♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Morrison: She is a friend of my mind.
She gather me, man.
The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.
It's good, you know, when you've got a woman who is a friend of your mind.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ My grandfather bragged all the time that he had read the Bible through five times, from cover to cover.
I thought, why does he keep reading that book?
Then I realized there weren't any other books.
And it was illegal in his life to read.
And it was illegal for white people to teach black kids to read.
So it was a revolutionary thing.
And that sense of it being confrontational permeated our house, although I didn't understand why so early.
Later on I did.
♪♪ My sister taught me to read when I was three.
And we used to get down on our knees on the sidewalk with a pebble, and write "cat," "dog," "I hate you," you know, or I "hat" you because we didn't know the "e." One day we noticed another word down the street about half a block away, and we decided to write it.
So we got together, expanding our vocabulary.
We wrote "F," and then looked over there.
"U," and we were just getting ready to do the "C," when my mother ran out of the house and started screaming.
"What's the matter with you?!"
"You, go get a bucket of water.
You, go get a broom."
And we were crying because we don't know what happened.
We have to get rid of the words and she doesn't say the word, she doesn't say what it is.
She never does, in my entire life.
I don't know how old I was before I found out what it meant.
And she never tells us what it's about.
But ultimately I knew that words have power.
Words can do that to my mother, a word I don't even know.
Now that is power.
♪♪ I get up before the sun rises.
♪♪ I always get up early.
I want to beat the sun.
So I have to be there just before it comes up.
It's the best time.
That part of the day is incredible.
I'm very, very smart early in the day.
Later on, I -- ugh.
[ Laughs ] What?
But early I'm very good, very sensitive.
About three or four hours I'll work every morning.
♪♪ 'Cause I got up early to write because I had small children.
And if I got up at 5:00 before they woke I could do some work.
Then the children grew up and went away.
And I was still getting up at that hour and unwilling and unable and unenthusiastic about writing after lunch, or writing at night.
The only time I really wanted to do it and was good at it, I thought, was very, very early in the day.
It's still that way.
♪♪ Sometimes you're nudged.
And sometimes you're just searching, to make the writing interesting to me.
It's not just writing, it's, "I don't know what this means, but I have to find out and I have to explore all the character's attitudes," and so on -- "I've got to know."
I really have to know.
And the only way I can know, and own what I know, is to write it and then let you read it, so we both know.
[ Chuckles ] Griffin: When you read early reviews of Toni's work, those early, sympathetic liberal reviewers, and I remember one of them about "Sula."
And the reviewer says, "She's got a great talent.
One day she won't limit it to only writing about black people."
It's limiting for her to write about black people?
No one says that when, you know, an Irish writer writes about Irish people.
You know, it's only limiting when you write about black people.
♪♪ In spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness... ...its refusal to brim over into the world outside its provincial setting.
♪♪ Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.
♪♪ If she is to maintain the large and serious audience she deserves, she is going to have to address a riskier contemporary reality.
♪♪ Morrison: I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about white people.
I remember a review of "Sula" in which the reviewer said, "One day she" -- meaning me -- "will have to face up to the real responsibilities and get mature and write about the real confrontation for black people, which is white people," as though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.
And I've spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.
♪♪ Davis: Toni Morrison's project resides precisely in the effort to discredit the notion that this white male gaze must be omnipresent.
Newsreader: The center of the Negro's life is the Southern town.
And once a week, the family car rattles through its streets.
The rich, melodious tones of Negro voices hover in the warm air as the men gather to discuss the crop and pass the time of day.
For the women as well as the men, the town is a social center, the mainspring of gossip and human relations.
It is by their spontaneity, in play or at work, that we glimpse the innate grace of these people.
Morrison: In this country, many books, particularly '40s, '50s, you could feel the address of the narrator talking to somebody white.
I could tell because they're explaining things that they didn't have to explain if they were talking to me.
The assumption is that the reader is a white person, and that troubled me.
♪♪ They were never talking to me.
Even Frederick Douglass, he's not talking to me.
I can feel him holding back.
And I understand that because the people supporting him were abolitionists -- white people.
And sometimes he even says it.
"These things too terrible to relate."
He didn't talk about it.
Same thing I felt was true with Ralph Ellison, I felt was true with so many great writers.
Invisible to whom?
Griffin: When she says, "Invisible to whom," about "Invisible Man," which is like, "How dare she question the great novel?"
She doesn't question whether or not it's a great novel.
She doesn't question whether or not it's exquisitely written.
She questions that perspective that you are only defined by what your oppressor thinks of you.
Like, guess what: there's this whole other world going on when they aren't even looking.
♪♪ Morrison: "Not until the white folks left, the gravediggers, Mr. and Mrs. Hodges, and their young son who assisted them, did those black people from up in the Bottom enter with hooded hearts and filed eyes, to sing, 'Shall We Gather at the River' over the curved earth that cut them off from the most magnificent hatred they had ever known.
Their question clotted the October air, 'Shall We Gather at the River?
The beautiful, the beautiful river?'
Perhaps Sula answered them even then, for it began to rain, and the women ran in tiny leaps through the grass for fear their straightened hair would beat them home."
Als: My world is a black world.
She was doing something that a lot of black writers who had come up in the '70s weren't doing, which was to write about the stories without having to talk about excising whiteness.
And she didn't do it in a way that was about saying that the white world was wrong.
The white world was just peripheral, if it existed at all.
Morrison: I didn't want to speak for black people, I wanted to speak to, and to be among -- it's us.
So, the first thing I had to do was to eliminate the white gaze.
Jimmy Baldwin used to talk about that, the little white man that sits on your shoulder and checks out everything you do and say.
Sort of knock him off.
And, you know, you're free.
Now I own the world.
I mean I can write about anything, to anyone, for anyone.
I don't have to have this white judgmental eye checking me, editing me, approving of me.
It has nothing to do with who reads the books.
Everyone, I hope, of any race, any gender, any country.
But my sovereignty and my authority as a racialized person had to be struck immediately with the very first book.
♪♪ Every book I read about young black girls, they were props...
No one took them seriously, ever.
I wanted to read a book about that, and nobody was writing about that.
Even when I wrote "The Bluest Eye," I was really writing a book I wanted to read.
I hadn't seen a book in which black girls were center stage.
I wanted to read a book that had no codes, no little notes explaining things to white people.
And I had a major, major question in my mind at that time, which was, how does a child learn self-loathing?
Where does it come from?
Who enables it?
How is it infectious?
And then, what might be the consequences?
Peola: I'm not black!
I won't be black!
Peola: She called me black.
Jesse called me that.
Beatrice: Jesse Pullman, for shame on you.
[ Sobbing ] Peola: You.
It's cause you're black.
You make me black.
[ Sobs ] I won't!
I won't be black!
Beatrice: Jessie, how could you say such a mean, cruel thing to Peola?
Delilah: Oh, it ain't her fault, Miss B.
It ain't your'n, and it ain't mine.
I don't know rightly where the blame lies.
Sanchez: This is "The Bluest Eye," a novel by Toni Morrison.
It begins, "Quiet as it's kept there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941."
It looks like it should look, right?
It's been used, right?
It's been held and over the years, it's torn.
I've thrown this book across the room and picked it up, you know, and then walked down the steps laughing.
Like, you read Toni and you cry, but you got to laugh.
I say, "Yeah, yeah.
You really got it.
You got us all that time."
"I got you in my arena now, ha ha.
I got you.
You got to read this.
I got you.
You've got to deal with it finally.
I got you," and, if you don't laugh, you know, you don't survive.
Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.
We thought at the time that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds didn't grow.
Our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout.
Morrison: I started my career with "The Bluest Eye" of putting the entire plot on the first page.
So the reader reads the first page, he knows exactly what happened.
And if he turns the page it's because he wants either to find out how it happened or he loves the language.
Mosley: It's her rawest novel, and her raw is really wonderful.
It's truth in so many different ways.
Which is why it's still, I think, one of her most controversial books.
