Of all the mantles that have been foisted on Toni Morrison's shoulders, the heaviest has to be “the conscience of America”. It's both absurd-sounding and true. For almost half a century her subject has been racial prejudice in the United States, a story that she has told and retold with a steadiness of rage and compassion. Her latest novel, God Help the Child, is her 11th. [...]
Morrison turned 84 in February. Her many literary laurels include a Pulitzer in 1988 for Beloved, a Nobel in 1993, and, in 2012, the presidential medal of freedom, from her friend Barack Obama. [...]
Bride's blackness is both the source of her childhood misery – her lighter-skinned mother is so horrified by it that she considers killing her baby – and of her adult success. She works in the fashion and beauty industry where, heeding one stylist's dictum to dress only in white, she makes herself, “a panther in snow”, an exoticised “other”. The novel intimates that fetishising blackness, both for the observer and the observed, might be just as insidious as outright prejudice. There's the ex-boyfriend, for example, who seems to claim her as some kind of racial trophy. When this young white man takes her home to his parents it's clear “that I was there to terrorise his family, a means of threat to this nice old white couple. ‘Isn't she beautiful?' he kept repeating ... His eyes were gleaming with malice.”
“I'm trying to say,” Morrison tells me now, “it's just a colour.” [...]
[She] began her publishing career 45 years ago. She has always talked about her first novel with disarming simplicity: it was the book she wanted to read and that did not exist. So, as a single working mother of two small sons, she rose at 4am every day and wrote it. Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who prays for blue eyes. Morrison wrote in a 2007 foreword that she
wanted to focus “on how something as grotesque as the demonisation of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female”.
Most writers claim to abhor labels but Morrison has always welcomed the term “black writer”. “I'm writing for black people,” she says, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don't have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don't [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it” – she refers to the writer James Baldwin talking about “a little white man deep inside of all of us”. Did she exorcise hers? “Well I never really had it. I just never did.”
[...] It was this self-assurance, too, that gave her the courage to split from her husband when she was pregnant with her second child and, that made her such an iconoclastic force as an editor at Random House where she propelled works by black writers such as Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara into the mainstream. Finally, of course, she herself became one of the publishing house's most cherished names.