Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison told a Washington audience 9/23 that the current “level of cruelty is worse than it was before, during, or after the Civil Rights Movement.”
Morrison, whose latest book is “A Mercy”, added, “Take into consideration that I’m a nice old lady, I’m 80, and maybe it was cruel back in the 1940’s when African Americans were second-class citizens, but today, there’s such a level of cruelty… it’s a kind of poison…it’s sinister.”
But she acknowledged that “There have been some wonderful changes. I’m very aware of a black man, Barack Obama, in the White House.”
Morrison was speaking one block away from the White House, at the elegant Hay-Adams Hotel’s Author Series. She was in town to receive the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival Award for Creative Achievement, and to appear at the 11th annual National Book Festival on the Mall 9/24-9/25.
At the Hay-Adams, Morrison also criticized censorship (her “Song of Solomon” has been banned by a Kansas school board and a Texas prison warden!)
“Students all know that the banned books are the real books.” The audience cheered.
And as for the N-word, the nice 80-year-old lady said, “Why take out ‘N—–‘? What for? It’s so hypocritical, so phony. Why change history? Let history be what it is. Don’t white-wash it. Don’t wash it at all.”
She doesn’t agree with segregating African-American books in book stores, but blames that on early African-American writers.
“It’s our own fault. African-American writers wanted their own space, like a mystery section. I love mysteries. But when I look for books under my own name, alphabetically, they’re not there,” she rues. “It’s like throwing all the whites out of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).”
SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael, who coined the term “black power”, was a student of hers when she taught at her alma mater, Howard University in DC. “He was quite smart.”
Morrison said, “My life is either reading books, teaching books, editing books, or writing books. That’s all I know — I don’t ski.”
The author first knew she was a writer when her first child “spit up his orange juice on my writing pad. I wrote around it — This is how you know you’re a writer.”
That son, Ford, now her assistant, told me, “Oh, she’s always doing that, telling stories about me.”
His mom said, “It took me five years to write that little book (“The Bluest Eye”). When I sent it out, I was so sad, not depressed, but hollow, unhappy (although) I was busy raising children and working at Random House.”
As soon as she had another idea for a book, “I was happy again. I wanted to have something to focus my imagination on. It’s the only free thing. I don’t have to answer to anyone, no one tells me what to do — (writing) is a free place.”
Her workplace was definitely not a free place. “Guys were telling me what to do. Those of us women got less than men got. I went in to the editor-in-chief and said, ‘It’s not enough…Pay me according to my rank, not my gender.'”
Right on, sister. “I was so angry, I was willing to risk getting fired — I don’t know why they didn’t fire me.”
She noted, “I was feisty. The women in my family are like that — they never shut up.”
And what a mercy, a paradise, that the beloved Morrison has never shut up. Her next book, “Home”, will be published in May.