You know, people are, like, always wanting to ban it and say, "Can't let kids read it."
But all the things that people have trouble with is what I kind of love about it.
It's true in all of her books, what I'm saying, but I think I like it most in "The Bluest Eye."
Morrison: I remember an incident from my own childhood, when a very close friend of mine and I, we were walking down the street.
We were discussing whether God existed.
And she said he did not.
And I said he did.
But then she said she had proof.
She said, "I have been praying for two years for blue eyes, and he never gave me any."
So I just remember turning around and looking at her.
She was very, very black, and she was very, very, very, very beautiful.
Can you imagine that kind of pain?
About that, about color?
So I wanted to say, you know, this kind of racism hurts.
This is not lynchings and murders and drownings.
This is interior pain.
So deep, for an 11 year old girl to believe that if she only had some characteristic of the white world, she would be okay.
She surrendered completely to the master narrative, I mean, the whole notion of what is ugliness, what is worthlessness.
She got it from her family, she got it from school, she got it from the movies, she got it everywhere.
Moyers: The master narrative?
Morrison: It's white male life.
The master narrative is whatever ideological script that is being imposed by the people in authority on everybody else.
The master fiction, history, it has a certain point of view.
So, when these little girls see that the most prized gift that they can get at Christmastime is this little white doll, that's a master narrative speaking.
"This is beautiful, this is lovely, and you're not it."
Winfrey: So we are talking about "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison.
I really do think it's a national treasure.
Everybody should read it.
Don't you think the world would be different?
In all the years of the Oprah Book Club I chose four of her books.
So I wanted the world, as many people who could hear my voice, to understand the importance of her work.
The reason why I love the Book Club so much is because you want to have enough books that people feel safe with, they feel comfortable with, they feel like, "Oh, I can get this," when the books are about Robin and Sue and Daniel and Jake; get people to trust, that they feel like, "Oh, this is something safe I can read and I'm reading about people I know," and then bam!
Hit them with Toni Morrison!
♪♪ ♪♪ Sanchez: In order to survive, you should re-read Toni every 10 years, because every 10 or 15 years, we have to re-imagine ourselves on this American landscape.
You won't survive if you don't do that.
Someone said "reinvent."
I said, "No, no, no.
Reinvent means you don't like yourself.
There's something wrong.
But reimagine us on this American landscape -- what I must do now, how I must live, how I must rearrange, you know, my vowels, how I must rearrange my toe jam, how I must rearrange my hair, my breasts, how I must rearrange my thoughts."
Morrison: My grandparents lived in Alabama and they had a small farm.
They were sharecropping.
My grandfather played the violin -- extremely well, apparently -- and chose to go into Birmingham with his violin to make money -- street musician.
My grandmother got a message to him to say, "We are leaving, and we're getting on a train, and we're going to Akron, Ohio."
She had relatives in Akron.
"And if you want to see your children or me again, you will be on that train.
I cannot stay here.
White boys are circling."
That's all she had to say.
"White boys are circling and we have to leave.
I will be on such-and-such a train, such-and-such a time, going north.
If you want to see us again be on that train."
So what she meant was her girls were growing up, They were probably...
I don't know, 12 or 13, and white boys would come around and look at them -- from a distance.
But she knew what they had in mind.
They called him Big Papa.
The train pulled off and he was not there.
He was on the train but he didn't want anybody to see him leaving Birmingham because he thought he would be taken off the train or arrested or whatever they do to black people moving.
So he was hiding on the train.
The family was thrilled to death that Big Papa was there.
My mother says she was so happy because for the first time they saw and ate white bread, which is easily the worst thing in the world.
And they made their first stop in Ohio.
♪♪ Sanchez: What in the world was in the water in Ohio?
[ Laughs ] 'Cause there was something in that water in Ohio that made you and Rita Dove come out of Ohio and write what you wrote.
♪♪ Morrison: It is my birth name -- Chloe.
My saint's name, Anthony.
My maiden name, Wofford.
People mispronounced it all the time.
They said Chou.
Even my teachers.
[ Laughs ] Chlow, Clough.
So I just shortened it to my saint's name.
And then, of course, the married name, Morrison.
[ Applause ] It's a way of dividing your life.
One of those names is the person who is out there.
And the other one is the one who isn't, who doesn't do documentaries.
Als: Middle America is her place, because it's the South, and it's the West and it's the East, and it's a river, and it all comes together.
It's her beat.
Really, it's almost sort of taken out of the pages of "The Bluest Eye."
Morrison: It was a steel town on the shore of Lake Erie.
And there was work there.
Full of immigrants from Poland, Italy.
Some black people from Canada who had escaped, you know, and gone to Canada and come back.
So it was highly mixed in terms of culture and race.
You had this poor labor class and very few middle class people.
We were very, very poor.
We moved a lot because we couldn't afford the rent.
Which was four dollars.
My mother cooked and washed, and so on.
My father worked, steel mills, different hours.
So it was irregular when he was home.
I'm not sure that people understand that poverty was not shameful as it is now.
There was no pressure to get ahead -- you know, really ahead.
What you wanted was your family and your health and enough resources to get food and to pay the bills.
And if that happened, and you had your churches and your friends, and that was it.
The people who lived next door when we moved to 21st Street were Russian.
My mother and the woman, they used to trade recipes.
My mother learned how to cook some kind of cabbage... thingy... [laughs] from her.
And then the people who lived over there, you know, were something else.
Those people were black.
There were, like, two black families on that street.
There were neighbors and they watched.
Nobody was in there messing with anybody.
It was calm -- I thought it was boring.
♪♪ I read all the time.
And my mother and my grandparents were very eager that we keep that up because they had come from a place where you couldn't read.
There were no schools.
And they felt very strongly about that skill.
My mother joined the book clubs.
It was a very precious thing and they were proud of it.
Harris-Perry: We were appalled to learn that Ohio school's leader Debe Terhar has called for banning Toni Morrison's 1970 novel, "The Bluest Eye" from the state's Common Core recommended reading list for 11th graders.
Now, Terhar describes the book as "pornographic," and said, "I don't want my grandchildren reading it and I don't want anyone else's children reading it.
It should not be used in any school for any Ohio K-12 child."
Morrison: I think history has always proved that books are the first plane on which certain kinds of battles are fought.
Parents have a right to restrict books in the home.
They have a right to tell their own children what to read.
They don't have the right to tell my children what to read, which is what happens when you ban a book publicly.
I have a little framed document in my bathroom, a letter from, I think Texas Bureau of Corrections, saying that "Paradise" was banned from the prison because it might incite a riot.
And I thought, how powerful is that?!
I could tear up the whole place!
Carrasco: There's something about her skills with language, so that not only do the readers feel that she's talking to them and they can talk back, that they're finding in Morrison a new language about themselves, about the condition they live in.
And that discovery gives them a sense of transcendence.
Winfrey: Toni Morrison's work is for all of us, her words, her languaging, is a friend to our minds.
That's what you're feeling when you're in the midst of a read.
It comforts you and consoles you and allows you to understand that pain is okay.
She reaches into the depths of pain and shows us, through pain, all the myriad ways we can come to love.
That is what she does -- with some words on a page.
That is what she's doing all the time.
She's teaching us, all the time.
There's not a sentence that is not filled with depth of meaning and knowledge and information.
Morrison: Books were interesting to me.
I read everything there was in the library.
But mostly it was the language, you know, different ways to say the same thing.
Choices that the authors were making in order to tell me something or make me see something.
That was what was fantastic -- still is.
My sister, when she graduated from high school, got a job in the library.
And she very sweetly got me a job as a pusher.
You would take the books off of a cart and put them back in the shelves.
The children's part was on the bottom and then above was Dostoevsky.
I mean, they didn't have young adult.
That didn't exist.
It was just little kiddie books and then the real world.
But I was slow because I kept reading the books instead of putting them back fast.
So I got promoted to the catalog department -- [ Laughs ] Where I worked until I went away to college.
Griffin: I remember reading, at 13, "Sula."
