The photograph on the cover of Toni Morrison’s new book A Mercy shows a stern intellectual: the Nobel Prize winner, the author of novels that have changed the way America sees itself. In her work, too, she has been implacable in her determination to expose America’s forgotten past. A brilliant stroke of timing: A Mercy came out in the euphoric week of America’s presidential election last November. A historical novel set in 1690, it reminded readers that racism has deep roots in American culture, and that its effects cannot easily be made good.
Morrison in person, in the library of her hotel in Amsterdam, is a powerful presence, but not a severe one. Her gray dreadlocks are pulled back in a grandmotherly knot; her mouth is frank, her eyes mischievous. She conveys her meaning as much with intonation as with words, in a voice that’s warm and confiding and seems to crackle, like a fire for sitting close to. She’s in the Netherlands, for the first time in 25 years, as part of a European book tour. She’ll go to Milan next, then Lausanne.
When I ask if she’d mind a question about Barack Obama, Morrison laughs. “Ha! Always. I wish he’d get out of my books. Somebody said that he—his wife wears belts, and she looks nice in those, but there’s one belt apparently that she wears that he doesn’t like. He says it’s Star Trekky or something. And she said”—she puts on a wife’s indignant voice—“‘Would you go fix the world and get out of my closet?’
“So everywhere I go they say ‘Obama,’ and I say, ‘Would you please…?’”
Then again, she can see that there’s a connection. For one thing, despite her friendship with Hillary Clinton, she publicly supported Obama for president. She has still never met him, but he phoned to ask her if she would back his campaign. “And that conversation began this way,” she says, lowering her voice: “‘Before I say anything to you, let me tell you about Song of Solomon…’” She beams with pleasure at the younger man’s admiration for her work.
“So we talked about books. And then he asked me his question, and I said no.” She didn’t want to make a public statement about the election. But friends who supported Obama eventually persuaded her to write him an open letter of endorsement.
Leaning forward to emphasize her point, she says, “I didn’t have the luxury of choosing by gender or race. That was for some other time. I had to figure out who I thought was really wise.”
In her work, gender and race are no “luxuries”; A Mercy is specifically about women and racial difference. Just as pundits were trying out the word “post-racial,” Morrison came out with a book about “pre-racist” America. She explains, “I wanted to go back before 1776, which is when we usually think of America starting. I wanted to see what it was like before they institutionalized and legalized racist difference. Before it was set in stone. To divorce slavery from race. Because the only thing exotic about slavery in America was racism. Slavery was common everywhere. I wanted to see if indeed there was a time when you could be a slave and un-raced, in America.”
A Mercy is about an enslaved mother who, to protect her eight-year-old daughter, gives her away. This is the charitable act of the title, but the daughter, Florens, believes her mother has rejected her, and her grief has profound consequences. Her situation is not unusual. On the isolated farm where she ends up, on the edge of the wilderness, everyone she knows is in some sense an orphan, and almost all of them, black and white, live in some form of servitude.
Morrison has been called “America’s conscience,” but it might be just as accurate to say she’s America’s alternate historian, searching out stories that have seldom been told. “History is full of gaps and silences,” she observes. “It gets nationalized and mythologized and distorted, and you just want to lift up the rock of the national narrative and see what is really underneath there. The possibility of truth is more fascinating to me than these little tired stories that every nation makes up about how wonderful they are. That’s called ‘teaching citizenship.’ I don’t mind that. But underneath there’s some much more interesting material.”
At the beginning of A Mercy, the characters form a makeshift family in the new world. But by the end, Florens has learned about racism, and the rest “have nothing to unite them.” The ending seems pessimistic, but Morrison doesn’t see it that way. Florens, she says, has “an epiphany. And if somebody knows something really important at the end of a novel that they didn’t know before, that to me is the purpose of the species. Florens figured out that she owned herself. She has to do something about that. So I thought they lived happily—not ever after, but there was a moment of recognition and maturity at the end that was not there at the beginning.”
So is there hope for a new American maturity, a national happy ending? How does Morrison feel about that term “post-racial”? “I’ve said I hated it,” she says. “But I understand what it’s driving at. It’s an inaccurate term for something that is really true. My students at Princeton are so uninterested in racism. They really are. The culture is full of black entertainers. They’ve seen black presidents before…in the movies.” She laughs. “Princeton is not the world, obviously, but I see a new comfort and ease in discussions about race. There’s less awkwardness, or attempts to slip into the discourse little signals of racial contempt.
“So maybe post-racial is the accurate term. But I’m a little cautious.”
Cautious or no, Morrison does view America differently since the election. Thirty years ago, in an interview, she said she’d never really felt like a “citizen.” It recalls Michelle Obama’s much-criticized remark that for the first time she was proud of her country.
Morrison drops her voice as if to make an embarrassing confession. “I have to admit—it’s sad, but it’s true—that I went to the inauguration. And you know, the right wing usurp the flag. They’ve taken it over. They say who’s a real American and who’s not, and they have flags everywhere. So forever I’d just sort of go, yeah, aah.” She makes dismissive sounds. “You know, not resistant, but just vaguely…not there?
“But at the inauguration, when I saw all those flags, and the military was doing its little number and singing, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s so nice. That’s beautiful.’ And when Aretha Franklin sang ‘God Bless America’ I thought, ‘Yes!’
“I was thinking, ‘Why am I enjoying stuff that doesn’t mean anything to me? I mean, in that fundamental, “yay! my country right or wrong” way?’ But suddenly I…I liked it. And that is attributable to that election. I belong in this place, was what I was saying to myself.”
“I’ve always been interested in voices that have no place, or have been silenced,” says Toni Morrison (1931). She grew up in a working-class town in Ohio, the daughter of a shipyard welder. There was not a lot of overt discrimination there, she says: blacks and immigrants lived next door to each other and “we were all just poor.” But there were still restrictions on where black people could sit in a movie theater or which beaches they could go to on Lake Erie.
Morrison studied literature and has published nine novels, including Song of Solomon (1977), about a young black man exploring his family’s past, and Beloved (1987), about a mother who kills her own infant daughter rather than see her enslaved. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, where she taught at Princeton University until her retirement in 2006.
Trouw, May 26, 2009.