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NPR Arts & Life

'Fresh Air' Favorites: Toni Morrison

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're playing some of our staff's favorite interviews from the decade that just ended - next, my 2015 interview with Toni Morrison, one of the most celebrated writers of our time. She died last August at the age of 88. Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 for her novel "Beloved" about a former slave looking back on her life after the Civil War. In 1993, Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. In 2012, President Obama awarded Morrison the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When she died last year, former poet laureate Tracy K. Smith wrote, I know that many of us who devoted our lives to writing were first led to imagine such a thing was possible by Toni Morrison, whose work shed light upon lives - black lives - that we recognized as unmistakably familiar.

When we spoke, Morrison had just published her novel "God Help The Child." It begins with the line, it's not my fault. Those words are spoken by an African American woman explaining she has no idea why she gave birth to such a dark-skinned baby. The mother is embarrassed by her daughter's darkness and wants to distance herself. The daughter is scarred by not having her mother's love. The novel is about those childhood wounds that leave a lasting mark even into adulthood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Toni Morrison, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start by asking you to do a reading from your new novel. So this is from very early in the novel, where Sweetness, the mother, who is light-skinned African American, is talking about how shocking and upsetting it was to give birth to a daughter with very dark skin - as she describes it, midnight black, Sudanese black. So would you pick up from there with the reading?

TONI MORRISON: Sure.

(Reading) I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me. Her birth skin was pale, like all babies, even African ones, but it changed fast. I thought I was going crazy when she turned blue-black right before my eyes. I know I went crazy for a minute because once, just for a few seconds, I held a blanket over her face and pressed. But I couldn't do that no matter how much I wished she hadn't been born with that terrible color. I even thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace, and I was scared to be one of those mothers who put their babies on church steps. Recently, I heard about a couple in Germany, white as snow, who had a dark-skinned baby nobody could explain - twins, I believe; one white, one colored - but I don't know if it's true. All I know is that for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat. I went to bottle-feeding soon as I got home. My husband Louis is a porter, and when he got back off the rails, he looked at me like I was really crazy and looked at her like she was from the planet Jupiter. He wasn't a cussing man, so when he said, goddamn, what the hell is this, I knew we were in trouble. That's what did it, what caused the fights between me and him. It broke our marriage to pieces. We had three good years together, but when she was born, he blamed me and treated Lula Ann like she was a stranger - more than that, an enemy. He never touched her. I never did convince him that I ain't never ever fooled around with another man. He was dead sure I was lying. We argued and argued till I told him her blackness must be from his own family, not mine.

GROSS: That's Toni Morrison reading from her new novel "God Help The Child." So the mother distances herself from the daughter because of the daughter's dark skin. The father leaves, thinking this child must not be his because he, too, is lighter-skinned. And that sets the whole story in motion, and I'm wondering why you chose color - you know, the level of blackness - as a central part of the story.

MORRISON: Well, I wanted to separate color from race. Distinguishing color - light, black, in-between - as the marker for race is really an error. It's socially constructed, it's culturally enforced, and it has some advantages for certain people. But this is really skin privilege, the ranking of color in terms of its closeness to white people or white-skinned people and its devaluation according to how dark one is and the impact that has on people who are dedicated to the privileges of certain levels of skin color.

GROSS: So were there times in your life when you've been exposed to that kind of hierarchy of color within the African American community?

MORRISON: I have. I didn't have it until I went away to college. I didn't know there was this kind of preference. But I noticed, in addition to the outside world of Washington, D.C., which at that time - this is 1949, 1950 - there were very obvious stated, written differences between what white people were able to do and what black people were able to do. But on the campus, where I felt safe and welcome, I began to realize that this idea of the lighter, the better, and the darker, the worse, was really - had an impact on sororities, on friendships, on all sorts of things. And it was stunning to me.

GROSS: And you went to a traditionally African American college, Howard University.

MORRISON: Yes.

GROSS: There was a New York Times Magazine cover story about you recently, and in that article, you described, when you were young, witnessing your father throw a white man down the stairs because your father thought this man was coming up the stairs after his daughters. Was your father afraid that this man was coming to abuse you and your sisters?

MORRISON: I think he thought so.

GROSS: Do...

MORRISON: I think his own experience in Georgia would have made him think that any white man bumbling up the stairs toward our apartment was not there for any good. And since we were little girls, he assumed that. I think he made a mistake. I mean, I really think the man was drunk. I don't think he was really trailing us. But the interesting thing was, A, the white man was - he survived. B, the real thing for me was I thought - I felt profoundly protected and defended. I was not happy because after my father threw him down the steps all the way out into the street, he threw our tricycle after him. That was a little bit of a problem since we needed our tricycle.

