Toni Morrison read the New York Times with pencil in hand. An editor by trade, Morrison never stopped noting errors in the paper. In 2015, during a conversation with The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, Morrison noted that the stories she cared about were once absent from the news. Now they were present, but distorted, she found. “The language is manipulated and strangled in such a way that you get the message,” she noted wryly. “I know there is a difference between the received story … and what is actually going on.” Morrison, who died on Monday, was the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and one of the most beloved writers of the twenty-first century. In a wide-ranging interview with Als, Morrison discussed her last novel, “God Help The Child,” writing in a modern setting, and her relationship with her father, who she says was complicated man and bluntly called a “racist.” When she was older, she learned that he had witnessed the lynching of two of his neighbors. “I think that’s why he thought that white people … were incorrigible,” she explained to Als. “They were, like, doomed.”
Hilton Als: Here we are.__
Toni Morrison:__ Yes.
Now, there was this very intense moment in my young life as a reader, where I read part of a speech that you had given. A talk. And you said that one of the things that was interesting to you about America was that, despite bestial behavior, we had failed to produce a nation of beasts.
[Laughs.] We’re going to get to that. And then, when I thought of that quote again, I thought of what I call the elegance of survival that’s in your books. Son in “Tar Baby,” for instance, is regarded as a sort of feral character. And yet he dreams of those women of color who restored order in the black church and in the world. Would you like to elaborate a bit on your original statement? And do you still feel it’s a little true? Or less true?
I was thinking when I made that statement of the really vile and violent and bestial treatment on slaves and their descendants. But they did not succeed in making those descendants reproduce that violence and that corruption and that bestiality. Their response was, it’s a little contemporary, but I was not really surprised when the survivors and the family members of those people who had been killed in that church was not, I want him dead. It was something else. It was grander. It was humane. And it was eloquent and elegant, that response of forgiveness, which we always assume, for some reason, is a kind of weakness … but sometimes we understand that kind of generosity. And I’m not gonna let you tear me up as a kind of weakness. Whereas I always thought that that was extreme strength, extreme.
Do you think that that’s a way of preserving the community? That if you do the sort of eye-for-an-eye thing you’re stepping outside of the community, and then you’re really in danger?
Oh, indeed. Oh, yeah. If it’s just about vengeance and what you think is justifiable punishment for someone who has done something violent or wrong, then you’ve made that connection. You’re like that person. And the community—I mean, I’m not so sure that it’s true now, But I’m sure it’s true in some places. But my notion of the community is a recollection of the one I knew best growing up, where, I was saying to somebody recently, adults can no longer say, “Go outside and play.” Because it’s scary out there.
For me, they used to say to all of us, as children back in Ohio, “Go outside and play.” It was almost like a command: “Go outside and play.” And you came in at lunchtime, et cetera. And there are a lot of people in my generation who know that, even in places like New York City. But now—
It was the discipline of care.
That’s right. But the point was that whatever you were doing, there was somebody else in the community who knew where you were, who you were, and whether or not you were in difficulty. Neighbors and people who walked by. And they all knew. So they knew each other. But, you know, those were the—that was a real community. Not one that’s just fearful and full of locked doors, and maybe somebody will hurt me today, or not, tomorrow morning.
Well, I thought one of the things—I’m skipping ahead a little bit, but—fascinated me about “Home” was the idea of sanctuary, that one of the things that happens in the book that you establish early on is that each person of color he meets helps him on his journey because they’re not asking questions about his legitimacy; they know his legitimacy. And he gets home. Which doesn’t exist anymore, really, in the shape that he knew it as. But those people establish a fraternity of, You are us. You’re our son.
Oh, yeah. I remember travelling on trains when my children were small, going from, say, Washington back to Ohio. And in some of those places when we were travelling in the South, not with my children but before, there were cars where colored people sat. And where white people sat in other cars. But the most important thing was the porters, who gave you twice as much orange juice, or four sandwiches and two pillows. There were so excessively generous and kind. So it was like a luxury car, I suppose, to what they thought. And I was thinking not too long ago that if I walked down the street at night in Ithaca, New York, when I was at Cornell, and if I saw a black man, I would run toward him. Then I thought, These days, with all of the discussion about black men as threats, I would not do that. I may not do that. But I certainly wouldn’t run toward a white man. I might just have to flip a long haul by myself. [Laughs.]
