask questions,
like, you know,

where were you?
What was in the room?

What was the furniture?
What colors were there?

How did you feel?

What did it smell like?

And so she helped me
access my imagination

in ways that I continue
to be thankful for today.

She edits them.
She does the marketing.

She picks the covers.

She's taking care of her writers
in a kind of old fashioned way.

She's the architect
and the midwife...

and the artist.

She's arranging
Angela Davis's books

on a table, she's got
a little beret, a silver beret,

and she's the editor.

Angela's the star
and she's the editor...

sitting back
lighting a cigarette

watching Angela Davis
be Angela for the camera.

That was her job
and she was doing her job.

I think that
because success came to her

relatively late,
she was a grown up.

When I first knew Toni
she was still working

at Random House as an editor.

But my editor called and said,

"I got a phone call
from Bob Bernstein.

You have to stop hanging around
in Toni Morrison's office.

She's not getting work done.

You're all day long,
smoking cigarettes, talking."

Toni went on a book tour
with Muhammad Ali.

Toni published
Muhammad Ali's book.

There has been a first printing

of 100,000 copies

and there is about to be
a second printing

of 25,000 copies
and it is a month

- before publication.
- When I first met him

and I would ask him a question
he would answer

and look at a man,

and never look directly at me...

while he was giving the answer.

But then I remembered
he respects older women.

He's not answering me

I'm in this other category.

But if I'm like his mother
or an older woman,

so I just crossed my arms.
So I walk in the room and say,

"Ali, get up from there.

You have something to do."
And he would look up

and recognize another thing...

a grown up,
an older version of the...


And from then on,
he did everything I said.

You know,
everybody liked those jokes,

but inside was this
completely understanding man.

Loving man, nice man.

Navigating a white male world

was not threatening.
It wasn't even interesting.

I was more interesting
than they were.

I knew more than they did.

And I wasn't afraid to show it.

You have to be a little tough

and rely on yourself...

and tell people no.

You don't want to give me the
money because I'm a woman...

and the men get more?


The first job I had
in publishing, L.W. Singer...

I noticed that the men
in the company

got more money

when the raises
were doled out than I did.

So I went to my boss.

And I said, "You didn't raise me

as much as you did
my colleagues who are men."

And he said, "Yes, but."
And I said, "No,

I don't want to hear but.
I want to tell you something.

I am head of household,
just like you.

You may think I'm colored
or a woman or this,

I'm head of household,
just like you."

Yes, I got the raise.

You raised your two kids.

Your husband left

and you had to raise your
own two sons, right?

It was terrible.

- It was?
- It was very hard.


And so what did you call on
to get it done?

My family.

My brothers, my mother,
my grandfather, my sisters.

You need everybody you know.

I lived in New York.
I was working as an editor.

I was running up and back
and forth to Yale teaching.

So I had to send them home
in the summer.

My family had to come.

And even so...

it was difficult.

Toni wrote a lot of these books

with two little boys
in the house.

And plus Toni had a rule
that she made for herself,

not to shut the door.

where she was working,
so that the boys

would not feel they were
not allowed to go in.

She was working
on Song of Solomon

and Sula had just
recently been published.

She would cook breakfast
for the children.

And then suddenly
she would turn away

and pick up a pen
and jot something down.

And often I rode with her
to her office at Random House.

We would be driving
into New York City.

The traffic would stop
at the bridge.

She would pick up a pen
again in the car

and place a piece of paper
on the steering wheel

and jot something down.

And she was constantly
doing this.

Later when I read
Song of Solomon,

I said, "That was a miracle."

I don't know where
this woman's energy came from,

to raise two kids,

to bring other people of color
to the party,

and also write these novels.

She said,
"It's not as if I'm doing

a lot of different things.
I'm doing one thing,

which is I teach books,
I write books, I edit books."

And I think that
if you can think of it that way,

it's a lot more manageable.

I remember sitting in my office

at Random House with a pad...

and I wrote down
on the left side

everything I had to do.

Mother your children,
go to the store,

pay the bills,
edit this, write this,

and it covered the page.

And then I said,

"Of that number,
what do you have to do?"

And there were only
two things...

mother my children

and write.

And anything that
didn't do that, I struck out.

You see that a title
is not selling,

You get rid of it.
If it is selling,

you order more.
And you learn your clientele,

You learn the past
sales history of a book.

I do remember
sitting in a sales conference.

One of the salesman says
we can't sell...

certain books on both sides
of the street,

meaning there's an audience
of white people

and maybe an audience
of black people.

But, they don't merge.

So I thought,
"Well, I will just solve that

and I will do something
that everybody loves,

particularly black people."

The Black Book is a radical book

because she's not giving us

any contextualization
for blackness

It just is.