But that made me think that there was some deviltry, something evil, about white people, which is exactly what my father thought. He was very, very serious in his hatred of white people. What mitigated it was my mother, who was exactly the opposite, who never rejected or accepted anybody based on race or color or religion or any of that. Everybody was an individual whom she approved of or disapproved of based on her perception of them as individuals.

GROSS: It sounds - you said that this incident made you feel protected. It sounds terrifying, though, for two reasons. One is that your father basically gave you a idea that this man was coming upstairs to do you harm. And two, watching your father not only throw him down the stairs but throwing your tricycle down the stairs after him - it sounds like that would be a little frightening to see also.

MORRISON: Well, if it was you and a black man was coming up the stairs after a little white girl and the white father threw the black man down, that wouldn't disturb you.

GROSS: I'm trying to think that through. I guess, you know, I think...

MORRISON: My father felt about...

GROSS: It's a product of being in this, like, not very violent, working-class, middle-class family where I didn't see a lot of violence when I was growing up. So any violent act would probably have been very unnerving to me.

MORRISON: Well, it was my father, who could do no wrong. So I didn't think of it as, oh, look; my father is a violent man. He never, you know, spanked us. He never quarreled with us. He never argued with us. He was dedicated, and he was sweet. So he did this thing to protect his children. Now, I lived in a little working-class town that had no black neighborhoods at all. One high school - we all played together. Everybody was either somebody from the south or an immigrant from East Europe or from Mexico. And there was one church, and there were four elementary schools. And we were all pretty much, until the end of the war, very, very poor. My neighbors were from - my mother's neighbors who brought her stuffed cabbage were from Czechoslovakia - what used to be called Czechoslovakia.

So that - I'm not at all a person who has been reared or raised in a community in which these racial lines were that pronounced. Occasionally, as children, we might figure out how to call somebody a name, and they would figure out how to call us. But it wasn't - it was so light. It was so fluffy. I didn't really have a strong awareness of segregation and the separation of races until I left Lorain, Ohio.

GROSS: You know...

MORRISON: I thought the whole world was like Lorain.

GROSS: I think it must have been hard for your father to hate white people and to live in a neighborhood in which there was a lot of white people.

MORRISON: Well, you know, my father saw two black men lynched on his street in Cartersville, Ga., as a child. And I think seeing two black businessmen - not vagrants - hanging from trees as a child was traumatic for him.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2015 interview with Toni Morrison. She died last year. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. This week, we're featuring interviews from the decade that just ended. Let's get back to my 2015 interview with Toni Morrison, who died last year. We spoke after Morrison had published her final novel "God Help The Child."

The main character's birth name is Lula Ann Bridewell. When she's 16, she changes it to Ann Bride. Two years later, she changes it to one name - Bride. And she's in the fashion world, in the cosmetics world. It's a very, you know, signature kind of name to have. Names are very important in your fiction. There's often - people often have nicknames. And I'm interested in hearing about why names have such real and symbolic importance in your stories.

MORRISON: Well, there's a whole history, I think, in naming. In the beginning of black people being in this country, they lost their names, and they were given names by their masters. And so they didn't have names, and they began to call one another, you know, decades later, by nicknames. I don't think I knew any of my father's friends - male friends - by their real names. I remember them only by their nicknames.

And also, there was an honesty. Sometimes, the names were humiliating, deliberately so. Somebody would pick out your flaw. If you were little, they would call you Shorty, and if you were angry, they would call you The Devil. I remember a man in the neighborhood who was called Jim the Devil - always those three words. Have you seen Jim the Devil? No (laughter). And then you think of the musicians - Satchmo, Louis Armstrong. What is Satchmo? That's Satchel Mouth. Or you think about them giving themselves royal names - Duke and Count and King. You know, it's a very personal identification, trying to move away, maybe, from the history of having no name and then personalizing it - on one hand, to give you a name that's embarrassing in order to make you confront it, deal with now; and then later on, more charming names, moving away from humiliating names like Satchmo.

GROSS: So your birth name is Chloe Wofford. Morrison was your married name when you were married, but you you've been divorced a long time - since 1974. And Toni was shortened from Anthony, which was the name when you were...

MORRISON: Baptized.

GROSS: ...Baptized. And so am I right in saying that you became a Catholic when you were 12? That's what I read.

MORRISON: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: So let's start with your name. Once you started being called Toni, did you feel different from being called Chloe?