And figure it out along the way. I’m curious about that idea of, it exists so much and so beautifully in your books, about fraternity. You know, we have Guitar and Milkman, on and on and on. And one of the things that I’ve always loved you saying is that you read the New York Times in pencil, you copy-edit it while you go along?
Yeah. Scratch out, insert words.
[Laughs.] Yes. And there is a split between the real-life self, who reads the papers and knows this and that about the world, and then there’s the imaginative self, who doesn’t really work with the facts so much, right, reimagining the story. Do you feel as a reader—of the New York Times—and as a writer that it’s difficult or sort of complicated sometimes to separate the stories that you were just telling that we read in the papers and the story that you mean to tell about?
Oh, there’s an enormous difference. And it hasn’t changed a great deal. It used to be sheer absence. Now it’s manipulative. I remember when the New York Times started using the word “try.” So-and-so tried to. No one ever “does” anything. They just “try.” They don’t say “the Treasury Department.” They say “Obama.” They don’t say “the F.B.I.,” they say—you know, it’s a kind of—
Yeah. That language is, you know, manipulated and strangled in such a way that you get the message, although the veneer of accuracy and forthrightness is there. They’re not the only ones. The New York Times is just the New York Times. But, you know, I know that there’s a difference between the received story, not just in the press but also on TV, and what is actually going on. When I was writing “Home,” I had the “Green Book,” the one that tells black people where they can spend the night. And where they can eat. And I got a copy of it, as a matter of fact, from the library at Princeton, so that I could have him go there and have porters, or preachers, or friends that he had met in a restaurant, tell him where he could sleep or take him in. But I never identified him originally; I gave in, finally, but I never identified him, when I first wrote “Home,” as a black man.
Oh, you didn’t?
No. At all. I just wanted the reader to just—if he couldn’t go to this fountain, the reader would know. If he couldn’t go to the bathroom, he had to go in the bushes, the reader would know. But I never used the word. But my editor said, “Well, Toni, we have got to …” So I put a little something in there in the beginning. So, if you’re interested, it wasn’t quite like “Paradise.”
I was about to say, right.
So you can, like, focus on race, and then you can hunt for it, or you can ignore it, or whatever, but this is not what it’s generally about. But on his way, on his way back, he is stopped, or he has to go someplace else—you know, it’s a journey. And he’s a shell-shocked guy, you know … he lost his friends in the war, and so on. But I wanted home, the actual place that he loathed and wanted to leave, because it was small and boring and whatever, to be so welcomed by him and the reader. So I withheld all color—of trees, flowers, whatever—until he got really close to home.
That’s exactly right.
And then he says, Were the trees always this green? And the flowers are this. So that you know without—
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
That’s right. So that the reader would feel that he or she had returned to a place that was—you know, they may not like you, but they’re not gonna hurt you.
Yes. And it was fascinating to read and notice that, that the atmosphere was drained of color. That if you just simply did what Judy Garland did and open the door …
Oh-ho. That’s right.
It's a Technicolor home. We’re not in Kansas anymore. There’s something that has been on my mind a lot since I reread “Paradise” and heard the horror about Planned Parenthood, and then I immediately thought of Mavis and the ladies in “Paradise,” and how the men in our particular government were not unlike the men who wanted to kill these women because of the mystery of female love and fraternity and support.
And absence of control.
They don’t control them, so … Kill ’em. Well, not quite that simple [laughs], but they were not under the control of the authoritarian of the black town that had grown almost like the enemies they were running from, where they were excluded themselves. And so they translated that into the superiority of blackness and control and maleness and authoritarian. So if they’re going to live in an ex-convent with these women who just drift in and out, who have different kinds of morals or activities and so on, that threatens their whole concept of themselves.
