Toni Morrison and Angela Davis on friendship and creativity

Angela Davis
Angela Davis, UC Santa Cruz professor emerita, introduces author Toni Morrison before her lecture at the 2014 Founders Celebration. (Photos by Steve Kurtz)
Toni Morrison
Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prizer winner Toni Morrison speaks at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz on October 25.

UC Santa Cruz Review writer Dan White had separate in-depth conversations this summer with Toni Morrison and Angela Davis about their past collaboration, their longstanding friendship, and their bedrock belief in the power of literature. Davis introduced Morrison while she was in Santa Cruz to deliver the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture at the Rio Theater on October 25. The subject: “Literature and the Silence of Goodness.” Angela Davis was interviewed by phone from Massachusetts, and Toni Morrison from upstate New York.

Dan White: I would guess that even some of your most ardent fans don’t realize that you were an influential editor at Random House for 20 years. At the time, you were bringing out African American voices, including some strong feminist voices, to a wider audience.

Toni Morrison: Well, I was determined to do that when I came there. There was a lot of activity going on, a lot of activism, and I thought, 'I will publish these voices instead of marching.' I thought it was my responsibility to publish African American and African writers who would otherwise not be published or not be published well, or edited well, and so I brought out works by (Muhammad) Ali and Toni Cade (Bambara) and Gayl (Jones), and I did a whole collection of African short stories and then I did The Black Book, and I thought that was important because I was good at it, because I had read some books by black writers about black things, and they were so badly edited, it made you want to weep. Like Roots (by Alex Haley). Have you ever read that?

DW: I was a kid when it came out. I did see most of the mini-series.
TM: Oh, they just threw (the book) together. It was backward anyway, and they threw in the ending. He says ‘that child was me.’ We knew that in the beginning!

To Angela Davis: During her time at Random House, Toni Morrison edited your biography, which was published in 1974. How did that initial connection come about?

AD:  She contacted me. I wasn’t so much interested in writing an autobiography. I was very young. I think I was 26 years old. Who writes an autobiography at that age? Also, I wasn’t that interested in writing a book that was focused on a personal trajectory. Of course, at that time, the paradigm for the autobiography, as far as I was concerned, was the heroic individual, and I certainly did not want to represent myself in that way.  But Toni Morrison  persuaded me that I could write it the way I wanted to; it could be the story not only of my life but of the movement in which I had become involved, and she was successful.

To Angela Davis: Your autobiography is very cinematic. I’ve read a lot of your more academic work, but this one is constructed like a novel. In the very beginning, you’re trying to get away from the FBI, and there is this palpable sense of fear. The reader is right in the middle of a manhunt. I was wondering how much of that comes from the influence of your mentor, Toni Morrison.

AD: The decision to begin the story at the moment when I went underground and then would be arrested was an interesting way of drawing people into a story, the outlines of which they already knew because, of course, my being placed on the FBI 10 most wanted list was publicized all around the country, all around the world. So yes, there was the use of the kind of cinematic strategy of flashback, and this was thanks to input from my editor, Toni Morrison. She did not rewrite things for me, but she asked me questions. She would say, ‘what did the space look like? What was in the room, and how would you describe it?’ It was quite an amazing experience for me to have her as a mentor. My experience with writing was primarily writing about philosophical issues. I really had to learn about how to write something that would produce images in people’s minds that would draw them into a story.

TM:  Working with Angela was sui generis, and I didn’t just edit her book. I went on her book tour with her; I was her handler! All over. This was before I was Toni Morrison (Morrison’s real name is Chloe Wofford. Toni is her nickname, and 'Morrison' is the last name of her ex-husband.) We were in Scandinavia at one point, and I was a good handler.  People would come up to her you, know: ‘My brother is in prison, and I was wondering, could we have a cocktail party (to raise money for him)?’ and the thing was, (Davis) would stop and listen, and say, ‘where is he?’, and I would say, 'Angela, come on!'

DW: You seem to be someone who is good at setting boundaries with other people.

TM: Yes. that’s true. I’ve learned three things.  I tell everybody that I never used these words much but now I am happy to use them pretty much all the time. One is ‘no.’ The other one is ‘shut up.’ And the last one is ‘get out!’ Now that I have that arsenal, I could go forth. (laughs.)

DW: This is a bit of an aside, but it relates to what you just said about creating firm boundaries with people. Once, I saw you reading at Columbia University, and a woman stood up and said, “Toni Morrison, I would love to read you this poem I wrote," and you said, “No.”

TM: I said that? (laughs.)