You open the book
and it's photographs

of Negro memorabilia,
sculptures from the continent,

black cowboys...

sheet music...

racist sheet music.

It's the jumble
that is Black-American life.

There was no singular narrative.
It was everything.

She gives us an archive.

There it is.
There are the documents.

You know this is from a people
who have been told

they don't have a history.
Well here it is.

It's, sort of,
like before there was

an African-American museum... it is.

It is a study of the emotional
and survival

aspects of blackness.

It reminds me of who I am.

I had a brother who spent
about a year in prison.

And I asked him some questions
about language, prison language.

And he wrote me back
and I put it in the book.

My aunt wrote a piece. You know,

My mother's face
is on the cover.

It sold like wildfire.

And there were wonderful
wonderful responses.

Well, I sent books out to
people in places that

salesmen wouldn't know.
And I sent one to somebody's...

cousin or something
who was in prison.

And he, wrote me a letter

and thanked me and asked
for two more copies.

He said, I need one
to throw up against the wall.

I need one...

to give to a friend.

And I just want to hold
this one against my heart."

My father thought that all
white people were unredeemable.


There's nothing you can do
about it.

They will always be awful.

They would never be human, ever.

Mind you, this is a guy
who as a kid,

saw two black men get lynched.

As a kid.

Two businessmen.

Hanging, you know.
So that's when he left,


He wouldn't let white people
in the house.

Like the people who come
and sell you insurance

and should be there.
But if a white person

knocked on the door
and wanted to sell something?

My mother would open the door
and chat,

give them something to eat.

My father, no.

She judged people one at a time.

She didn't care what color
they were,

it was a personal thing for her.

And then there's this...

strong memory I have.

I was trying to describe

something that happened
in a book I wrote

called Paradise,

where there is this
pure black community

versus everybody else.

Part of the purity and the power

and very much the pride
of that black community

is a kind of a flowering
of something

my great grandmother said.

She was a midwife
in Flint, Michigan.

She came to town.

She walked into the room
and all the men stood up.

And my sister and I
were on the floor playing.

My mother was in the room...

and my great grandmother came
into the room with her stick.

She looked down at me
and my sister...

and she said, "These children
have been tampered with."

So I didn't quite know
what that meant at the time.

It did not please my mother.
But she, was pitch black.

I mean really what they used
to call blue black.

And she was saying that
we were sullied in some way,

that we were... impure.

That's what she said.

Two fountains?

In a sense,
I know it wasn't true

but in the back of my mind
I thought the segregation

and the physical stuff
was a... a joke.

Middle class white people
were bathed by black people.

You know, in their tubs.

And they ate their food.

They did everything and then
they couldn't sit next to them?

I mean,
it just seemed so bizarre.

True, but bizarre.

Particularly for me
who had come from

a little town,

in Ohio
where everybody that I knew,

shopped with, played with,
was on a street

or in a playground
or in a school

full of people who came from
all over the place.

There were Mexicans.

There were tons of Italians.

You know,
it was really a melting pot.

It really was.

It was so integrated,

whenever any shop opened

my uncle or my mother would be
in there the first day,

sitting down to make sure
there was no unspoken

but really real segregation.

And nobody ever said to them,
leave, ever, no one.

Never heard of that.

So when I went to Howard,
I was stunned.

The black students...

segregated themselves.

I joined a sorority
because they asked me

and they looked nice,
but I didn't know

it was the sorority where
the light skinned

girls went. And then there was
another sorority

that was all black,

shades of color.

It was a very horrible
social scheme.

Stunned me. I didn't know
what they were talking about,

because if you got on a bus
you could see colored, white.

And I would steal those signs
and send them home to my mother.

And there was one
department store

where you could go
to the bathroom.

And we all knew what it was.
But all the rest

they wouldn't let you go
to the bathroom,

if you were black...

or colored.

I remember being compared
to Ishmael Reed

and Gayl Jones...

three writers
who are so different...

and the reviewer
ended up deciding

which one of us
was more accurate

about black life.

And I was not the one
that she chose.

I think she chose Gayl.

This is the real black scene.

This is the real black
middle class or lower class.

That's not a literary

at all. It's not a literary
point of view.

And I think over time
it has changed.

It was really awful
in the beginning,

I have to tell you
but it's getting better.

There were those who wanted
to ghetto-ize her work.

The argument
has always been that black art

is a particular art.

The particularity of black art

has nothing to do with
larger concerns of humanity.

Humanity has to be
colored white.

And so here was a work that
was about the particularity,

the specificity
of black experience

but at the same time
there was no question

regarding the universal meaning.

So her work completely destroyed

the binary notion
of black writers

being either black writers
writing for black communities

about black subjects

or black writers
being post racial.

