• U.S.

TONI MORRISON: The Pain Of Being Black

13 minute read
Bonnie Angelo and Toni Morrison

Q. In your contemporary novels you portray harsh confrontation between black and white. In Tar Baby a character says, “White folks and black folks should not sit down and eat together or do any of those personal things in life.” It seems hopeless if we can’t bridge the abysses you see between sexes, classes, races.

A. I feel personally sorrowful about black-white relations a lot of the time because black people have always been used as a buffer in this country between powers to prevent class war, to prevent other kinds of real conflagrations.

If there were no black people here in this country, it would have been Balkanized. The immigrants would have torn each other’s throats out, as they have done everywhere else. But in becoming an American, from Europe, what one has in common with that other immigrant is contempt for me — it’s nothing else but color. Wherever they were from, they would stand together. They could all say, “I am not that.” So in that sense, becoming an American is based on an attitude: an exclusion of me.

It wasn’t negative to them — it was unifying. When they got off the boat, the second word they learned was “nigger.” Ask them — I grew up with them. I remember in the fifth grade a smart little boy who had just arrived and didn’t speak any English. He sat next to me. I read well, and I taught him to read just by doing it. I remember the moment he found out that I was black — a nigger. It took him six months; he was told. And that’s the moment when he belonged, that was his entrance. Every immigrant knew he would not come as the very bottom. He had to come above at least one group — and that was us.

Q. When you think about what the Jews did as leaders in the civil rights movement, in the forefront of trying to break the barriers, how do you account for the abrasiveness between blacks and Jews now?

A. For a long time I was convinced that the conflict between Jewish people and black people in this country was a media event. But everywhere I went in the world where there were black people, somebody said, What about the blacks and Asians? What do you think about the blacks and the Mexicans? Or, in New York at one time, blacks and Puerto Ricans? The only common denominator is blacks.

I thought, Something is disguised, what is it? What I find is a lot of black people who believe that Jews in this country, by and large, have become white. They behave like white people rather than Jewish people.

Q. Hasn’t the rift been brought about partly by the anti-Semitic rhetoric of black Muslims like Louis Farrakhan?

A. Farrakhan is one person, one black person. Why is it that no black person seems to be rabid about Meir Kahane? Farrakhan is rejected by a lot of black people who wouldn’t go near that man. It’s not an equal standard — one black person is all black people.

Q. But sometimes whites feel that all white people are being similarly equated, when in fact attitudes among whites range from the Ku Klux Klan right over to the saints.

A. Black people have always known that. We’ve had to distinguish among you because our lives depended on it. I’m always annoyed about why black people have to bear the brunt of everybody else’s contempt. If we are not totally understanding and smiling, suddenly we’re demons.

Q. You’ve said that you didn’t like the idea of writing about slavery. Yet Beloved, your most celebrated book, is set in slavery and its aftermath.

A. I had this terrible reluctance about dwelling on that era. Then I realized I didn’t know anything about it, really. And I was overwhelmed by how long it was. Suddenly the time — 300 years — began to drown me.

Three hundred years — think about that. Now, that’s not a war, that’s generation after generation. And they were expendable. True, they had the status of good horses, and nobody wanted to kill their stock. And, of course, they had the advantage of reproducing without cost.

Q. Beloved is dedicated to the 60 million who died as a result of slavery. A staggering number — is this proved historically?

A. Some historians told me 200 million died. The smallest number I got from anybody was 60 million. There were travel accounts of people who were in the Congo — that’s a wide river — saying, “We could not get the boat through the river, it was choked with bodies.” That’s like a logjam. A lot of people died. Half of them died in those ships.

Slave trade was like cocaine is now — even though it was against the law, that didn’t stop anybody. Imagine getting $1,000 for a human being. That’s a lot of money. There are fortunes in this country that were made that way.

I thought this has got to be the least read of all the books I’d written because it is about something that the characters don’t want to remember, I don’t want to remember, black people don’t want to remember, white people don’t want to remember. I mean, it’s national amnesia.

Q. You gave new insight into the daily struggle of slaves.

A. I was trying to make it a personal experience. The book was not about the institution — Slavery with a capital S. It was about these anonymous people called slaves. What they do to keep on, how they make a life, what they’re willing to risk, however long it lasts, in order to relate to one another — that was incredible to me.

For me, the torturous restraining devices became a hook on which to say what it was like in personal terms. I knew about them because slaves who wrote about their lives mentioned them, and white people wrote about them. There’s a wonderful diary of the Burr family in which he talks about his daily life and says, “Put the bit on Jenny today.” He says that about 19 times in six months — and he was presumably an enlightened slave owner. Slave-ship captains also wrote a lot of memoirs, so it’s heavily documented.