There was a group of girls on my block.
Believe it or not in between jumping Double Dutch and playing jacks, we also shared books.
And somehow in that circulation there was this book "Sula," with this black woman with a soft afro on the cover, Seeing that there was a character like Sula in the world, it just gave me a world of language to escape to but also a world that I recognized as a young black woman in a working class community.
It showed me the magic of my own world that I didn't see.
And after reading her it was hard to see my own world in the same way.
Mosley: The novelist's job is to take you someplace that you couldn't even imagine.
The novelist's job is to turn you back into a child who's just learned how to read, and has just learned how to imagine what the language is saying.
Toni tells extraordinary stories that touch people in a very deep place.
Some people read those books.
Some people make those books into movies.
Some people tell those stories to other people.
Some people teach those books to people who have no interest in reading, but when they hear the story, they go, "Wow!"
Books have an incredible impact on our culture, even though most of our culture doesn't know it.
Carrasco: In 1995 I traveled with Toni to Mexico City.
But when we arrived we couldn't get out of the car.
There were so many people that were there to see Toni Morrison.
Somebody else on the stage said, "Would you like us to translate, to have a simultaneous translator into Spanish of what Toni Morrison reads and says?"
In unison, from the audience, it was, "No!
We want to just hear Toni Morrison.
We understand her because we are in her language too."
They know that there's a freedom in this woman's language.
She took the canon of the written language and she broke it open.
She's the Emancipation Proclamation of the English language.
Griffin: Everywhere I've traveled in the world, I go to a bookstore.
There's always a Morrison section.
I get emails from women in China or in Japan who are studying her.
I have graduate students from Asia, Africa, Latin America.
Morrison is a global figure.
She's a global phenomena.
And she speaks to people everywhere.
If there's life on Mars, they're reading Toni Morrison to find out what it is to be human.
♪♪ Morrison: They were so physically strict with us.
When I was a kid, I mean, you know, side eye.
You don't sit next to no guy.
You know, they were very serious about that, particularly with the girls.
I don't think they did that with my brothers, the younger ones, but with the girls, you know.
There was a wonderful place where we could all go and dance, down in South Lorain.
My mother walked us there... and walked us back!
My sister got married out of high school.
I didn't, so I was sort of a wild card out there.
I really wanted to go to college, "A," to get away from my family since I was 15 or 16.
And you know how families are, they tell you "Take off that lipstick," you know, stuff like that.
But for me it was leaving home as well as going toward a place where I could read.
I had an uncle who had gone a year at Ohio State.
And I lived very close, like seven miles from Oberlin.
And my mother said, "Okay, well, go to Oberlin."
And I thought, unh-uh, she's going to call me up, and she's gonna say, "Come here and wash these clothes."
So I wanted to go a distance.
And I knew about Howard, so I applied and went.
♪♪ When I got to Howard, I was loose.
[ Laughs ] It's lovely.
I just loved it.
I'm sure I overdid it, but I don't regret it now.
[ Laughs ] I was just the best baker, particularly my sweets.
And I made the best carrot cake.
It's still the best.
No one, not even my sister, who's close.
They don't put enough carrots in!
♪♪ There were guys on the faculty, young guys, and they used to pay me $25 for one of my cakes.
And they always said, "Toni, no matter what you do in life you will always be the woman who bakes my cakes."
[ Laughs ] I was an English major at Howard University.
But in the drama department, they read things differently.
You have to know the emotions, you have to know the conflicts, you have to know, you know, all these subtleties that are in the language which you express them physically and so on.
So I always preferred the drama department and the Howard Players.
I was very, very good in one part, Queen Elizabeth.
I was excellent.
And I turned out to be a star in that one play.
They wouldn't teach any Black stuff in the English department.
The closer you got to white-ness -- culturally, academically -- the better off you were.
Now this is a black school funded in large part by the government.
I remember going to my Shakespeare teacher, who was very good, describing to him what I wanted to write my paper on.
And I thought I would write about Black characters in Shakespeare.
And he was so outraged.
He said, "What?
We're not --" Like it was sullying Shakespeare's name.
There were just four characters I wanted to talk about.
No, he wouldn't let me, so I wrote something else.
Rose: You went away to Howard and then to Cornell.
Did you dream of teaching or writing or what?
-Morrison: Oh, teaching.
Morrison: I wanted to be a teacher, and I was.
And I did that -- I mean, when I left graduate school, I taught at Texas Southern University, then I went to Howard University again as a teacher and stayed there until I couldn't stay there any longer.
-Morrison: I didn't have a PhD.
When I was teaching at Princeton, I had one course in creative writing.
And I would tell the students, "I do not want you to write anything about your little life.
I know you have been taught 'write what you know.'
I'm telling you, do not do that.
You don't know anything.
So I want you to invent.
I want you to write about a Mexican girl who doesn't speak English, who has a job in Houston as a waitress, as a counter girl."
And I would throw out these ideas that were far distant from anything in their lives.
And I have to tell you, they really took it and ran with it.
It was almost like a door opened.
Mosley: If somebody were saying, "What do you think Toni is in literature?"
I would say she had come to an ideal place, and what that place is, it's Shakespearean, but pedestrian.
In the old days, everybody -- in the tragedies -- were kings and princes and, you know, really important people.
Toni's characters, the level of drama and tragedy was about people living everyday lives -- black people, poor people, women, men, you know, whatever.
But the big thing about it was is that it was pedestrian.
Giddings: They'd never been seen before.
And something else hadn't been seen, which was a book that revolved around the friendship of women.
That was the centerpiece.
She puts women at the center of these epic narratives.
She said, "You know, if you don't understand the history of African-American women, you don't understand the history of America."
♪♪ It covers four centuries.
There are four centuries covered in her work.
And so what she does is to step into those times, and places, and just re-imagines.
♪♪ Carrasco: You imagine the past because the past has been ruptured.
The record of the past, of your people, has been degraded.
It's been burned up, it's been taken away.
And therefore you need the Toni who comes into that past and imagines it historically by putting together fragments and pieces and narratives, that, you know, the white world and the white libraries, they've ignored, they've kept out.
Morrison: When I was teaching at Howard, I got married, had my sons, and got divorced.
I had subscribed to "The New York Review of Books" before I left Washington with my infants and moved in with my mother.
One day, three copies of the same issue appeared in my mother's mailbox.
And I thought that was odd, but I looked at it, and in the back there were all these advertisements for professional jobs.
And among them was an opening for a job in Syracuse.
A major publisher requires an executive editor.
Male or female.
Originality and imagination are necessary.
We prefer a person between the ages of 35 and 45, with a master's degree.
Some experience in teaching is desirable.
All replies will be held in strict confidence.
Box Z, New York Review of Books.
Morrison: And I remember saying, "Ah, that sounds like me."
Tharpe: ♪ This train is bound for glory, this train ♪ ♪♪ ♪ This train, Brother Spain, is bound for glory ♪ ♪ You know this train ♪ ♪ This train... ♪ Morrison: I left my babies at home with my mother.
My sister and I got in my father's car -- he had an Oldsmobile by then, which he treasured, since the car he had before had no brakes and we had to jump out whenever we got to the place he was taking us to, or he'd hit the curb and say, "Go."
So now we have a car.
We drive, my sister and I, to Syracuse.
I interviewed and I got the job.
That's the beginning of my work there, before Random House bought that company, which was called the L.W.
Singer Company, and everybody had to go to New York that they wanted to go to New York.
And they took me.
♪♪ Giddings: I was in the secretarial pool at Random House in 1969.
Toni came and was an editor in the trade division on the floor where I was working.
My friends and I got to know her better when one day she came to ask us to do some typing for her.
And we said, "Sure," and she said, "If you type it, you know, I'm going to come to your apartment and I'm going to make you the best carrot cake you've ever had."
So we thought that was a very good deal.
And sure enough, Toni came one day and made the best carrot cake yet I still have ever had.
And it was not until later that I realized that we were typing part of "The Bluest Eye."