You've gotta posit it
in the times.

People knew Toni Morrison
was writing.

They didn't know what to do
with what she was writing about.

Is this relevant. Right, uh,

she's writing about black people
maybe it's not relevant.

Then people began to buy
Toni Morrison.

And people began to talk
about her overseas, mind you.

And then we began to teach her
in the university, also, too.

And as a consequence
they had to pay attention.

I was coming up on the train

from Princeton to New York.

And I had Sula with me.

I went up to the cafe car
and there was a line.

And I happened to be behind

an elderly
African-American woman.

I don't know what led me
to do this but I decided

I was gonna, sort of,
flash my Sula at her,

just to see if we could start
a conversation.

I mean I didn't hold it up
but I just, kind of,

made it available.

And she looked over at me...
I'll never forget this.

She looked over at me,

she looked back at her bag,

she looked at me again
and she opened her bag

and pulled out Song of Solomon.

She trumped me
with Song of Solomon.

And I said,
"You're reading Toni, too?"

And she said, "Oh yes."
she said, "You know,

this is very difficult to read,"

she said, "But for some reason
I just can't put it down."

I've never written

with a man as a main character
or two main characters,

but my father died...

and I had a very strong
negative reaction

to the world after he died.

And I wouldn't even go back
home for three years...

because he wasn't there.

And I remember sitting down
and saying I wonder...

what my father knew...

about these men.

But I felt comfortable
writing about them,

knowing about them,

because my father
was letting me know.

He was letting me know.

I didn't get any signs.

There were no little ghosts
that usually accompany me.

But I knew
that he would tell me...

if I just started.

I have an inside voice now.

Her canvas was getting bigger.

In The Bluest Eye,
she had beautifully restricted

the world to the universe
of young girls.

In Sula,
she had restricted the world

to the very complex
landscape of women.

And in Song of Solomon,
she had included both sexes

and the world
was just getting larger

because of the metaphor flying.

But I'd always heard
that there were Africans

who had been enslaved,

but some of them
were able to fly.

And they lifted up
off the ground and flew home.

The African,
the Flying African story

is something that is widespread
in African traditions

but it's all over the world.
And the idea here is that

human beings need to find
spiritual allies.

So people have developed
these dreams and these stories

that you can transcend
the suffering

of your community in flight.

Looking at our ancestors,

valuing their songs and stories,
this is one of the ways

that we can deal
with the terror of history.

And so what happens
in the novel,

Milkman discovers
that his ancestor flew...

got right up out of here
and flew.

"Twilight had thickened

and all around him
it was getting dark.

He knew there wouldn't be
another mistake.

But the minute he stood up,
Guitar would try

to blow his head off.

He stood up.

'Guitar!' he shouted.

'Guitar, tar, tar, '
said the hills.

'Over here, brother man.
Can you see me?'

Milkman cupped his mouth
with one hand

and waved the other
over his head.

'Here I am! Am, am, am,

said the rocks.
'You want me?

Huh? You want my life?

Life, life, life."

Yeah, the ending was difficult

I think for some readers
because it wasn't explicit.

These are men
who were very close,

and got on opposite sides

politically and otherwise
and became enemies.

One chases the other,
tracks him.

One of them,
who has got a gun...

puts the gun down.

"He put the rifle on the ground
and stood up.

Milkman stopped waving
and narrowed his eyes.

He could just make out
Guitar's head and shoulders

in the dark.
'You want my life?'

Milkman was not shouting now.
'You need it? Here.'

Without wiping away the tears,
taking a deep breath

or even bending his knees,
he leaped.

As fleet and bright
as a lodestar,

he wheeled toward Guitar
and it did not matter

which one of them
would give up his ghost

in the killing arms
of his brother.

For now he knew,
what Shalimar knew...

If you surrendered to the air...

you could ride it."

The friend leaps toward him...

and that is the flight...

in the arms of his brother.

So instead of blood spilling,

blood is joined.

Through the art of flying.

And I thought the writing
was extraordinary

and different and radical
and beautiful.

That's what I thought.
I did not think

that there would be
a lot of people

who would share that view.
So I was never, ever convinced

that I would have a wide

And when that changed,

and it changed
with Song of Solomon,

that was a commercial success.
I was delighted.

And that's when I called myself
a writer. Used the label.

And what had preceded,
it was just...

that I was an ill-advised woman

who could not say,
like the big guys,

I am a writer.

I always said
I'm a teacher who writes

or an editor who writes.

But I never said the real thing

until after I'd written
a third book.

It's the sort of, uh, thing
that women frequently do.

They sort of need permission
to tell themselves

that this is the work they do.

One day we were talking
and I said, "You know Toni,

it's time you quit your job.

