“When You Hear These Lectures, They're All Me”

This week, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison concluded her Norton Lecture series on race and literature—and made a presidential endorsement.

“These lectures are hard for me,” Toni Morrison, Litt.D. ’89, told her Sanders Theatre audience at her penultimate Norton Lecture. Years ago when she gave the Tanner Lectures at Harvard, she explained, the persistent questions from her literature students had aided the development of her argument: “Now, when you hear these lectures, they’re all me.”

Morrison’s first address, in early March, had interwoven literary analysis and anecdote to explore historical attempts to “romance slavery.” Her second, “Being and Becoming the Stranger” on March 9, proceeded the same way: she started by discussing Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial Nigger” and Harriet Jacobs’s memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, then illustrated with examples from her own life. People “construct the stranger” in order to define themselves, she said, and deny others’ individuality so that they can remain helpfully blank, distant, and primed for projection. “There are no strangers,” she concluded, “only versions of ourselves.”

A day later, she introduced her lecture on “The Color Fetish” with a smile: “This lecture is shorter than the one before—but it says more.” She discussed how Faulkner and Hemingway strategically deploy racial identifiers to create character and plot, before turning to her novel Paradise, and her only published short story, “Recitatif,” which originated as a screenplay commissioned by two actresses. It was also, says Morrison, her “first experiment in erasure”: she refused to identify the characters’ race. People have responded to both works by hunting for some obvious or familiar racial signifier. “Many readers simply search for what I have refused to give them,” she said, adding, “They may wonder if I am engaged in literary whitewashing. But I am not.” Rather, she said, she aimed to “defang cheap racism." 

Continuing the discussion of Paradise in “Configurations of Blackness” on March 22, her fourth talk touched on her research into the history of black towns. “These towns defined themselves as black people,” Morrison said. “What they meant by black was not always clear.” The photographs she’d seen of these communities showed mostly light-skinned, mixed-race people, which suggested to her that they had established their own “theory or ranking of blackness”: “They fled to a free land and established their own hierarchy of color.” While writing about the inhabitants of Ruby, Oklahoma, she sought to “reconfigure” this “purity standard,”and write about race in a way that exposed “how movable and hopelessly meaningless that construct was.” To do so, she had to draw attention not to classes of people, but to specific individuals: “one character at a time, one to one.”

Throughout Morrison’s talks, the words that her audience likely savored most were the ones already familiar to them: those from her novels. Famously (and unusually, among authors), Morrison has recorded all of her audiobooks, starting with Tar Baby in 1983*; as a result, many of her readers are also her listeners, well acquainted with the voice recently described in The New York Times Magazine as “Purring and soft. Dulcet.” Each time Morrison seemed about to turn to her own fiction, the audience’s attention seemed to sharpen; the quiet within the auditorium intensified into a hush. Fittingly, perhaps, her selections happened to be sermons; they also happened to be about love. During her fourth lecture, she read a speech from Paradise given by a visiting reverend before a wedding: “Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God.” And her fifth gave voice to Beloved’s Baby Suggs, who exhorts her congregation: “Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it….No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them!”

“Narrating the Other,” on April 11, began with her years as an editor at Random House, trying to bring more African-American writers into the catalog; a sales rep told her, “It’s impossible to sell books on both sides of the street.” Then she traced the genesis of Beloved (not her first novel, but her best known). Though inspired by an 1856 newspaper clipping about Margaret Garner, who, when apprehended by U.S. marshals in Cincinnati, killed her child rather than allow her to be returned to slavery, she deliberately chose not to investigate the historical facts. Instead, she wanted to fully rely on—“and control”—her own imagination. “Narrative fiction is a controlled wilderness,” Morrison said, and within it, she invented a surviving child, named Denver, and a white runaway who helps to midwife her; she also gave the story a hopeful ending.

The question-and-answer session afterward ran long. Audience members stood in their seats and waved their arms to flag down the attention of moderator Homi K. Bhabha. College seniors and graduate students studying her work asked about particular novels with granular specificity; fans stood up to tell her what she meant to them and share personal stories. One—unsuccessfully—requested an autograph. These long-winded queries were punctuated by shorter ones, which got immediate, decisive replies. Would she endorse a presidential candidate? (“Hillary Clinton.”) What brought her joy? (“Sex. I’m sorry—I meant to say ‘my writing.’”)

In “The Foreigner’s Home” on April 12, she spoke most directly about current events. She began by describing a trend of worldwide mass movement—of workers, armies, and refugees—much of it “the colonized moving to the seat of the colonizer.” Meanwhile, the force of globalization—“hailed with the same vigor as Manifest Destiny or internationalism”—was both a promise and a threat, one that made us feel “our disintegrating sense of belonging.”

She then connected this current turmoil to the narrative about foreignness in The Radiance of the King, by Guinean author Camara Laye. Adapted from her introduction to that work’s 2001 edition, her remarks summarized how the novel’s Western protagonist, Clarence, is thrown out of a colonial hotel, and later hides from his creditors in a local African inn. A gambler scorned by his own countrymen, Clarence is a kind of refugee, Morrison pointed out: “a white man immigrating to Africa alone, without assets, resources, or authority.” He is also an uncommonly arrogant one. Though marginalized and ignored, he believes his whiteness qualifies him “to be adviser to a king he has never seen, in a country he does not know, among people he neither understands nor wishes to.” In time, Clarence is humbled and reeducated, so that when he finally meets the monarch, “the void within him opens to receive the royal gaze.” In turn, the king takes Clarence in his arms, asking, “Did you not know that I was waiting for you?” These are the words, said Morrison, “that welcome him to the human race.”

A standing ovation had greeted Morrison each time she was wheeled to her spot on the stage of Sanders Theatre, and in his introductory remarks that evening, Bhabha predicted that there would “be tears” to accompany the applause. But some weeks earlier, Morrison—85 years old, she reminded everyone, and “writing and thinking better than I ever have in my life”—had told the audience precisely what response she’d appreciate. “You can help out,” she mused, “by sending me names of brands of candy that were popular in 1946, for the novel I’m writing now.”

* This story has been corrected as of August 15, 2016, to reflect that Morrison made the audio recording of 
Tar Baby in 1983, not 1973.

Read more articles by Sophia Nguyen

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