♪♪ Gottlieb: 1970.
I was 39, Toni was 39.
We both worked at Random House.
Within the overall Random House exists Alfred Knopf, which I ran for many, many years, Vintage, Doubleday -- it's got many, many parts.
Toni was an editor at what we call a Little Random, and I was running Alfred Knopf.
Morrison: I think, "They don't know that I'm a writer.
I'm going to keep it that way.
Editor, that's what they want.
They don't want a writer.
Editors are not writers."
So I don't tell anybody.
And I think that works?
No, it doesn't.
[ Laughs ] Gottlieb: I became aware of her as a writer only when she published "The Bluest Eye."
And of course, since she was a colleague, I was quick to read it.
And I thought it was just wonderful.
And after the impression it made, the then-head of the overall Random House, Bob Bernstein, quite wisely said, "We have this wonderful writer who works for us, we should be publishing her."
But it couldn't be Little Random because she was working there, so Knopf, which was the more literary arm, was the obvious place -- and I was the chief editor -- and it was a natural meeting because we knew each other.
And with the exception of one novel, I've edited all of her books since.
Morrison: He's the best editor there is, and Knopf was like this very special house.
So I had the great fortune of being upstairs with an editor, as an author, and downstairs as an editor.
♪♪ And I did both well because I could make the distinction.
The assumption is when you edit somebody else's book you put your own stuff.
I had that separation because I was a teacher for so long.
You're looking at student's work.
It's not yours.
You make the distinction between the two crafts.
And I was good at that.
♪♪ Mosley: I heard two people talking about Toni once.
First one said, "I love Toni Morrison because her novels transcend race."
And then the next person said, "I love Toni Morrison 'cause she's not afraid to be black."
♪♪ Giddings: The Civil Rights Movement had morphed into the Black Power movement.
So it was a period of lots of confrontation, of lots of rethinking what race meant, what the relationship of race was to the country and to the state.
Important black leaders were also emerging and talking about a very different way of thinking about protest, and thinking about changing the country.
It was an extraordinary time, a very heady time.
Lots of people were beginning to publish.
The black power movement was really very centered on men.
The predominantly white Women's Movement was very centered on white women and there was always this question about where black women and women of color, in general, belonged in this period.
♪♪ Als: I think that her profound contribution to American publishing has everything to do with the voices that she brought into a largely white institution.
Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis.
These were all her writers.
She as, an editor, said, "It doesn't have to be this way.
Let's break down the ivory tower walls and get all these people together and make a kind of wave of literature."
Group: ♪ The revolution has come ♪ Off the pigs!
♪ No more brothers in jail ♪ Off the pigs!
Griffin: I've heard her say, "I'm not out on the street in the trenches.
I'm not marching.
What can I do where I am?"
There's the lesson, right: what can you do where you are?
So where I am is, I'm an editor.
Morrison: I thought it was important for people to be in the streets, but they couldn't last.
You needed a record.
It would be my job to publish the voices, the books, the ideas of African Americans, and that would last.
Davis: She approached me on behalf of Random House with the proposition of writing an autobiography, which, I must say, I thought, at that point, was rather preposterous.
Who writes an autobiography at 28?
Reporter: In America, supporters of the black liberation movements are stepping up the pressure in the campaign to free Angela Davis, the black philosophy lecturer and communist who is now facing a charge of murder in California.
Davis: Toni Morrison can be extremely persuasive.
She finally persuaded me that the book she wanted to publish was the book I wanted to write, only I was not aware of it at that time.
I learned about the importance of the imagination from her in ways that were radically different.
She would look at something that I had written and she would try to help me make it more evocative, than simply analytical.
♪♪ She would ask questions like, you know, "Where were you?
What was in the room?
What was the furniture?
What colors were there?
How did you feel?
What did it smell like?"
And so she helped me access my imagination in ways that I continue to be thankful for today.
♪♪ ♪♪ Griffin: She edits them.
She does the marketing.
She picks the covers.
She's taking care of her writers in a kind of old-fashioned way.
Als: She's the architect, and the midwife, and the artist.
She's arranging Angela Davis's books on a table.
She's got on a little beret, a silver beret, and she's the editor.
Angela's the star and she's the editor, sitting back, lighting a cigarette, watching Angela Davis be Angela for the camera.
That was her job and she was doing her job.
I think that because success came to her relatively late, she was a grown up.
Lebowitz: When I first knew Toni she was still working at Random House as an editor.
But my editor called and said, I got a phone call from Bob Bernstein.
"You have to stop hanging around in Toni Morrison's office.
She's not getting any work done.
All day long, smoking cigarettes, talking."
Toni went on a book tour with Muhammad Ali.
Toni published Muhammad Ali's book.
Man: There has been a first printing of 100,000 copies and there is about to be a second printing of 25,000 copies, and it is a month before publication.
Morrison: When I first met him and I would ask him a question, he would answer and look at a man, and never look directly at me while he was giving the answer.
But then I remembered he respects older women.
He's not answering me because I'm in this other category.
But if I'm like his mother or an older woman...
So I just crossed my arms.
So I walk in the room and say, "Ali, get up from there.
You have something to do."
And he would look up and recognize another thing, a grown up, an older version of the...girl.
[ Laughs ] And from then on, he did everything I said.
You know, everybody liked those jokes, but inside was this completely understanding man.
Loving man, nice man.
♪♪ Navigating a white male world was not threatening.
It wasn't even interesting.
I was more interesting than they were.
I knew more than they did.
And I wasn't afraid to show it.
You have to be a little tough and rely on yourself, and tell people no.
You don't want to give me the money because I'm a woman and the men get more?
♪♪ The first job I had in publishing, L.W.
Singer, I noticed that the men in the company got more money when the raises were doled out than I did.
So I went to my boss.
And I said, "You didn't raise me as much as you did my colleagues who are men."
And he said, "Yes, but --" And I said, "No, I don't want to hear 'but'.
I want to tell you something.
I am head of household, just like you.
♪♪ You may think I'm colored, or a woman, or this -- I'm head of household, just like you."
Yes, I got the raise.
♪♪ Rose: You raised your two kids.
Your husband left and you had to raise your own two sons, right?
-Morrison: It was terrible.
-Rose: It was?
Morrison: It was very hard.
Rose: So what did you call on to get it done?
Morrison: My family.
My brothers, my mother, my grandfather, my sisters.
You need everybody you know.
I lived in New York.
I was working as an editor.
I was running up and back and forth to Yale teaching.
So I had to send them home in the summer.
My family had to come.
And even so, it was difficult.
Lebowitz: Toni wrote a lot of these books with two little boys in the house.
And plus Toni had a rule that she made for herself, not to shut the door where she was working, so that the boys would not feel that they were not allowed to go in.
Davis: She was working on "Song of Solomon" and "Sula" had just recently been published.
She would cook breakfast for the children.
And then suddenly she would turn away and pick up a pen and jot something down.
And often I rode with her to her office at Random House.
We would be driving into New York City.
The traffic would stop at the bridge.
She would pick up a pen again in the car and place a piece of paper on the steering wheel and jot something down.
And she was constantly doing this.
Later, when I read "Song of Solomon," I said, "That was a miracle."
Als: I don't know where this woman's energy came from, to raise two kids, to bring other people of color to the party, and also write these novels.
She said, "It's not as if I'm doing a lot of different things.
I'm doing one thing, which is I teach books, I write books, I edit books."
And I think that if you can think of it that way it's a lot more manageable.
Morrison: I remember sitting in my office at Random House with a pad, and I wrote down on the left side everything I had to do.
"Mother your children, go to the store, pay the bills, edit this, write this," and it covered the page.
And then I said, "Of that number, what do you have to do?"
And there were only two things: mother my children, and write.
And anything that didn't do that, I struck out.
Man: You see that a title is not selling, you get rid of it.
If it is selling, you order more.
And you learn your clientele, you learn the past sales history of a book.
Morrison: I do remember sitting in a sales conference.