You've got to acknowledge
to yourself

and say to our world
'I am a writer'.

I don't have the time
or psychic energy

to do both any longer."

I began to write full-time

as a writer in this place.

I went out to the pier...

which is just outside.

And, I was sitting out there
feeling a very strange feeling.

I didn't know what it was.
It was, sort of, giddy.

And then I realized

that I was really happy...

and free.

And, I had never felt
that before, ever,

that level of intense
happiness and freedom.

The big thing about my books

as far as the reviewers
were concerned

was that it was Black.

So they talked about that.

I know you'd be sick
unto death of being labeled,

I would think, a black writer?

- I like it. I prefer it.
- You don't mind it?

Oh, not at all.

Oh I'd thought
you probably were tired of it.

Well I'm tired of people
asking the question.

Oh yes, of course.

- That's what I meant of course.
- You know,

it's like being called
a French writer,

you know, how can you get tired?

Sure. Yeah.
A black woman writer,

- it's double with the label.
- I'm all of those things.

Oh, and we know it and we know
what to expect from her.

But sometimes it is pejorative
and people say,

"This is a good book
for a black writer

- or for, you know."
- Yeah...

Then, of course,
you know, you hear the...

- Isn't he cute for his age?
- Right.

You don't wanna be a character

in a Toni Morrison novel

because she's writing
scorched earth.

The people take on
all the suffering,

which has created us
which has made us so beautiful.

But in order to become
that beautiful,

you had to go through fire
and acid

and people raping you
and stabbing you and,

sicking their dogs on you
and your mother destroying you.

Who would want to live
that life?

The life I want to live is like
a nice boring novel, you know,

where you live
at the bank of the river

and I'd do a little fishing
and then a beautiful mermaid

comes out and, you know,
talks to me.

That's my novel.
If I've got to live it.

You know, Toni Morrison,
I'll read it,

but I'm not living it.

I saw a woman...


come out of the river...

in front of my house...

and she sat down.

She had on a hat.

And I was at my desk writing,
looking at her.

And she didn't look back.

And then she disappeared.

And that I knew
that that was the solution

to a book I was writing...

about a dead girl,
called Beloved.

The story of slavery,

normally is the story
of black men

being enslaved...


and becoming free...

or dying and not becoming free.

That is the classic
black slave story.

And one thing that was not part
of the slave story,

was a woman.

I don't mean that
there were no narratives

that slave women told...

and there was no information
about it.

I mean it wasn't the narrative
in literature.

My effort in, say in, Beloved,
to do that...

to talk about a woman
who had to make some choices

about slavery, about motherhood,

about love, about parenting...

that had nothing to do
with being a victim.

A real woman,
a historical figure,

as a matter of fact...

who was anything but a victim.

This is a woman who said,
"These children are mine.

I can do with them what I want."

When Toni Morrison
published Beloved,

it was an extraordinary
turning point

in the history of this country.

And, I would say
the history of the world.

Because she urged us to imagine

people who were slaves,
as human beings...

individuals with subjectivity...

who also loved,
who also had imaginations

even as they were subjected

to the most horrendous modes
of repression.

We can never think about
slavery in the same way.

Toni uses history

and she has a
profound understanding

of American history.
That's a tool for her.

She's first and foremost
a narrative artist,

and uses biography,
newspaper clippings,

she uses whatever comes her way.

It is her material
that she then uses

in order to transform
into literary art.

Beloved was a big event.

It sort of crystallized...

the past for African-Americans,

the worst of the past...

and also the strength
of the past.

Their heroism,
their inner heroism

and their abilities to survive
and prevail.

It's just amazing and moving.

Yes it does focus on a horrible
part of American history.

But I don't think of it
as a work of history.

I think of it
as a work through which,

if we choose,
we can look at our history.

She's a realist.
She looks into the face...

of the historical suffering

of African-Americans and looks
inside of their heart and soul

and finds a language
to describe that.

She took this experience
of a people

who had been degraded.

And she showed that
this was the experience

of a world historic people...

just like the Hebrews
of the Old Testament,

just like the Greeks

that there was the same
kind of drama

and love and passion
and hatred there.

One of the things
I learned from Toni,

one of the things
that truly changed me,

she sensitized me to seeing
the story beneath the story.

This is the way America
has existed,

since its inception.

There is the official story,
there's the press release

and then there's the truth.

Margaret Garner
was an African-American woman

born into slavery

on a plantation
in Northern Kentucky.

In the 1850's

she crossed
the frozen Ohio River

hoping to find some sanctuary

through the underground
railroad system.

The plantation owner found her
after a couple of weeks

and rather than return

she slit the throat
of her oldest child

and on the boat ride back,

tried to drown herself
and her youngest

and the child drowned
and she survived.