They can only see it in terms of themselves, not in terms of the women’s lives.
No, no, no. Of course.
There are a few men in the town that do, but the major ones, you know, who run that town, get together and slaughter them. Because they’re dangerous. I mean, there are lots of places in the world where this happens, I won’t mention them, but, you know, where they still stone women who do something quote “bad,” like have an affair. And so that necessity for control, that’s male.
See, my thing is this. I think that in the beginning [laughs], you know, there were a lot of female gods, goddesses, in the early civilizations, because men thought that women just gave birth. Magically. Whenever they felt like it, or wherever it was due. And then they began to farm. And they had domesticated animals, and domesticated animals could reproduce in three months. Or one month. Short time. It didn’t take a year, or nine months, and so the guys said, Hey, wait a minute. She’s not the one who gives life. We are. Without us, nothing! So all the gods changed names. There was some little girly gods around. That’s my historical view of the change. [Laughs.]
Control. Was that the genesis of “Paradise” for you, to explore that issue of male control, or to explore the issue of female fraternity?
That came a little bit later. What I was most interested in—I looked at these histories of the black towns in Oklahoma, and out west, and in Kansas, and there were pictures in newspapers of men who were mayors or whatever, the administration of these black towns, and the ad was always, Come prepared or not at all. Come prepared or not at all. And they were all very fair, these guys who were standing there with hats. And I thought, Well, maybe if—what do you mean? If you don’t have anything, can you get in? Well, they didn’t let these men in.
They were poor. They were very black … what they call eight-rock. And so they were rejected by a certain group of other colored men. And so they went on and founded their own town. Unfortunately, they became as discriminatory and authoritarian as the people who had thrown them out or wouldn’t let them in. And they were holding on to eight-rock and who belonged in the Klan. And—very retrograde. So any modernity from these women would be threatening to them and frightening to them.
Because it’s reordering the social order.
That’s right. Exactly.
I see. I see. Fascinating—it’s a great book.
[Laughs.] And one of the things that it makes me remember, in terms of the early exploration of men and women and maleness, was that there was this very great, I think, BBC documentary, very early in your career, I think around the time “Song of Solomon” had come out. And you said that you really didn’t have much to do with it, that the characters told you when something was just right. And in your first two books, “The Bluest Eye” and “Sula,” it’s the women, despite the hardship, who are just right. There’s not one imperfect. Their imperfections are perfect, to me, and important. Jude and the Deweys and so on are catalysts for Nell and Sula. And I was just wondering, can you share with us what you might have learned from looking at your sons and your father in order to move into “Song of Solomon”?
Particularly my father … writing about primarily women is the most, and the largest characters in “The Bluest Eye” and “Sula.” When I began to write “Song of Solomon”—which I thought was a horrible title, by the way.
You didn’t like it?
No. [Laughs.] “Song of Solomon,” what does that mean? I mean, there’s somebody in there named Solomon, but so what?
[Laughs.] We’ll get to that later.
Me and my title! But I do remember thinking I don’t really know what the interior life of a man is, as a writer. Maybe as a human. But certainly as a writer. And just before that my father died. And I remember thinking, I wonder what my father knew about his friends, and so on. And he didn’t say anything, because he was dead. [Laughs.] But I had this incredible, serene feeling that I would know, that somehow it would come to me, that I could write about this young, middle-class-making dad and his friend Guitar and his search, you know, for things. And it was true, and I felt secure, and I felt strong.
As a matter of fact, it was so much of the maleness in that when Pilate appeared, I just had to shut her up. She was just taking over the book. And I kept saying, “Wait a minute, this is my book! Not yours!” She was a very, you know, sort of—
Forceful character. Yes.
Very! So I shut her up, and she said something at the funeral.
Or when Milkman asked her where’s her navel, what happened to her navel, and she says, “Beats me.” [Laughs.] I’ve always loved hearing you talk about your father because he seems like the most incredibly supportive man in the world. And you’ve also said in several interviews that he was racist, too.
Oh, big time.