One of the salesman says, "We can't sell certain books on both sides of the street," meaning there's an audience of white people and maybe an audience of black people, but they don't merge.
So I thought, "Well, I will just solve that, and I will do something that everybody loves, particularly black people."
Als: "The Black Book" is a radical book because she's not giving us any contextualization for blackness, it just is.
♪♪ You open the book and it's photographs of Negro memorabilia, sculptures from the continent, black cowboys, sheet music, racist sheet music.
It's the jumble that is Black American life.
♪♪ Morrison: There was no singular narrative.
It was everything.
♪♪ Griffin: She gives us an archive.
There it is, there are the documents.
You know, this is from a people who have been told they don't have a history.
Well, here it is.
It's sort of like before there was an African-American museum, here it is.
Als: It is a study of the emotional and survival aspects of blackness.
It reminds me of who I am.
Morrison: I had a brother who spent about a year in prison.
And I asked him some questions about language, prison language.
And he wrote me back and I put it in the book.
My aunt wrote a piece.
My mother's face is on the cover.
It sold like wildfire.
And there were wonderful, wonderful responses.
Well, I sent books out to people in places that salesmen wouldn't know.
And I sent one to somebody's cousin or something who was in prison.
And he wrote me a letter and thanked me, and asked for two more copies.
He said, "I need one to throw up against the wall.
I need one to give to a friend.
And I just want to hold this one against my heart."
♪♪ My father thought that all white people were unredeemable.
There's nothing you can do about it.
They will always be awful.
♪♪ ♪♪ They would never be human, ever.
Mind you, this is a guy who, as a kid, saw two black men get lynched.
♪♪ As a kid.
Hanging, yeah -- that's when he left Georgia.
♪♪ He wouldn't let white people in the house!
Like the people who come and sell you insurance and should be there.
But if a white person knocked on the door and wanted to sell something?
My mother would open the door and chat, give them something to eat.
My father, no.
She judged people one at a time.
She didn't care what color they were, it was a personal thing for her.
And then there's this strong memory I have -- I was trying to describe something that happened in a book I wrote called "Paradise," where there is this pure black community versus everybody else.
Part of the purity and the power and very much the pride of that black community is a kind of a flowering of something my great grandmother said.
She was a midwife in Flint, Michigan.
She came to town, she walked into the room, and all the men stood up.
And my sister and I were on the floor playing.
My mother was in the room, and my great grandmother came into the room with her stick.
She looked down at me and my sister and she said, "These children have been tampered with."
So I didn't quite know what that meant at the time.
It did not please my mother.
But she was pitch black.
I mean, really, what they used to call blue-black.
And she was saying that we were sullied in some way, that we were impure.
That's what she said.
♪♪ ♪♪ Two fountains?
[ Laughs ] In a sense, I know it wasn't true, but in the back of my mind I thought the segregation and the physical stuff was a... a joke.
♪♪ Middle class white people were bathed by black people.
You know, in their tubs.
And they ate their food.
They did everything, and then they couldn't sit next to them?
[ Laughs ] It just seemed so bizarre.
True, but bizarre.
Particularly for me who had come from a little town in Ohio where everybody that I knew -- shopped with, played with, was on a street or in a playground or in a school full of people who came from all over the place.
There were Mexicans.
There were tons of Italians.
You know, it was really a melting pot.
It really was.
It was so integrated, whenever any shop opened, my uncle or my mother would be in there the first day, sitting down to make sure there was no unspoken but really real segregation.
And nobody ever said to them, "Leave," ever, no one.
Never heard of that.
So when I went to Howard I was stunned.
The black students segregated themselves.
I joined a sorority because they asked me and they looked nice, but I didn't know it was the sorority where the light-skinned girls went.
And then there was another sorority that was all black, shades of color.
It was a very horrible social scheme.
I didn't know what they were talking about, 'cause if you got on a bus you could see "colored, "white."
And I would steal those signs and send them home to my mother.
And there was one department store where you could go to the bathroom.
And we all knew what it was.
But all the rest, they wouldn't let you go to the bathroom, if you were black -- or "colored."
I remember being compared to Ishmael Reed and Gayl Jones, three writers who are so different and the reviewer ended up deciding which one of us was more accurate about black life.
And I was not the one that she chose.
I think she chose Gayl.
"This is the real black scene.
This is the real black middle class or lower class."
That's not a literary observation at all.
It's not a literary point of view.
I think over time it has changed.
It was really awful in the beginning, Davis: There were those who wanted to ghetto-ize her work.
The argument has always been that black art is a particular art.
The particularity of black art has nothing to do with larger concerns of humanity.
Humanity has to be colored white.
And so here was a work that was about the particularity, the specificity of black experience, but at the same time there was no question regarding the universal meaning.
Sanchez: People knew Toni Morrison was writing.
They didn't know what to do with what she was writing about.
"Is this relevant?"
She's writing about black people, maybe it's not relevant.
Then people began to buy Toni Morrison.
And people began to talk about her overseas, mind you.
And then we began to teach her in the university, also, too.
And as a consequence they had to pay attention.
Carrasco: I was coming up on the train from Princeton to New York.
And I had "Sula" with me.
I went up to the cafe car and there was a line.
And I happened to be behind an elderly African American woman.
I don't know what led me to do this, but I decided I was gonna sort of flash my "Sula" at her, just to see if we could start a conversation.
I mean I didn't hold it up but I just kind of made it available.
And she looked over at me, I'll never forget this.
She looked over at me, she looked back at her bag, she looked at me again, and she opened her bag and pulled out "Song of Solomon."
She trumped me with "Song of Solomon."
And I said, "You're reading Toni too?"
And she said, "Oh yes."
she said, "You know, this is very difficult to read," she said, "but for some reason I just can't put it down."
Morrison: I've never written with a man as a main character or two main characters, but my father died.
And I had a very strong negative reaction to the world after he died.
And I wouldn't even go back home for three years, because he wasn't there.
♪♪ And I remember sitting down, saying, "I wonder what my father knew about these men."
But I felt comfortable writing about them, knowing about them, because my father was letting me know.
He was letting me know.
I didn't get any signs.
There were no little ghosts that usually accompany me.
But I knew that he would tell me if I just started.
I have an inside voice now.
Als: Her canvas was getting bigger.
In "The Bluest Eye," she had beautifully restricted the world to the universe of young girls.
In "Sula" she had restricted the world to the very complex landscape of women.
And in "Song of Solomon," she had included both sexes, and the world was just getting larger because of the metaphor of flying.
Man: ♪ I've got wings, you've got wings ♪ ♪ All of God's chillun got wings ♪ ♪ When I get to heab'n I'm goin' to hitch on my wings ♪ ♪ I'm goin' to fly all ovah... ♪ Morrison: I'd always heard that there were Africans who had been enslaved, but some of them were able to fly.
And they lifted up off the ground and flew home.
Man: ♪ God's heab'n ♪ Carrasco: The African, the Flying African story is something that is widespread in African traditions but it's all over the world.
And the idea here is that human beings need to find spiritual allies.
So people have developed these dreams and these stories that you can transcend the suffering of your community in flight.
And so what happens in the novel, Milkman discovers that his ancestor flew, got right up out of here and flew.
Morrison: "Twilight had thickened and all around them it was getting dark.
He knew there wouldn't be another mistake.
But the minute he stood up, Guitar would try to blow his head off.
He stood up.
'Tar, tar, tar,' said the hills.
'Over here, brother man.
Can you see me?'
Milkman cupped his mouth with one hand and waved the other over his head.
'Here I am!'
'Am, am, am,' said the rocks.
'You want me?
You want my life?'
'Life, life, life'."
Yeah, the ending was difficult I think for some readers because it wasn't explicit.
These are men who were were very close, and got on opposite side -- politically and otherwise -- and became enemies.
One chases the other, tracks him.
One of them, who has got a gun, puts the gun down.
"He put the rifle on the ground and stood up.
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes.
He could just make out Guitar's head and shoulders in the dark.
'You want my life?'
Milkman was not shouting now.