The arguments...

at her hearing had to do
with whether

she should be charged
with murder

or charged
with destruction of property.

if she was charged with murder,

the nation
would have to acknowledge

that she and her children
were human beings.

The story behind Beloved

is a small little
newspaper article

that showed up in the
early abolitionists years

of Margaret Garner.

She just stumbled onto that
in the 70s

and kind of kept it
in the back of her head.

She said, "I didn't research it
beyond that article

because I didn't want to write
a book about Margaret Garner.

I wanted to use that incident

as a way to enter
into the world of a woman

who did something
like Margaret Garner did."

Toni takes that
and writes it for us.

So there we're all in that shed

in the horrible choice
that she makes

and it's about this choice
that the mother makes.

All four started
toward the shed.

Inside, two boys bled
in the sawdust and dirt

at the feet of a nigger woman

holding a blood-soaked child
to her chest with one hand

and an infant by the heels
in the other.

Right off it was clear,
to schoolteacher especially,

that there was nothing there
to claim.

The three, now four,

because she'd had the
one coming when she cut,

pickaninnies they had hoped
were alive and well enough

to take back to Kentucky,

take back and raise properly

to do the work Sweet Home
desperately needed, were not.

Two were lying open-eyed
in the sawdust,

a third pumped blood
down the dress of the main one,

the woman schoolteacher
bragged about,

the one he said made fine ink,
damn good soup,

pressed his collars
the way he liked,

besides having at least
ten breeding years left.

But now, she'd gone wild.

The question
in the newspaper article,

a reproduction of which
was in the Black Book

that I had published.

It was this big question
about what to do with her.

The only person who really
should answer the question

and would really know...

would be the dead daughter.

And she had already appeared...

fully dressed...

with a nice hat...

out of the water.

So, she behaved the way
a child would behave

if its mother
had to cut its throat.

You loved your mother.

You loved her,

but at the same time
you wanted to punish her.

This is the gift of a novel.

No other art form allows us
to enter and thereby dignify

the inner life of another
human being so thoroughly,

allows us to experience
the inner life

of another human being,
the secret inner life.

What it is that
that person feels.

Not their opinions...

not their social conditions.
But what did that feel like

to be that person?

Beloved, for instance,
lets us feel

what it is like to be Sethe,
the mother.

It allows us
to provide that life

and lives like hers
with respect,

with dignity.

I just reread it
for the first time

since we published it.

And I thought, you know,
I'd like to reread Beloved.

I rarely reread books
I've edited

because I'm always afraid
I won't love them as much.

And, I was just...

struck by it all over again,
moved and horrified.

And as I said to Toni,
"It's not just the content,

so moving and strange
and complicated,

but also it's so brilliantly
put together.

Your strategies and your tactics
are just so wonderful."

I wish I could take credit

but I have no credit,

It's just an amazingly

as well as,
amazingly written book.

She has a structural mind.

You never knew
how she was going to do it.

How she was going to get
from here to there.

And then suddenly
you were there,

and it was right,
however mysterious.

One day I just decided
to give myself the day.

I gave myself a Saturday
and I think I read from like

7:00 to 4:30 in the afternoon.

Toni Morrison
is a rock star to me.

All authors are.
But I love the idea

of just being able to talk
to authors.

I tried to get
Toni Morrison's number.

She had a private number.

I was desperate to speak to her.

So, I called the Fire Department
in her town.

"This is Oprah Winfrey calling
and it's an emergency.

And I need to reach
Ms. Morrison.

Can you please call her
and tell her,"

and they're like, "What?
Is this real? Is this..."

Anyway, I got the number.

She said Toni Morrison,
this is Oprah Winfrey.

And I said,
"How did you get my number?"

She said, "I called the police
and the fire department."

My second question,
which I didn't put,

was, "'How did they get it?"

Ms. Morrison,
I just finished reading Beloved.

I just finished reading Beloved
and I had to talk to you.

And I said, "Do people

say to you that
they have to start and stop

and start and stop
when they're reading,

because I had to keep going
over things,

because just trying
to take it all in?"

And she said, "That, my dear,
is called reading."

And I said to her
I really wanted to do a movie

and she said she didn't think
that that would be possible,

but that she would think
about it.

I turned and talked to my kids
and said,

"That was Oprah Winfrey.
She wants to do Beloved."

And I said, "Gee, I don't know
if it should be a film."

And my older son said, "Ma,
you'll always have the book.

It's not destroying the book,
it's just another version."

I stopped him.

I put my babies
where they'd be safe.

Didn't work, though, did it?

They ain't at Sweet Home.

School teacher ain't got em.

The character, Sethe,
was so important to me.