There was a description of a woman who had to wear a bell contraption so when she moved they always knew where she was. There were masks slaves wore when they cut cane. They had holes in them, but it was so hot inside that when they took them off, the skin would come off. Presumably, these things were to keep them from eating the sugar cane. What is interesting is that these things were not restraining tools, like in the torture chamber. They were things you wore while you were doing the work. Amazing. It seemed to me that the humiliation was the key to what the experience was like.

There was this ad hoc nature of everyday life. For black people, anybody ! might do anything at any moment. Two miles in any direction, you may run into Quakers who feed you or Klansmen who kill you — you don’t know. When you leave the plantation, you are leaving not only what you know, you are leaving your family.

Q. Have you any specific proposals for improving the present-day racial climate in America?

A. It is a question of education, because racism is a scholarly pursuit. It’s all over the world, I am convinced. But that’s not the way people were born to live. I’m talking about racism that is taught, institutionalized. Everybody remembers the first time they were taught that part of the human race was Other. That’s a trauma. It’s as though I told you that your left hand is not part of your body.

How to breach those things? There is a very, very serious problem of education and leadership. But we don’t have the structure for the education we need. Nobody has done it. Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.

I saw on television some black children screaming and crying about the violence in their school. But what do we do about that?

Q. But there is violence in schools that are all black, black against black.

A. Black people are victims of an enormous amount of violence. I don’t have any answers other than what to do about violence generally. None of those things can take place, you know, without the complicity of the people who run the schools and the city.

Q. That’s a strong condemnation. Complicity suggests that these conditions are seen as O.K.

A. Human beings can change things. Schools must stop being holding pens to keep energetic young people off the job market and off the streets. They are real threats because they may know more, they may have more energy, and they may take your job. So we stretch puberty out a long, long time.

There is nothing of any consequence in education, in the economy, in city planning, in social policy that does not concern black people. That’s where the problem is. Are you going to build a city to accommodate more black people? Why? They don’t pay taxes. Are you going to build a school system to accommodate the children of poor black people? Why? They’ll want your job. They don’t pay taxes.

Q. Many people are deeply concerned that these young black students are dropping out.

A. They don’t care about these kids. I don’t mean that there are not people ; who care. But when this wonderful “they” we always blame for anything say we’ve got to fix the schools, or we have got to legalize drugs, what they care about is their personal well-being: Am I going to get mugged? Are the homeless going to be in my neighborhood?

Q. You don’t think there is great concern out there that American society has things seriously wrong with it? Not just because “I can’t walk down the street”?

A. Yes, but I do not see vigorous attack on the wrongness. I see what I call comic-book solutions to really major problems. Of course, a new President can make a difference — he can reassemble the legislation of the past 20 years that has been taken apart and put it back. They said it didn’t work. It’s like building a bridge a quarter of the way across the river and saying, “You can’t get there from here.” Twenty years! It never had a generation to complete the work. Somebody has to take responsibility for being a leader.

Q. In one of your books you described young black men who say, “We have found the whole business of being black and men at the same time too difficult.” You said that they then turned their interest to flashy clothing and to being hip and abandoned the responsibility of trying to be black and male.

A. I said they took their testicles and put them on their chest. I don’t know what their responsibility is anymore. They’re not given the opportunity to choose what their responsibilities are. There’s 60% unemployment for black teenagers in this city. What kind of choice is that?

Q. This leads to the problem of the depressingly large number of single-parent households and the crisis in unwed teenage pregnancies. Do you see a way out of that set of worsening circumstances and statistics?

A. Well, neither of those things seems to me a debility. I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man.

Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community — everybody — to raise a child. The notion that the head is the one who brings in the most money is a patriarchal notion, that a woman — and I have raised two children, alone — is somehow lesser than a male head. Or that I am incomplete without the male. This is not true. And the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it, I don’t know. It isolates people into little units — people need a larger unit.

Q. And teenage pregnancies?

A. Everybody’s grandmother was a teenager when they got pregnant. Whether they were 15 or 16, they ran a house, a farm, they went to work, they raised their children.

Q. But everybody’s grandmother didn’t have the potential for living a different kind of life. These teenagers — 16, 15 — haven’t had time to find out if they have special abilities, talents. They’re babies having babies.

A. The child’s not going to hurt them. Of course, it is absolutely time consuming. But who cares about the schedule? What is this business that you have to finish school at 18? They’re not babies. We have decided that puberty extends to what — 30? When do people stop being kids? The body is ready to have babies, that’s why they are in a passion to do it. Nature wants it done then, when the body can handle it, not after 40, when the income can handle it.

Q. You don’t feel that these girls will never know whether they could have been teachers, or whatever?

A. They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, “Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me — I will take care of your baby.” That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it.

I don’t think anybody cares about unwed mothers unless they’re black — or poor. The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about. We don’t care whether they have babies or not.

Q. How do you break the cycle of poverty? You can’t just hand out money.

A. Why not? Everybody gets everything handed to them. The rich get it handed — they inherit it. I don’t mean just inheritance of money. I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s shared bounty of class.

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