And that we know racism grows out of a kind of hurt. Or not. In his case?
I didn’t understand him. I just knew that he wouldn’t let white people in the house, you know, the little insurance man, and this … I thought, Oh, that’s him. And my mother was just the opposite. She didn’t care who you were. You know, if you were nice to her—that’s the line, “nice to me.” And also we wouldn’t live in black neighborhoods. You know, there were Hungarians next door, and Polish people, and Jewish people. Anyway. But I just thought was a quirk. And then I learned. I went down to the little town where my father was born.
What’s the name of that town, Toni?
Cartersville. Georgia. And a man there, his name is Wofford, and there’s a Wofford church, there’s a Wofford [school]. So we know who owned the joint.
Wofford is your maiden name.
And Wofford is my maiden name. But one of the men who was a child at the time and grew up in that little town said that my father had seen two black men lynched on his street. They were businessmen. They had little stores, and so on. And so he was fourteen. And he left and went to California, and then he ended up in Ohio. But I think seeing that at fourteen—not the murder of some terrible person, or the lynching of some bad person, but the lynching of two neighbors. And I think that’s why he thought that white people were—what’s he say? Incorrigible? You know, they were, like, doomed.
But, listen to this! He went back to Georgia every year. To visit family. And my mother, who thinks of her days in Alabama was this sweet, lovely little kiddie, you know, in the woods, in the flowers, and my aunt this, and my aunt that … she never went back. [Laughs.] Never.
But he was—you know, I’ve probably written about this several times—he did a couple of things. I had a little job cleaning a woman’s house. And I was about twelve, thirteen years old—after-school job. And the woman was, quote, “mean to me.” Meaning I didn’t know what she was talking about. [Laughs.] I had never seen a washing machine or a vacuum machine or a stove that was anything other than—so I didn’t know quite what I was doing.
So I complained to my mother, and my mother said, “Quit.” “No.” I was getting two dollars a week, and I gave one dollar to my mother and other dollar I kept. For candy. And I told my father, and he said, “Go to work, get your money, and come on home. You don’t live there.” Oh, O.K. This is it. I mean, it was a whole different—I haven’t had an employment problem since. That’s not where I live. I live here, with your family.
But my father—you know, during the war, those of us black people and poor people got really good jobs when they were not drafted. And my father became a welder in a shipyard, which was a highly skilled job. And he came home one day and he said, “Do you know, today I welded a perfect seam on the ship?”
And I said, “Yeah, but, Daddy, nobody’s gonna see it.” He said, “It was so perfect, I put my initials underneath.” G.W. And that’s when I said, “Nobody’s gonna see that.” He said, “I know, but I know it’s there.” And it really was not so much good work for show. It was good work that he approved of. Even if it was hidden and private. And that sense of—
Yes, right. Was very important to me.
And so I think your father was alive when you first started to publish. What was his response to—
My mother—I don’t know. My sister said he was reading “The Bluest Eye” laughing. I never asked him what was funny about it [laughs], but he was chuckling, you know.
Yes. An acknowledgment of having done it! Of having welded your perfect seam.
One of the things that we’ve talked about a little bit is your work in the theatre and how that going inward to the character, and having the characters say “I” to that person and so on, has, I think, been underexplored in your work, your love of theatre has continued, from writing the book for “New Orleans,” in 1983.
Oh, yeah, I remember.
Writing “Dreaming Emmett,” in 1985. [The play débuted in 1986.]
Yes, that was good.
That’s a great play.
That I wouldn’t let anybody see.
And also the lyrics for—of course, you wrote Margaret Garner, “Honey and Rue” …
Yeah, songs, yeah.
And also your work with Peter Sellars, “Desdemona.” Have the scripts, working in that medium, have they informed the novels which have great moments of dramatic intensity?
I think it’s the other way around. I think the novels inform the plays very much. Because the novels are very visual to me, and staged, in a way. I mean, you know, I hope they don’t feel staged, but I do see scenes, theatrical scenes, and dialogue. The hardest thing for me was the last one, “Desdemona,” because that was—you know, Peter Sellars did “Othello.” He said he would never do “Othello.” And I said, “Why?” He says, “It’s too thin, there’s nothing going on.” I said, “What are you talking about?”