My hope was that people
would feel that story

and see the beauty
of our African-American history,

including slavery.

But understanding that
in spite of all

that you've been through...

and in spite of the worst thing
you could ever do...

your own child's throat...

rather than see your child
grow up in slavery...

that in spite of all of that,

you could still grow
from that pain

and learn to love again.

the international stature

of Toni Morrison
she has yet to receive

the national recognition

that her five major works
of fiction entirely deserve.

She has yet to receive
the keystone honors

of the National Book Award
or the Pulitzer Prize.

Forty eight black writers
and critics

wrote a letter
supporting her work

that was published
in The New York Times.

We wanted to make clear
to Toni our gratitude

and we wanted to do that

specifically in relationship
to Beloved

but also an acknowledgement
of the meaning

of the lifework
of Toni Morrison.

Everyone recognized
the brilliance of Morrison.

It wasn't just,

because she was brilliant
on a page,

but she meant so much to us.

And for her to be ignored
was just the proverbial straw.

My grandmother used to say to me
sometimes, come over here girl

let me shake some sense
into you.

What we were doing as writers,

is that,
we were shaking some sense

into this American literary
establishment, saying,

"Come on, come off it."

What our goal was was to sing
a praise song for Toni Morrison,

who has moved the entire group,
Afro-American culture,

Afro American expressive culture
forward by quantum leaps.

So our goal was to say,
"We love you, Toni,

and you're doing
extraordinary work for us."

It was a scandal!

We were all incredulous...

that she had not been given
that honor

for her community
in this country represented

that there was something,
you know, really racist

and misogynist about the ways

in which these literary prizes
we're functioning.

It was an eruption. What we were
seeing then really was that...

kind of collision between
the canon, up to that point,

and the emerging canon,
that Toni was exemplifying.

No matter what side you are on

you could say something
is happening here, Mr. Jones,

and you don't know
what it is do you?

Jimmy Baldwin had just died.

And for all of his brilliance

he really had never gotten
the attention he deserved

or the prizes he deserved.

And then we began to talk about

what it means to get an award.

And so I said,
very dramatically,

"Oh, Jimmy, we teach you...

and you would live forever

you know because
we have taught you

for years and years
and everyone knows you.

And he looked at me
like I was completely insane.

He said, "Sonia, I'm not talking
about you teaching...

that's good.
I'm talking about an award.

I deserve an award."

Toni deserved an award.

I had had a conversation
with Gwendolyn Brooks

around that time.

June Jordan,
one of the great thinkers

and a very good friend
of Toni's,

came to Gwendolyn
and said we have this letter

and we need you to sign it.

And Gwendolyn said,
Why, am I going to go out there

and beg them people
for their awards?

I don't need their awards."

I can't tell you how much
I agreed with that.

Did she deserve
the National Book Award?

They didn't give it, okay fine.

I complain
if I don't have my money.

I complain if she don't get
her money.

But I'm not gonna complain
that their aesthetics

don't understand black people.

What is your response?
Because now,

you're sort of caught up
in the middle of all of this.

It's easily
the most significant thing

that has ever happened to me,
in my writing life.

I write out of the culture
as everyone does,

for it through it and I'm in it.

So a portion of that culture
said to me...


I can remember
in a prize-giving committee,

we got into a very strenuous
argument about Beloved,

and I was arguing
with this writer,

there were two of them,
both women,

one black, and one white.
The black woman said,

"Are you trying to tell me
that African-Americans

have a different
historical experience

and social experience than
any other American immigrant?"

And I said, "Yes, I am.

Yes I definitely am trying
to do that."

That it's a very specific

and it is different than
the experience of Irish,

of which I count my ancestors,
and Italians and Jews.

But that argument
still lasts today.

We in America are immigrants

or the children of immigrants.

We are one people,

but a people welded and
from many nations and races.

People who came to America
during a vast migration

from Europe to other parts
of the world.

In this migration,
millions of Europeans

left their homelands

to settle in new countries
across the seas.

Almost two thirds of them
came to the United States.

Blacks were steady.

Everybody could look down
on them.

Immigrant Italians,
immigrant Polish,

there was always a bottom
you could be hostile to.

And that was useful
in bringing the country together

into the melting pot
where I lived as a child,

not knowing what I know now
is how it got to be there.

What was the basis,
the cauldron, the pot?

Melting pot.

Well, black people were the pot.

And everything else was,
you know, melted together

and what? American.

That's how you get to be
an American.

If you get in that pot...

of black people.
Then you can be nice to Jews,

Italians, Catholics, whatever.

That's my take.

Do you, Toni Morrison,
Pulitzer prize winner,

successful, honored in
the halls of academe,

still have that encounter?