'You need it?
Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees -- he leaped.
As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar, and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother.
For now he knew, what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."
The friend leaps toward him, and that is the flight, in the arms of his brother.
So instead of blood spilling, blood is joined -- through the art of flying.
And I thought the writing was extraordinary and different and radical and beautiful.
That's what I thought.
I did not think that there would be a lot of people who would share that view.
So I was never, ever convinced that I would have a wide readership.
And when that changed, and it changed with "Song of Solomon" -- that was a commercial success -- I was delighted.
And that's when I called myself a writer -- used the label.
And what had preceded it was just that I was an ill-advised woman who could not say, like the big guys, "I am a writer."
I always said, "I'm a teacher who writes," or "an editor who writes."
But I never said the real thing until after I'd written a third book.
It's the sort of thing that women frequently do.
They sort of need permission to tell themselves that this is the work they do.
Gottlieb: One day we were talking and I said, "You know, Toni, it's time you quit your job.
You've got to acknowledge to yourself and say to our world, "I am a writer.
I don't have the time or psychic energy to do both any longer."
♪♪ Morrison: I began to write full-time as a writer in this place.
I went out to the pier, which is just outside.
And I was sitting out there, feeling a very strange feeling.
I didn't know what it was.
It was sort of giddy.
And then I realized that I was really happy, and free.
And I had never felt that before, ever, that level of intense happiness and freedom.
♪♪ ♪♪ The big thing about my books, as far as the reviewers were concerned, was that it was Black.
So they talked about that.
Cavett: I know you're sick to death of being labelled, I would think, a black writer?
Morrison: I like it.
I prefer it.
-Cavett: You don't mind it?
-Morrison: Oh, not at all.
Cavett: Oh, I'd thought you probably were tired of it.
Morrison: Well, I'm tired of people asking the question.
Oh, yes, of course.
That's what I meant, of course.
Morrison: You know, it's like being called a French writer, you know, how can you get tired?
Cavett: Or a black woman writer, it's a double label.
Morrison: I'm all of those things.
Cavett: Like, "Oh," and we know what to expect from her.
Morrison: Well, sometimes it is pejorative, and people say, "This is a good book for a black writer, or, "for," you know.
Then, of course, you know, you hear the -- Cavett: "Isn't he cute for his age?"
Mosley: You don't want to be a character in a Toni Morrison novel, because she's writing scorched earth.
The people take on all the suffering, which has created us, which has made us so beautiful.
But in order to become that beautiful you had to go through fire, and acid, and people raping you and stabbing you and siccing their dogs on you, and your mother destroying you.
Who would want to live that life?
The life I want to live is like a nice, boring novel, you know, live at, you know, the bank of the river and I'd do a little fishing, and then a beautiful mermaid comes out and, you know, talks to me.
That's my novel, if I've got to live it.
You know, Toni Morrison, I'll read it, but I'm not living it.
[ Water lapping, insects chirping ] Morrison: I saw a woman fully-dressed, come out of the river in front of my house, and she sat down.
She had on a hat.
And I was at my desk writing, looking at her.
And she didn't look back.
And then she disappeared.
And that I knew that that was the solution to a book I was writing about a dead girl, called "Beloved."
[ Woman humming ] ♪♪ ♪♪ The story of slavery, normally is the story of black men being enslaved, escaping and becoming free, or dying and not becoming free.
That is the classic black slave story.
And one thing that was not part of the slave story was a woman.
♪♪ ♪♪ I don't mean that there were no narratives that slave women told and there was no information about it.
I mean, it wasn't the narrative in literature.
My effort in, say, "Beloved," to do that, to talk about a woman who had to make some choices -- about slavery, about motherhood, about love, about parenting -- that had nothing to do with being a victim.
A real woman, a historical figure, as a matter of fact, who was anything but a victim.
This is a woman who said, "These children are mine.
I can do with them what I want."
♪♪ Davis: When Toni Morrison published "Beloved," it was an extraordinary turning point in the history of this country -- and, I would say, the history of the world -- because she urged us to imagine people who were slaves as human beings, individuals with subjectivity who also loved, who also had imaginations, even as they were subjected to the most horrendous modes of repression.
We can never think about slavery in the same way.
Banks: Toni uses history and she has a profound understanding of American history.
That's a tool for her.
She's first and foremost a narrative artist, and uses biography, newspaper clippings, she uses whatever comes her way.
It is her material that she then uses in order to transform into literary art.
♪♪ Gottlieb: "Beloved" was a big event.
It sort of crystallized the past for African Americans -- the worst of the past and also the strength of the past.
Their heroism -- their inner heroism, and their abilities to survive and prevail.
It's just amazing and moving.
Yes, it does focus on a horrible part of American history, but I don't think of it as a work of history.
I think of it as a work through which, if we choose, we can look at our history.
♪♪ Griffin: She took this experience of a people who had been degraded, and she showed that this was the experience of a world historic people, just like the Hebrews of the Old Testament, just like the Greeks, that there was the same kind of drama and love and passion and hatred there.
Danielpour: One of the things I learned from Toni, one of the things that truly changed me, she sensitized me to seeing the story beneath the story.
This is the way America has existed, since its inception.
There is the official story, there's the press release, and then there's the truth.
[ Water lapping, birdsong ] Margaret Garner was an African-American woman born into slavery on a plantation in northern Kentucky.
In the 1850s she crossed the frozen Ohio River hoping to find some sanctuary through the underground railroad system.
The plantation owner found her after a couple of weeks and rather than return compliantly, she slit the throat of her oldest child and on the boat ride back, tried to drown herself and her youngest.
And the child drowned and she survived.
The arguments at her hearing had to do with whether she should be charged with murder or charged with destruction of property.
Because, if she was charged with murder, the nation would have to acknowledge that she and her children were human beings.
Banks: The story behind "Beloved" is a small little newspaper article that showed up during the early abolitionist years of Margaret Garner.
She just stumbled onto that in the '70s and kind of kept it in the back of her head.
She has said, "I didn't research it beyond that article because I didn't want to write a book about Margaret Garner.
I wanted to use that incident as a way to enter into the world of a woman who did something like Margaret Garner did."
Carrasco: Toni takes that and writes it for us so that we're all in that shed in the horrible choice that she makes.
And it's about this choice that the mother makes.
♪♪ All four started toward the shed.
Inside, two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other.
Right off it was clear, to Schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to claim.
The three -- now four, because she'd had the one coming when she cut -- pickaninnies they had hoped were alive and well enough to take back to Kentucky, take back and raise properly to do the work Sweet Home desperately needed, were not.
Two were lying open-eyed in the sawdust, a third pumped blood down the dress of the main one -- the woman Schoolteacher bragged about, the one he said made fine ink, damn good soup, pressed his collars the way he liked, besides having at least 10 breeding years left.
But now, she'd gone wild.
Morrison: The question in the newspaper article, a reproduction of which was in "The Black Book" that I had published -- it was this big question about what to do with her.
The only person who really should answer the question and would really know, would be the dead daughter.
And she had already appeared, fully dressed... [ Laughs ] ...with a nice hat, out of the water.
So, she behaved the way a child would behave if its mother had cut its throat.
You loved your mother.
You loved her, but at the same time, you wanted to punish her.
♪♪ Banks: This is the gift of a novel.
No other art form allows us to enter and thereby dignify the inner life of another human being so thoroughly, allows us to experience the inner life of another human being, the secret inner life.
What it is that that person feels.
Not their opinions.
Not their social conditions.
But what did it feel like to be that person?
"Beloved," for instance, lets us feel what it is like to be Sethe, the mother.
It allows us to provide that life and lives like hers with respect, with dignity.
Gottlieb: I just reread it for the first time since we published it.
And I thought, you know, I'd like to reread "Beloved."
I rarely reread books I've edited because I'm always afraid I won't love them as much.
And I was just struck by it all over again, moved and horrified.
And as I said to Toni, "It's not just the content's so moving and strange and complicated, but also it's so brilliantly put together.