And he said, “Well, it’s just …” I said, “Look, it’s not thin.” I said, “People just think it’s this black guy who kills this white girl.” And something, something, something. I said, “But think about her. Here’s a woman who ran away. Eloped. With a Moor. And went to war with him.” I mean, this is not some little, shrinking, little “o-o-o-o” girl. So, anyway, he did “Othello” in his interesting way. And then he asked me, did I want to do “Desdemona”? And I sort of did, thinking of her the way I just described. And thought, Look, I’m not competing with William Shakespeare here. I couldn’t think how I could do it that was not sort of silly parody …
Yeah, until I got the first line, which was, My name is Desdemona. Desdemona means death. Desdemona means … and then the rest. It was sort of her voice.
That she could she could name herself.
I’ve been reading a lot and thinking about the ways in which the men have this relationship to their fathers that is often uneasy and fantastic, in all senses of the word. And in “Jazz” there’s that extraordinary scene with Golden Gray and his father. He tracks down his father, who’s black, and Golden Gray’s mixed-race, and he says, I don’t want to be a free negro, I want to be a free man. And the father says—Henry LesTroy’s the father—he says, Be what you want, white or black, choose. But if you choose black, you got to act black. Meaning, draw your manhood up.
Tell me what he was trying to express there, because it’s two different generations, right? It’s a novel about modernism.
That’s true, yeah. But, at the same time, “you’ve got to act black” for him would mean, Grow up, get tough. You know, there’s nothing to hold you. Be strong. That’s what acting black, like a black man, meant to Henry LesTroy. As opposed to whining and complaining and, You did me wrong, Some guy did me wrong. That was powerful. For him. A black man is a powerful thing. A tough thing. A strong thing. In his mind.
The move into the—well, that, too. A little bit of Henry LesTroy, whom I loved in “Jazz,” as much as I loved his son. And there is this extraordinary Flannery O’Connor quote I wanted to share with you, where she says black men—the black male, southern, but why split hairs—is a “man of very elaborate manners. And great formality. Which he uses superbly for his own protection. And to ensure his own privacy.”
That’s true. That’s accurate.
The men in “Jazz,” despite the severity of their actions, are all private figures. Paul D, to me, in his love is also a private figure. They move, they journey, but there is a great deal to risk if you share.
Oh, yeah, don’t love nothing too much, you know. Which is not what Paul D says; a woman says that. But you—he has, what, a tobacco tin in his chest, where he keeps everything. Lidded. All the profound emotions, the breakdown emotions. And he doesn’t want anybody to open up that little tobacco tin, which is his version of a heart. And it is protection. He’s been through some terrible times. It’s, like, I can’t remember her name, one of the women in the town, who said, Don’t love nothing. She doesn’t mean don’t care for things, but don’t get too involved. Don’t let it sweep you away. Don’t let it curdle you, in a sense. And he tries that, and does that, and succeeds at it, until, of course, he meets Sethe, you know, who he does come back to.
And they’re touching through trauma, right?
It is, to me, the greatest human endeavor or action that we can do, is to get past ourselves to touch somebody else. In a real way. And one of the things that happens to me when I’m reading your books is there’s always a scene where the impossible happens. The impossible meaning, through the trauma of race, or sex, or history, there’s a moment where they want to touch another person. It’s like Milkman’s sister says, First Corinthians, she says, Do you think that your life is that hog gut between your legs? [Laughs.] And you were saying, I felt, when I read the book, it’s not as limited as that. That it is something about getting past that, and be a person. So it’s the humanity, and the pathos of getting past the trauma, to even try.