Yes I do, but let me tell you,

that's the wrong question.

Okay, what's the right question?

How do you feel?
Don't you understand

that the people
who do this thing,

- who practice racism...
- Right.

...are bereft?

That is something distorted
about the psyche.

It's a huge waste

and it's a corruption
and a distortion.

It's like
it's a profound neurosis

that nobody examines
for what it is.

It feels crazy. It is crazy.

It has just as much
of a deleterious effect...

on white people
as it does black people.

If the racist white person
doesn't understand

that he or she is also a race,

it's also constructed,
it's also made

and it also has some
kind of serviceability

but when you take it away,
I take your race away

and there you are,
all strung out

and all you got
is your little self.

And what is that?
What are you without racism?

Are you any good?
Are you still strong?

Still smart?

If you can only be tall

because somebody's
on their knees,

then you have a serious problem.

And my feeling is,
white people...

have a very,
very serious problem

and they should start thinking
about what they can do about it.

Take me out of it.

When Toni won the Nobel Prize,

I was in my apartment
in New York

where I remember this vividly.
I was in the shower,

but I had the radio on
in the kitchen,

on the news station.

I hear, in the shower, I think,

that Toni Morrison has won
the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This is a news station
that tells you the same news

every 22 minutes.
I was so shocked,

I thought I was mishearing.
I got out of the shower

and stood there soaking wet
for 22 minutes

until the news came back on.

And I just couldn't believe it.

I woke up about three o' clock
in the morning

and I turned on the idiot box
and they announced

that Toni Morrison had received
the Nobel Prize in lit.

So I got on the telephone.
Her son answered the phone.

"Is Toni there,
is your mom there?"

I said, "She's just won
the Nobel Prize."

He said, "Really?"
He said, "She's in Princeton."

So I called back
and Toni picked up the phone.

I got the news
from a friend of mine

who called me up
early in the morning

and said,
"Toni, you won the Nobel Prize."

And I remember
holding the phone thinking

'she must be drunk'
and I hung up.

She called me right back.
And I said, "How do you know?"

Why would she know something
I don't know?

And I went to work.

Then suddenly
there are all these...

cameras and things and people...

and I sort of smiled
just in case.

I wasn't sure because,

the Nobel people
hadn't said a word.

twelve o' clock, noon,
I'm in my office,

I get a phone call from Sweden

and they tell me
that I have won Nobel Prize

and congratulate me, et cetera.
A lovely conversation

and I said,
"Would you fax me that?"

It could have been a prank.
I mean, you know.

They said, "Of course."
And they did.

What are you
going to do with the money?

I mean this is an entirely
brand new experience for me,

deciding what to do with money

so I'm not good at it.
I've had no practice.

So I'm going to think about that
very carefully

and try to come up
with something,

marvelous to do
other than the obvious

which is pay off the mortgage
or something.

What do you think it is though
if you can tell us that

sets you apart
from so many others?

What are you saying
that they want to hear?

I think I write well...

and I think
I have a distinctive voice.

That's what makes writing this
very difficult, very risky,

very powerful enterprise.

I called a florist in Princeton

to send her flowers.

And the woman, the florist,
said to me,

"What's going on over there?

We've been delivering flowers
there all day."

So I said, very proudly,
"She won the Nobel Prize."

And the florist, this would only
happen in Princeton,

maybe Cambridge, said,
"For what?"

And I said, "Literature."
And she went, "Oh."

And I'm delighted to represent

to represent New York State,
because I live there,

and New Jersey
because I work and live here.

And to represent America,

as an American winner
of a fiction prize,

native born
and also particularly,

because I'm an African-American.

And, I'm a women.
So I'm parceling out this

all over the place.

I like the Nobel Prize...

because they know
how to give a party,

I am telling you.

It was so grand.

They wake you up with wreaths,
flowers, music.

But it was light,

you know it wasn't like
the Nobel Prize.

It was light
and lovely and warm.

Toni loves this kind of thing.

I mean not that
there's a lot of kinds of things

like the Nobel Prize
but Toni loves things like this.

Toni loves prizes.
She loves presents.

I have a birthday party.
Don't, no presents.

Toni, a birthday party,
you better bring a present.

She decided,
'I'm bringing a lot of friends

and she invited me.
It was extremely fun.

I would highly recommend

that you have a friend
who wins a Nobel Prize.

I invited John Leonard

because he had been
the first person

who took my work seriously.

So I invited him
to come to Stockholm.

He's, "Oh, I don't know
if I could do that..."

And I say to him, "You're never
going to be invited

to this ever again."

So he said,
"You're right." And he came.

We had a lot of fun.

Before the ball, we spent,

like, a bunch of girls
I would say,

spent a couple of hours
in a room

choosing gloves for her
and shoes.