DW: To AD: When you were working with Toni Morrison, she was bringing new books to life of her own. The Bluest Eye was written while she was still at Random House. Did you ever have a chance to see her in action, working on a book?

AD: Absolutely. I had the opportunity to read The Bluest Eye before most people I know were exposed to it, and I can remember that she would write during every spare moment. This is something that really impressed me about her: her discipline, her focus. One time, I was sitting in her house in Rockland County, (New York), and she had to drive in to (Manhattan) every day to work at Random House. I would see her when we were driving in. When there was traffic, she would pull out a little pad and write something or pull out a scrap of paper here or there, and I realized she was living the life of the next novel in her mind, regardless of whatever else was happening. I have always been impressed by her ability to be so focused and to inhabit the universe of her writing while not neglecting the universe that involves the rest of us.

DW: And she did all this while raising two boys on her own, dealing with the commute, and holding down a high-powered job.

AD:  And she was not a hermit so she also had a very active social life as well. To be able to maintain that focus – this is something she continues to do today. I am impressed by the regularity with which her novels are published. She is always working on a project. She always inhabits that other world.

DW to TM: Angela Davis has gone into detail about your relentless drive, about how often you bring out new books. I wanted to know what continues to spur you on in your career at this point. (Morrison is now 83.) Is there some other form you haven’t tried yet, some goal you feel you haven’t met?

TM:  No, I’ve pretty much run the gamut, but writing novels is the world to me, literally. The outside world can be OK or not OK, beautiful or not beautiful, but I am in control here. When I’m writing, nobody’s telling me what to do. The expectations are high because they are mine, and that is a kind of freedom I don’t have anywhere else. Nowhere. I’m not very happy when I don’t have a project. I don’t have to actually be developing a manuscript but if I don’t have an idea about the beginning of it, wondering about it ...

DW: This one is for Angela Davis. You’ve been friends with Toni Morrison for 40 years now, and you’ve had a chance to see her work develop and her influence grow. I was hoping you could comment on the way Toni Morrison’s work has influenced the literary world, and the world in general.

AD: As a result of her work and the work of some others, it became possible to imagine slavery very differently, to humanize slavery, to remember the system of slavery did not destroy the humanity of those whom it enslaved; oftentimes, the assumption is that slavery was all bad, and of course, if you portray slaves as experiencing joy or making music, you somehow violate the ethics of recognizing slavery as evil, but of course, if slaves were not able to reach down and find some humanity within themselves, they would have ceased to be human beings, literally. That is why the focus on reimagining slave subjectivities is so important. Beloved, of course, allows us to do this, and it renders a very different approach, not only to literature but also to history and to popular narratives about slave histories. A film like Twelve Years a Slave is very important, but at the same time, there was a dimension that was lacking.

DW to TM: Perhaps you could reflect on how slavery was portrayed when you first took it on as a subject.

TM: The way slavery was portrayed was different. It changes when you take away ‘the white gaze.’ All those wonderful writers who wrote after they were freed were writing for abolitionists. They didn’t think I was going to read it, and so they had to please or not disturb white abolitionists with their stories, so you read Frederick Douglass, and I can feel the anger that he erases. That’s not there. If he knew I was reading it, it might be a very different book. Even Ralph Ellison. I tell people he called the book Invisible Man. As good as the book is, my initial response is, 'Invisible to whom?'

DW for Toni Morrison: While you’ve dealt with some truly horrific subject matter in your books, including slavery, you’ve also placed a lot of emphasis on narrativizing good in your work. Why is that so important to you as a value in your work?  

TM: Goodness—there really isn’t anything else that humans ought to be cultivating and living for. The rest of it is petty and selfish, cartoonish almost.  I always think of evil with a top hat and a big band and a cape, a cane,  maybe some shiny jewelry, so you are very, very attracted by the glitter. I thought the most impressive thing that the Nazis did for their cause was their designer, their uniforms, the length of their boots.

DW: That, and the power of the loudspeaker.

TM: Yes. Crowds, loudspeakers, a big drama, and people were seduced: those who were not repelled and those who were not slaughtered.

DW: You’ve mentioned that evil has gotten an enormous promotion in literature while good has been dragged off center stage. You’ve mentioned that goodness often comes across as weak or muffled or silent.