Yeah. Everything I have written, including the first book I wrote, even there, yes. Although I didn’t know I was going to forever do it. Every one of those is a movement toward knowledge. And if somebody doesn’t know—a main character—doesn’t know something extremely important at the end of the book that he or she didn’t know in the beginning or throughout, then it doesn’t work for me. It’s not like a happy ending. I don’t mean that. It’s just—and it’s not an “Aha!” moment. It’s just that you grow, you learn. Something, you know—
Yeah. In “Home,” he could never have buried that man and said, Here lies a man. Which is all the way from the beginning of the book, when he sees these horses and they look so male and so powerful and masculine. Violent. Masculine. Violent. Beauty. Horses fighting one another. So at the end that sentence, They fought like men, becomes, Here lies a man. A real man, who committed himself to be killed so that his son could live.
Does that transformation happen? Can it happen without sacrifice, or something?
I don’t think it can. I mean, a little sacrifice. Doesn’t have to be severe punishment, but that’s the press. That’s the urgency about life.
That’s the volition.
Yeah. That’s why I push. So that when when Sethe is saying, “Oh, she was my best thing,” and Paul D says, You were your best thing. And she says, Me? You know, like, Who, me? I mean, that’s—she never thought of herself as the valuable one.
[“God Help the Child”] takes place in a contemporary—so-called contemporary—world. How was that for you?
Uhh! I started “Home”—I started “[God Help the Child],” which I was a horrible title also—and I started “Home,” and finished it. Because that was a period that I could sort of understand. I couldn’t write about now, I felt, because it was so … slippery. There was no—it wasn’t definite enough.
Until I thought, I realized, that what was very definitive about now is so powerfully, powerfully self-reverential. Selfies. Look at me! Novels about me. Stories about me. And I thought, O.K., if she goes, becomes this glamorous creature, it will be in cosmetics, which is all about beauty and looking good and so on. And for him it would be hanging on to the absence of his older brother. It doesn’t have anything do with what his sisters think or what his father thinks, or his mother. But they lost that child also. But he really lost him. So he leaves, and he goes away to college. But nothing is satisfactory. He’s better than everything. He’s got to write the great books. He’s going to do. You know, he has all—doesn’t do any of it. He can’t even play decent horn. I mean, you know, he plays a little bit, but nobody takes him that seriously. So he’s cutting himself off at the leg because he’s hanging on to this, What about me and how I feel?
So the coming together, when somebody can listen to a conversation between these two people, and they can listen to each other and know that there’s something valuable that they need in the other person, that’s a good ending.
When you talk about the idea of me, and selfies, and all of that noise, let’s say, that doesn’t exist in other centuries or other times—were you—this goes back to the reading. Were you distracted by the reality of now before you could tell the story?
You know, I always say, remember, when I was a girl, a young girl, we were called citizens. “American citizens.” “American citizens,” this, “American citizens,” that. We were second-class citizens, but that was the word. And then, after World War Two, in the fifties and sixties, they started calling us “consumers.” “The American consumer needs …” and so we did. Consume. Now they don’t use those words anymore. Listen. “The American taxpayer.”
And those are different attitudes. If you’re a citizen, you think your block or your neighbors or your town or something is part of you. If you’re a consumer, you just go to the store, and shop, and, you know, layaway, and un-layaway, and so. But if you are only a taxpayer, you are worried about who’s got some money that you pay.
And that you don’t have.
Yeah. You don’t want the government to, you know, distribute its own resources that are based on taxes to anybody. You’re sort of angry. It’s like your money, because they called you a taxpayer, not a citizen. All you do is pay taxes. That’s a whole different thing.
So, that’s part of what I was feeling. But, generally speaking, when I was writing [“God Help the Child,”] that’s what I thought was distinctive about the period. I want to tell you what the title of that book was before I was forced to change it. I called it “The Wrath of Children.”
That’s a great title.
Yeah! Everybody hated it.
My agent, my editor, the editor-in-chief, da-da-da-da-da-da. I said, “Ahh-h-h!” They just fussed and fussed. And I know I don’t always have good titles. But I thought “The Wrath of”—so this one sounded like Billie Holiday or somebody. You know what I mean? This is great.
Toni? I’m gonna be one of those boys in the rain getting up, so thank you.