You know, she loves clothes,
Toni. That's the other thing.

When Toni won the Nobel Prize,

it was not just an important

for African-American literature,

I think it was an important
moment for the prize.

How many women have won?
Two, three women had won?

It was a moment
for American literature.

It was a moment
for contemporary literature.

I mean, it was a moment
for so many corners of the world

that didn't always fully
embrace it.

Don't forget when I began
writing in the early 60s,

Toni began writing too,

Faulkner was still alive.

Hemingway was still alive.

Fitzgerald had only
recently died.

It was a club,

a very small clubhouse
with a very small membership.

You think of a pyramid
with a very small base

and vertical...
almost vertical sides

coming to a fine point
at the top,

where three or four white men
could stand together

and fight it out.

So suddenly the canon
wasn't the private property

of white male writers
of a certain ilk or class.

It was really going to have
to be the property of everybody.

The Washington Post
called me and asked me

for a comment and I did
this glorious comment.

But when the newspaper article
came out there was no comment

on what I had said,
the praise I had.

But they were comments
from three male writers

who said, "Oh, she does all that
writing about women.

Oh, she does all this stuff
about slavery."

They even said she
didn't deserve the Nobel Prize.

I was so surprised.

Beloved was a fraud.

It gave a fake vision
of the slave trade.

All the guys are pissed.

And the ladies like it.

Whites are portrayed badly.

Men are.

Black men are.

I hope this prize inspires her
to write better books.

The award was a triumph
of political correctness.

when women or when black people

receive the accolades
that they certainly deserve,

it becomes questioned.

Was it a political choice?

Did they just choose her to do
the politically correct thing?

And I always think
those people haven't read her.

They haven't read her,
because if they read her,

there would be no question
that if there's a Nobel Prize

to be given,
she ought to have it.

It was the absolute
justification, the legitimation,

the sense that this writer,

who had been ignored
for a long time,

who had been diminished
by some people,

that on the world stage...

On the world stage,
she was a star.

When I was writing
Song of Solomon...

there was a character in there
called Pilate.

She threatened me...

a lot.

Threatened the book.
She's going to take over.

I mean really.

So I told her to shut up.

This is my book, not yours.

She only really speaks,
at the funeral...

of her daughter.

And she burst
into that church...

and says, over and over again,
"And she was loved."

Totally generous, free woman.

She's not afraid of anything
and complete...

clarity about who she is.

And you know people like that?

Yes. In my family.

Women who presented themselves
to me in that way.

They were just absolutely clear.

And they had a, sort of,
intimate relationship with God

and death and all sorts
of things

that strike fear
into the modern heart.

They had a language for it...

and they had a...

I don't know,
a blessedness maybe.

But they seem not to be...


It's to those women you know
that I really feel

an enormous responsibility.

I think about
my great grandmother, and...

her daughter,
and her daughter...

and all those women, who had...

I mean, incredible things
happen to those people.

They never knew
from one day to the next.

About anything.

But they believed
in their dignity...

that they were people
of value...

that they had to pass that on.

And they did it.

One of the characters says

at the end of Song of Solomon,

"And she was loved.

And she was loved."

That is the anthem for any life.

You can come to the planet
and do whatever you do,

whatever you accomplish,

awards no awards,
degrees no degrees,

successes, no successes.

I think she captured
the essence of what it means

to be human, to be alive,
and to...

have done well here on Earth.

And we can say
the same thing for her.

And she is loved.

One of the things that you know
about sister Toni,

when I first saw her,
you know...

You know, I saw... You know,

you know,
this white light around her,

you know, hmm...

and you know,
there are some people you know

who are really
the blessed ones...

that they are put here...

to make us really
review ourselves

so we can walk upright,
finally, as human beings,

finally as human beings.

On shore...

holding everything together,
but willing to risk...

and go far out to sea.



This is what black people
mean to me...

and still mean to each other.

But for me the history
of the place of black people...

in this country...

is so varied,

complex and beautiful.

And impactful.

Made a big impact.

Nobody could have loved
as much as we did...

went on with life
as much as we did...

carried on...

and considering the efforts...

to make sure we never did.

Considering that.

It's amazing.

I was in a place once,

in Vienna.

They had an art festival there.

And I was asked
to go into this room and move...

in front of a mirror...

in a room that was totally dark.

And I was instructed
to lift my hand...

and put it on the mirror...

and just stand there.
And then I saw...

off in the distance a figure...

that came closer
and closer and closer.

And she put up her hand.

And our hands touch.

Neither one of us said a word...

just interest,
curiosity and human connection.

That experience says
more and much

about what I think I'm doing
when I write.

I know I'm not you.

I know, I don't know you.

But I know this.