TM:  It wasn’t true in literature in the early days. There was always a hero who prevailed. As awful as things could happen in a Dickens novel, it ended up with the survival and triumph of high morality, of people who deserved to triumph. But something happened. Now, I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think it is after World War I with novelists at any rate, and certainly some of the war poets. Perhaps they understood themselves as attacking evil but they ended up theatricalizing it and the good people were fairly stupid or unlucky or what have you. There are references in literature to the silencing of goodness … I am interested in pulling from the modern canon what I know and what I believe about this adoration and fascination, this compulsion to display evil. Even if there is a mild attempt to say that it is evil, nevertheless, it’s hogging the stage in many novels. I think goodness is weak in literature almost like it is in the culture. This is just a general observation.

DW: In light of this, how do you dramatize good in your own stories?

TM:  For me, there is always an ending in which somebody knows something extremely important that they didn’t know before so the acquisition of knowledge is a gesture of mine toward goodness. The accumulation of events, theories, changes of mind, encounters, whatever is going on at the end of the book, it tends to move toward some kind of epiphany that is a revelation of a better self. Now, there is a lot of sadness and melancholy among the people in my books but strategically, structurally, that is what I think is going on.  I might not be the best example of what I am describing in the lecture (in Santa Cruz) but I don’t want to leave a text with the reader hopeless or even helpless, and certainly somebody in there has to survive in the atmosphere of goodness or love, and Love is the best example of my books of that.

DW: In a lecture at the Harvard Divinity School in 2012, you also delved into different interpretations – different theories – about the reasons for altruism. According to one interpretation you mentioned in the lecture, altruism is not an innate value. It has to be taught, learned. With this in mind, do you think novels can, or should, bear an ethical responsibility, a moral weight?

TM: I would hate to say they bear that weight but it would be more interesting to me if they would examine that (issue) more carefully, not in black and white terms, you know, villains and heroes, but in some other way. I’ve read some interesting definitions of altruism, none of them very helpful or positive. One said it was narcissism,  and another said it was kind of a mental illness. The notion of its being taught is the question you put to me. And I thought about that that when I went, as I one often does when the human answers aren’t (satisfying), to the animal world. There is so much sacrifice of the one for the community, whether it is ants who are always trailing back to find the body of another ant, or bats that sacrifice themselves when they hear something to save the cave, or birds that will call attention to themselves to warn the rest of the flock. It’s all over the natural world. Of course, there are lots of instance of sacrifice (in the human realm), parental sacrifices that are well known, and lovers in the history of narrative, but I was just particularly interested in what was happening currently, you know,  in the last 40 years. Many writers believe that evil is just more interesting than goodness.

DW: And you’ve found ways to push the good back to center stage, at least in your own works. One example that comes to mind is your most recent novel, Home, where you have forces of good that not are polite, the 'country women who loved mean.' And when someone complains, they say, 'Hush up, hush.'

TM: That’s right. ‘Shut up!’

DW:  These women will nurse a dying person back to life but they don’t coddle at all. So, clearly, you are making a distinction between these forces of goodness and a kind of sentimentality ...

TM: Yes, exactly. When their maker said, 'What did you do?', they didn’t want to say, 'Um ...'  They had to answer. That is so familiar to me from my family. I am glad you brought up the word sentimentality. It is not that. It is something else that works.

DW: Their desire to help Cee (an ailing character in the novel Home) seems like an innate value  and a shared value in their community. But you’ve also had good people going against the collective, like the priest in your novel A Mercy. He takes such a risk when he teaches slaves to read.

TM: Yes. He could be thrown in prison and fined. He had to sneak off and teach them to read. Who knows why he did that? The point is he thought it was a valuable thing to do. And I remember that kid in Love who was with a bunch of friends at a party who were raping a girl, and he couldn’t or wouldn’t.

DM: And he gets so much grief for that …

TM: Yes, he does. That gesture  of ‘I will not participate’ – in doing this, he sacrifices his reputation, and therefore, he could be the one at the end of the book who could salvage this woman.  I am much more interested in the movement from evil and selfishness to something else.

DM: And you have works that complicate the idea of good and evil. For me, as a reader, one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of Beloved is the withholding of judgment of Sethe, the main character, for killing her child. You didn’t seem to be condemning her. The moral weighing is left up to the reader.

TM:  That was the big deal in the writing of Beloved, this story of this woman, Margaret Garner (the real life escaped slave who inspired Toni Morrison’s character, Sethe). And I realized early on precisely what you said: that I couldn’t judge her. Suppose I knew definitely that my boys, my children, were going to be kidnapped, taken off, molested, what would I do? And I couldn’t answer. I answered differently depending on what I thought the danger to them was then. I realized there was only one person who was in the position to make that judgment, and that was the dead child.

DW: And we do get her perspective in the book.

TM: Yes, this is what she thinks.