Your strategies and your tactics are just so wonderful."
I wish I could take credit, but I have no credit, whatsoever.
It's just an amazingly constructed, as well as, amazingly written book.
♪♪ She has a structural mind.
♪♪ You never knew how she was going to do it.
How she was going to get from here to there.
And then suddenly you were there, and it was right, however mysterious.
♪♪ Winfrey: One day I just decided to give myself the day.
I gave myself a Saturday, and I think I read from, like, 7:00 to 4:30 in the afternoon.
Toni Morrison is a rock star to me.
All authors are.
But I love the idea of just being able to talk to authors.
I tried to get Toni Morrison's number.
She had a private number.
I was desperate to speak to her.
So, I called the fire department in her town.
"This is Oprah Winfrey calling and it's an emergency.
and I need to reach Ms. Morrison.
Can you please call her and tell her," and they're like, "What?
Is this real?"
Anyway, I got the number.
Morrison: She said, "Toni Morrison, this is Oprah Winfrey."
And I said, "How did you get my number?"
And she said, "I called the police and the fire department."
My second question, which I didn't put, was, "How did they get it?"
"Ms. Morrison, I just finished reading 'Beloved'!
I just finished reading 'Beloved' and I had to talk to you!"
And I said, "Do people say to you that they have to start and stop and start and stop when they're reading, because I had to keep going over things, because just trying to take it all in?"
And she said, "That, my dear, is called reading."
And I said to her, I really wanted to do a movie, and she said she didn't think that that would be possible, but that she would think about it.
Morrison: I turned and talked to my kids and said, "That was Oprah Winfrey.
She wants to do 'Beloved'."
And I said, "Gee, I don't know if it should be a film."
And my older son said, "Ma, you'll always have the book.
It's not destroying the book, it's just another version."
Winfrey: I put my babies where they'd be safe.
Glover: Didn't work, though, did it?
Winfrey: They ain't at Sweet Home.
Schoolteacher ain't got 'em.
Winfrey: My hope was that people would feel that story and see the beauty of our African-American history, including slavery.
But understanding that in spite of all that you've been through, and in spite of the worst thing you could ever do -- slitting your own child's throat rather than see your child grow up in slavery -- that in spite of all of that, you could still grow from that pain and learn to love again.
[ Water lapping ] ♪♪ Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve.
She has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.
Man: Forty-eight black writers and critics wrote a letter supporting her work that was published in The New York Times.
Jordan: We wanted, really, to make clear to Toni our gratitude and we wanted to do that specifically in relationship to "Beloved," but also an acknowledgement of the meaning of the life work of Toni Morrison.
Giddings: Everyone recognized the brilliance of Morrison.
It wasn't just because she was brilliant on a page, but she meant so much to us.
And for her to be ignored was just the proverbial straw.
Sanchez: My grandmother used to say to me sometimes, "Come over here, girl, let me shake some sense into you."
What we were doing as writers was, we were shaking some sense into this American literary establishment, saying, "Come on, come off it."
Baker: What our goal was, was to sing a praise song for Toni Morrison, who has moved the entire group, Afro American culture, Afro American expressive culture, forward by quantum leaps.
So our goal was to say, "We love you, Toni, and you're doing extraordinary work for us."
Davis: It was a scandal!
We were all incredulous that she had not been given that honor.
Her community in this country represented that there was something really racist and misogynist about the ways in which these literary prizes were functioning.
Banks: It was an eruption.
What we were seeing then really was that kind of collision between the canon, up to that point, and the emerging canon, that Toni was exemplifying.
Giddings: Jimmy Baldwin had just died.
And for all of his brilliance, he really had never gotten the attention he deserved, or the prizes he deserved.
Sanchez: And then we he began to talk about what it means to get an award.
And so I said, very dramatically, "Jimmy, we teach you, and you would live forever."
And he looked at me like I was completely insane.
He's said, "Sonia, I'm not talking about you teaching!
That's good -- I'm talking about an award.
I deserve an award."
Toni deserved an award.
Mosley: I had had a conversation with Gwendolyn Brooks around that time.
June Jordan, one of the great thinkers and a very good friend of Toni's, came to Gwendolyn and said, "We have this letter and we need you to sign it."
And Gwendolyn said, "Why, am I going to go out there and beg them people for their awards?
I don't need their awards."
I can't tell you how much I agreed with that.
Did she deserve the National Book Award?
Absolutely; they didn't give it, okay, fine.
I'll complain if I don't have my money.
I'll complain if she don't get her money.
But I'm not going to complain that their aesthetics don't understand black people.
Man: What is your response?
Because now you're sort of caught up in the middle of all of this.
Morrison: It's easily the most significant thing that has ever happened to me, in my writing life.
I write out the culture, as everyone does, for it, through it, and I'm in it.
So a portion of that culture said to me, "Amen."
♪♪ Banks: I can remember in a prize-giving committee, we got into a very strenuous argument about "Beloved," and I was arguing with this writer -- there were two of them, both women, one black, and one white; the black woman said, "Are you trying to tell me that African Americans have a different historical experience and social experience than any other American immigrant?"
And I said, "Yes, I am, yes, I definitely am trying to do that."
That it's a very specific experience and it is different than the experience of Irish, of which I count my ancestors, and Italians and Jews.
But that argument still lasts today.
Newsreader: We in America are immigrants, or the children of immigrants.
We are one people, but a people welded from many nations and races.
People who came to America during a vast migration from Europe to other parts of the world.
In this migration, millions of Europeans left their homelands to settle in new countries across the seas.
Almost two-thirds of them came to the United States.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Morrison: Blacks were steady.
Everybody could look down on them.
Immigrant Italians, immigrant Polish, there was always a bottom that you could be hostile to.
And that was useful in bringing the country together, into the melting pot where I lived as a child, not knowing what I know now is how it got to be there.
What was the basis, the cauldron, the pot?
Well, black people were the pot.
And everything else was, you know, melted together, and what?
That's how you get to be an American.
If you get in that pot of black people.
Then you can be nice to Jews, Italians, Catholics, whatever.
That's my take.
♪♪ Rose: Do you, Toni Morrison, Pulitzer prize winner, successful, honored in the halls of academe, still have that encounter?
Morrison: Yes, I do, but let me tell you, that's the wrong question.
Rose: Okay, what's the right question?
Morrison: How do you feel?
Don't you understand that the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft?
There is something distorted about the psyche.
It's a huge waste, and it's a corruption and a distortion.
It's like it's a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is.
It feels crazy.
It is crazy.
It has just as much of a deleterious effect on white people as it does black people.
If the racist white person doesn't understand that he or she is also a race, it's also constructed, it's also made and it also has some kind of serviceability, but when you take it away I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out, and all you got is your little self.
And what is that?
What are you without racism?
Are you any good?
Are you still strong?
Are you still smart?
♪♪ If you can only be tall because somebody's on their knees, then you have a serious problem.
And my feeling is, white people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it.
Take me out of it.
♪♪ [ Speaking Swedish ] Man: Toni Morrison... Man: Oh!
Lebowitz: When Toni won the Nobel Prize, I was in my apartment in New York -- I remember this very vividly -- I was in the shower, but I had the radio on in the kitchen, on the news station.
I hear, in the shower, I think, that Toni Morrison has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
This is a news station that tells you the same news every 22 minutes.
I was so shocked, I thought I was mishearing.
I got out of the shower and stood there soaking wet for 22 minutes until the news came back on.
And I just couldn't believe it.
Sanchez: I woke up about 3:00 in the morning, and I turned on the idiot box and they announced that Toni Morrison had received the Nobel Prize in lit.
So I got on the telephone.
Her son answered the phone.
"Is Toni there, is your mom there?"
I said, "She's just won the Nobel Prize."
He said, "Really?"
He said, "She's in Princeton."
So I called back and Toni picked up the phone.
Morrison: I got the news from a friend of mine who called me up early in the morning and said, "Toni, you won the Nobel Prize."
And I remember holding the phone thinking, "She must be drunk," and I hung up.