MORRISON: I never felt like anything other than Chloe. You know, my name, Chloe - nobody could pronounce it properly outside my family. In school, the teachers called me Chlo (ph) or Chlovee (ph) or Chlorie (ph) because it was spelled that way. It's much more common now, but I couldn't bear to have people mispronounce my name. But the person I was was this person who was called Chloe. And then there's a wing of my family who are all Catholics, and I - and one of them was a cousin with whom I was very close, and she was a Catholic. And so I got baptized, et cetera, and I chose St. Anthony of Padua as the baptismal name.

So then I go away, and the people in Washington, they don't know how to pronounce C-H-L-O-E. So somebody mistakenly called me Toni because she couldn't hear Chloe. So I said, uh-huh. Yeah, so I don't care. Call me Toni. It's easy. You don't have mispronounce my name. And then I meant to put my maiden name in the first book I wrote. As a matter of fact, I called the publisher and said, oh, by the way, I don't want Toni Morrison to be on the book. And they said, it's too late. They've already sent it to the Library of Congress. But I really would have preferred Toni Wofford.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Toni Morrison in 2015. Morrison died last year. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. This week, we're featuring interviews from the decade that just ended. Let's get back to my 2015 interview with Toni Morrison, who died last year. We spoke after Morrison had published her final novel, "God Help The Child."

So the opening quote in your book - and it stands on a page alone before the book begins - is, suffer little children to come...

MORRISON: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Unto me, and forbid them not. And it's...

MORRISON: It's what Jesus said...

GROSS: Yeah. It's when Jesus...

MORRISON: ...Says Luke.

GROSS: Jesus wants to bless the children, so he's basically saying, let the children come to me. Do not...

MORRISON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Forbid them from coming.

MORRISON: They were holding them back.

GROSS: Yeah. The disciples wanted to hold them back. Yeah.

MORRISON: Right.

GROSS: So it just made me wonder if you have spent a lot of time reading the Bible, either through your mother's religion when you were young - and she was very religious - or as a Catholic or as a literary person.

MORRISON: I think as a scholar, because it's gone through so many hands, so many translations - even the people who were writing it - you know, the scribes - were changing things. Numbers changed. What was seven now becomes six, et cetera. So it's an interesting project, but that's the way I approach it now. But in my mother's church, everybody read the Bible, and it was mostly about music. My mother had the most beautiful voice I have ever heard in my life. She could sing anything - classical, jazz, blues, opera.

GROSS: You know, many people have commented on the musicality of your writing. Do you think you tried to emulate her music in your prose?

MORRISON: I didn't do it consciously or deliberately, but if it's there, then I am positive that that's part of it. You know, part of it for me is the sound. You know, I'm a radio child, you know, with the ear up against the gauze, where you hear stories - you know those little stories they used to play on the radio for 15 minutes? So for me, the sound of the text is very important, so important that I read all of my books for the audiobooks so that the reader can hear what I hear.

GROSS: So just one more question - you didn't start writing till you were 39 or 40. Is that because you didn't have the time or didn't know you had it in you? Like, what was the point in which you said, I'm going to write a novel? What changed?

MORRISON: When I was teaching at Howard University, and I was young - in my 20s - and I joined a group of faculty and writers who met, I think, once a month to read to each other and critique each other - some of them were professional writers, and some were not. And so I brought to these meetings little things I had written for classes as an undergraduate - some fiction, some not, and so on. And they had really, really good lunches, really good food during these meetings. But they wouldn't let you continue to come if you were just reading old stuff, so I had to think up something new if I was going to continue to have this really good food and really good company outside of the - my colleagues.

So I started writing. And I remember very clearly I was writing was a pencil. I was sitting on the couch, writing with a pencil, trying to think up something and remembering what I just described. And I was - the tablet was that legal pad, you know, yellow with the lines. And I had a baby. My older son was barely walking, and he spit up on the tablet. And I was doing something really interesting, I think, with the sentence because I wrote around the puke because I figured I could always wipe that away, but I might not get that sentence again.

So I wrote a bit of that. I went to the meetings. They thought it was very interesting. It was just, you know, maybe five or six pages. And they were very encouraging. And then I left, and I went to Syracuse, et cetera, et cetera. And in the mornings, before my children were awake, I would go back and finish that. And then it took five years, by the way, to write that little book because I wasn't thinking about publishing. I was thinking about the narrative and what I want to say, you know? So that's really how I got started.

GROSS: Toni Morrison, thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

MORRISON: You're very welcome.

GROSS: Toni Morrison recorded in 2015. She died last August. She was 88.

We've been playing some favorite interviews from the decade that just ended. If you've been enjoying these recordings from our archive, check out our new archive website, which has decades of interviews, some dating back as early as the 1970s, when FRESH AIR was a local show in Philadelphia. You can search by name or subject, make playlists. It's at freshairarchive.org. That's freshairarchive.org.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN'S "LULU'S BACK IN TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.