DW: And that moment in Beloved in the barn, when Sethe is killing her child, made me think of other mothers and daughters in your novels and these extreme demonstrations of love: the scene where the character Eva, in Sula, sets fire to Plum, but she also jumps out the window to save Hannah, and a scene in A Mercy when a mother gives her child away.  

TM: Yes, extreme forms of love. And the thing is, we think of it in romantic way, but I was reminded recently of somebody in a book one of mine, in Sula, when (Hannah) said, 'Did you ever love me?' And her mother said, 'I kept you alive.'

DW: It’s love, and it’s a form of goodness, but there’s something kind of fierce about it.

TM:  In that community they didn’t have anything. They had no water. They were separate from the town. They didn’t have anything except for themselves, and how they handle one another is the way they live in the world.  I always think these are the people who don’t necessarily like you but they wont hurt you. They will save your life whether they want to save you or not.

DW: The good has a kind of bruising quality. 

TM:  Yes. That is my way of doing it.

DW: You’ve also pointed out narratives that privilege evil, including media narratives, tend to relegate the forces of good to ‘freak’ status. At Harvard, in your lecture there in 2012, you talked about the Amish community, which refused to condemn a man for shooting a group of Amish girls, and even reached out to console his widow.

TM: Yes, and the media twisted it as freakish.

DW: I think the way you portray good without irony in your books, without that freakishness you just mentioned, would not be at all possible if you wrote from a position of cynicism and despair.

TM: Many writers do write from that position. And, you know, think of the suicide rate and the alcoholism. It is high among the writers we adore. Terrible things happen, and the world is sort of chaotic, and there is nothing anyone can do about it except to acknowledge it. Goodness, or some reach for moral clarity, is either (portrayed as) weak or is confined to the sort of scholastic confining world of religious people, you know, very religious people, evangelical people. I am a Catholic so even there it is very strong, and this an aside, but I guess we are seeing the consequences of religion in Syria. (ISIS) just chopped off some kid’s head – children! – and why? Because they didn’t agree with their system of belief. I know we’ve had this before, back during the Crusades, but there is something about the merging of evil and its theatrics that troubles me, not just in the world.  I look for it in the place where I’ve always found wisdom and art, and that is in literature.

DW: But surely there are times when world events have driven you to despair.

TM:  Let tell you a little anecdote. You’ll enjoy this. I wrote about this for a magazine.  (In 2004) I was writing something and I couldn’t (write), and I was feeling very sad, disturbed, I think. Anyway, whatever it was, it was paralyzing, and a friend, Peter Sellars (the opera and theater director who has collaborated with Morrison), called up, as he often does on Christmas Day or something during the holidays, and he is always up and working. He said, 'How are you?', and I said that I didn’t feel very good. It was sort of a sad time. I said. 'You know, Peter, I can’t write,' and I told him why I thought I couldn’t, and he started shouting, "No, no, no, no!' He said this is precisely the time when artists go to work, not when everything is fine but when things were difficult. Dire. This is when we’re needed …  God, think of all the writers who wrote in prisons, in gulags, you know. I mean, it is just amazing, so I felt a little ashamed but very happy that he said that. I've never had a problem since.

DW: You were a humanities professor for many years at Princeton. Considering these students are high powered, and many are going on to positions of great influence and power,  is it the particular responsibility of the humanities professor to use history and literature to teach ethics and moral responsibility?

TM: I prefer to think of it as moving (students) toward wisdom. 

DW: How?

TM: By being wise!

DW: I’m going to end with a broad question for both writers: Is it possible for a book to change the world?

AD:  Absolutely. I think we would be living in a very different world had we not experienced the impact of Toni Morrison’s writing. There is no doubt about the extent to which she has influenced the literary world, not only in this country but all over. She has actually changed the face of the planet. And I see her as a person who made a conscious decision to use her literary talent to bring new ideas into the world, to change the world, absolutely. And often that happens more fundamentally, more profoundly, than the change that those of us who work at the political level envision. I don’t think that our notion of freedom would be what it is without the impact of Toni Morrison. She said that one cannot be free without freeing someone. Freedom is to free someone else. And of course, those of us who do political work, radical political work, always insist on the importance of transcending the single individual and to think about collective processes, and Toni Morrison has done this in her writing.

DW to TM: Is it possible for books to change the world?

TM: Some do. They just do. And it’s sometimes very difficult to get such books published. Think about James Joyce. You can’t think the same way after you read a certain voice.

DW: Angela Davis believes this is the case with your books.

TM: Well, I hope she’s right. And I’ve never known Angela to be wrong.