She called me right back.
And I said, "How do you know?"
Why would she know something I don't know?
And I went to work.
[ Reporters speaking indistinctly ] Then suddenly, there were all these cameras and things and people.
And I sort of smiled just in case.
I wasn't sure, because the Nobel people hadn't said a word.
I'm in my office.
I get a phone call from Sweden.
and they tell me that I have won the Nobel Prize and congratulate me, et cetera.
And I said, "Would you fax me that?"
[ Laughs ] It could've been a prank.
I mean, you know -- They said, "Of course," and they did.
♪♪ Male reporter: What are you gonna do with the money?
Morrison: I mean, this is an entirely brand-new experience for me, deciding what to do with money.
[ Both laugh ] So I'm not good at it.
I've had no practice.
So I'm going to think about that very carefully and try to come up with something marvelous to do, other than the obvious, which is pay off the mortgage or something.
Male reporter: What do you think it is, though, if you can tell us, that sets you apart from so many others?
What are you saying that they want to hear?
Morrison: I think I write well, and I think I have a distinctive voice.
That's what makes writing this very difficult, very risky, very powerful enterprise.
♪♪ Lebowitz: I called a florist in Princeton to send her flowers.
And the woman, the florist, said to me, "What's going on over there?
We've been delivering flowers there all day."
So I said, very proudly, "She won the Nobel Prize."
And the florist -- This would only happen in Princeton, maybe Cambridge -- said, "For what?"
And I said, "Literature."
And she went, "Oh."
Morrison: And I'm delighted to represent Ohio, and to represent New York State, because I lived there, and New Jersey because I work and live here, and to represent America as an American winner of a fiction prize, native-born, and also because I'm an African-American, and I'm a women.
So I'm sort of parceling out this all over the place.
♪♪ I like the Nobel Prize, because they know how to give a party, I am telling you.
It was so grand.
They wake you up with wreaths, flowers, music.
But it was light, you know?
It wasn't like... [Deep voice] "The Nobel Prize."
[ Normal voice ] It was light and lovely and warm.
Lebowitz: Toni loves this kind of thing.
I mean, not that there's a lot of kinds of things like the Nobel Prize.
But Toni loves things like this.
Toni loves prizes.
She loves presents.
I have a birthday party?
Toni, birthday party?
You better bring a present.
♪♪ She decided, "I'm bringing a lot of friends," and she invited me.
It was extremely fun.
I would highly recommend that you have a friend who wins a Nobel Prize.
Morrison: I invited John Leonard 'cause he had been the first person who took my work seriously.
So I invited him to come to Stockholm.
He said, "Oh, I don't know if I can do that.
My --" [ Sighs ] And I said, "You're never going to be invited to this ever again."
So he said, "You're right," and he came.
[ Laughs ] We had a lot of fun.
Lebowitz: Before the ball, we spent -- like a bunch of girls, I would say -- spent a couple hours in a room choosing gloves for her and shoes.
You know, she loves clothes, Toni.
That's the other thing.
[ Regal orchestral music playing ] ♪♪ Griffin: When Toni won the Nobel Prize, it was not just an important moment for African-American literature.
I think it was an important moment for the Prize.
How many women had won?
Two, three women had won?
It was a moment for American literature.
It was a moment for contemporary literature.
I mean, it was a moment for so many corners of the world that didn't always fully embrace it.
Banks: Don't forget, when I began writing in the early '60s -- Toni began writing, too -- Faulkner was still alive.
Hemingway was still alive.
Fitzgerald had only recently died.
It was a club, where three or four white men could stand together and fight it out.
Sanchez: The Washington Post called me and asked me for a comment, and I did this glorious comment.
But when the newspaper article came out, there was no comment on what I had said and the praise I had.
But they were comments from three male writers who said, "Oh, she does all that writing about women.
Oh, she does all this stuff about slavery."
They were saying she didn't deserve the Nobel Prize.
I was so surprised.
♪♪ Man: 'Beloved' was a fraud.
It gave a fake vision of the slave trade.
All the guys are pissed.
And the ladies like it.
♪♪ Whites are portrayed badly.
Black men are.
I hope this prize inspires her to write better books.
The award was a triumph of political correctness.
♪♪ Griffin: Unfortunately, when women or when black people receive the accolades that they certainly deserve, it becomes questioned.
Was it a political choice?
Did they just choose her to do the politically correct thing?
And I always think those people haven't read her.
They haven't read her, because if they read her, there would be no question that if there's a Nobel Prize to be given, she ought to have it.
Carrasco: It was the absolute justification, the legitimation, the sense that this writer, who had been ignored for a long time, who had been diminished by some people, that on the world stage, on the world stage, she was a star.
[ Applause ] ♪♪ Morrison: When I was writing "Song of Solomon," there was a character in there called Pilate.
She threatened me, a lot.
♪♪ Threatened the book.
She's going to take over.
I mean, really.
So I told her to shut up.
"This is my book, not yours."
She only really speaks, at the funeral of her daughter.
And she burst into that church and says over and over again, "And she was loved."
Totally generous, free woman.
She's not afraid of anything and complete clarity about who she is.
Moyers: And you know people like that?
In my family.
Women who presented themselves to me in that way.
They were just absolutely clear.
And they had a sort of intimate relationship with God and death and all sorts of things that strike fear into the modern heart.
They had a language for it, and they had a -- I don't know -- a blessedness, maybe.
But they seemed not to be fearful.
It's to those women, you know, that I really feel an enormous responsibility.
I think about my great-grandmother and her daughter and her daughter and all those women who had -- I mean, incredible things happened to those people.
They never knew from one day to the next, about anything.
But they believed in their dignity, that they were people of value, that they had to pass that on.
And they did it.
♪♪ Winfrey: One of the characters says at the end of "Song of Solomon," "And she was loved.
And she was loved."
That is the anthem for any life.
You can come to the planet and do whatever you do, accomplish whatever you accomplish, awards, no awards, degrees, no degrees, successes, no successes.
I think she captured the essence of what it means to be human, to be alive, and to have done well here on Earth.
♪♪ And we can say the same thing for her.
And she is loved.
♪♪ Sanchez: One of the things that you know about Sister Toni, when I first saw her, you know, you know, you know, you know, I saw, you know, you know, this white light around her, you know?
And, you know, there are some people you know who are really the blessed ones, that they are put here to make us really review ourselves so we can walk upright, finally, as human beings, finally as human beings.
♪♪ Morrison: On shore, holding everything together, but willing to risk and go far out to sea.
This is what black people mean to me and still mean to each other.
But for me, the history of the place of black people in this country is so varied, complex, and beautiful and impactful.
Made a big impact.
Nobody could have loved as much as we did, went on with life as much as we did, carried on.
And considering the efforts to make sure we never did, considering that, it's amazing.
♪♪ I was in a place once, in Vienna.
They had an art festival there.
And I was asked to go into this room and move in front of a mirror, in a room that was totally dark.
And I was instructed to lift my hand and put it on the mirror and just stand there.
And then I saw, off in the distance, a figure that came closer and closer and closer.
And she put up her hand.
And our hands touched.
Neither one of us said a word, just interest, curiosity, and human connection.
That experience says more and much about what I think I'm doing when I write.
I know I'm not you.
I know I don't know you.
But I know this.
♪♪ [ Fingers snapping rhythmically ] -♪ When the crimson moon low-rides the night ♪ ♪ There's a shine on the water ♪ ♪ Where secrets burn bright ♪ ♪ Walk to the edge and dance with me ♪ ♪ Walk to the edge ♪ ♪ And set yourself free ♪ ♪ Above the water ♪ ♪♪ ♪ High above the water ♪ ♪♪ ♪ Dancing in the crossroads, climbing up that heap ♪ ♪ Fallen angel sentencing is trying to make a deal ♪ ♪ Mm ♪ ♪ You got to go ♪ ♪ You got to go above the water ♪ ♪♪ ♪ High above the water ♪ ♪ High above ♪