June 3, 1997

Toni Morrison Talks About Fiction's Depiction of Race

Rosemary O'Neil
News Contributor

Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning novelist and poet, spoke at a well-attended lecture on Thursday, May 29, at 4 p.m. in Rockefeller Chapel.

Morrison was introduced by President Hugo Sonnenschein and Homi Bhabha, professor of English in the College. At the lecture's conclusion, Sonnenschein announced that Morrison will be a visiting scholar for three years, starting in 1998. This entails a six-week visit each year during which Morrison will be involved in teaching classes, as well as giving a public lecture.

Morrison opened the lecture with a big smile. She then launched into a plea for respect and consideration of the new academic fields that have emerged from the fray over the "future of the past." These fields, she implied, include African-American and Gender Studies.

She elaborated on what she saw as the traditionalist dismay at the arrival of these new fields with a question: "What future might the past have if the boundaries of humanist disciplines were challenged and penetrated?" Then she contrasted this with the iconoclast question: "Does our past have a future if moribund disciplines yearning for immortality have their way?"

In response to this dilemma, she advocated that academics "abandon turf wars" and that the fields of English, American Studies and African-American Studies find common ground in "charting the realmless realm of difference... in spite of those who say that difference makes no difference."

She then offered up a string of authors -- W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Elliston, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston -- as examples of writers who chart this "realmless realm." She suggested that these writers describe society from a viewpoint outside the mainstream, and that "this idea of the outside is the most stimulating, the most exciting, the most volatile to stir the humanist disciplines since the 19th century."

The metaphor of a lock and key provided her transition into a more personal viewpoint on writing fiction. She talked about the mission of a fiction writer as "finding words that turn locks" in the way that a key would.

Morrison then suggested that words, acting like keys, allowed her a glimpse beyond racial difference. She described the stubbornness of racial difference as "born of ages of political insistence and social habit." She called this racial difference an "almost unmitigated force."

Racial difference is not totally unmitigated, Morrison said. Fiction writers can help to undermine the persistence of these differences, she believed. She said that her own "fictional excursions" into the realm of difference were enormously instructive and exciting.

She lauded the success of another writer -- Flannery O'Connor -- in "italicizing difference." O'Connor's work, Morrison said, "insists on and permits reflection on the sterile power of difference."

At this point in the lecture, Morrison illustrated the issue of racial difference in fiction with an example. She read a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in which Tom, a wealthy and elite main character, laments to the narrator that "civilization is going to pieces" because of the "rise of the colored empires." Morrison explained that this page-and-half of text signals the discrediting of Tom, and creates a moment of class transcendence and union.

Another example by Morrison of racial difference in fiction came with a reading from Henry James. She read a James character's description of "the brown lady." The "brown lady" had "a nose that was far too big and eyes that were far too small and a mustache that was well... not so happy." Morrison commented that the woman was described "not as a lady, nor even as a human."

Other authors, she continued, "enhance or decorate difference in order to genuflect before it and be redeemed." Herman Melville, she feels, is such an author. In Moby Dick he presents to the reader the intimate encounter between Ishmael, a white character, and Queequeg, an African native. It is a moment that, as a powerful one in the book, underscores the power of racial difference.

Morrison emphasized, however, that "attention to the mechanics of writing -- the tacks, nails, stitches of narrative -- should not be limited to white writers." Techniques of close reading are particularly important in reading issues of race in the texts of black writers, she suggested. Critical attention, she said, should be paid to the manner of African-Americans' own representation of racial encounters.

With this, she embarked on an interpretation of a passage from one of her own works, Beloved. Before she described the passage, she offered this insight: "Racism cannot produce knowledge. It can only regard itself, over and over again. It is an empty power."

The passage that she focused on involved two young women -- one black and one white -- who meet in similar circumstances. Morrison noted that they share the same age, the same gender, and the same fugitive status. Yet, she remarked on how these characters, at first, had no language to accommodate their situation other than the predictable, conventional race language and equally conventional symbols of power and powerlessness. The white character, Morrison pointed out, calls the other a "nigger," and the black character lies.

As she was commenting on her work, Morrison provided a question for the audience to consider: "How does an encounter become healing and not hurtful?" She noted that in the passage she was describing, there was an implied gratitude, but a decided absence of sentimentality. And she remarked that, in the passage's placement of white hands on a black body, a revision of existing cultural models was taking place.

Morrison concluded her lecture with a spirited reading from Beloved describing a birth scene. A young black woman, Sethe, gives birth on a riverbank amidst an attempted escape via boat. The two women fugitives cooperate to deliver the baby, one yelling "push" and the other "pull." The scene includes a description of the ferns on the riverbank and the uncertain promise of the spores' fertility. It ends with the image of the two women, completely alone in the woods, tearing rags off their bodies and winding them around the newborn baby.

The questions asked after the lecture ranged from inquiries into Morrison's view of the "cultural hegemony" facing black artists, to what Morrison "meant" by her novel Song of Solomon to issues of Fitzgerald's responsibility to the reader in the passage from The Great Gatsby that she read.

In response to a question about her involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Morrison said that she was "not a big joiner," and that her contribution was mostly in publishing others' work during this time.

An enthusiasm for the time period of the civil rights movement emerged in her answer to another question, however. A Sun-Times reporter asked Morrison to "speak to the issue of race" in today's society. She replied that she saw a great danger of the architecture of the 60s and 70s civil rights movement being taken apart, and this made her "very, very sad." She continued, saying that "everybody's rights diminish" when she, as a black woman, "becomes disposable," a trend that she fears today.

Karen Chang, a first-year student in the College who attended the lecture, was particularly intrigued with this last question and Morrison's response. "I thought it was interesting how she said that the 60s and 70s were the greatest time, and how she talked about the moral sensibility of this time, despite all the sex and drugs" that permeate the popular culture perception of these decades. Chang added that she was struck by Morrison's implication that "racial problems are greater today because we think we don't have any."

Students' reactions to the lecture as a whole were mixed. Katherine Nagel, a first-year student in the College, who attended the lecture and also a breakfast with Morrison the following morning, said that she "really liked hearing her read ... she spoke very well" but that she wasn't sure what Morrison was "getting at."

"I'm not sure if intellectually it held together. I mean, it might have on a deeper level, but I didn't have access to that in the short time period of a public lecture." Nagel said that following the lecture was hard because Morrison, aside from her comments on "the future of the past" did not restate her point many times, in the manner of a typical speaker, and so the ultimate meaning of the lecture was somewhat elusive.

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