Visionary: Toni Morrison

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This message comes from n._p._r. Sponsor indeed if you're hiring with indeed you can post a job in minutes set up screener questions then zero in on on your short list of qualified candidates using an online dashboard get started at indeed dot com slash n._p._r. Podcast this is one a. I'm kimberly adams from marketplace sitting in for joshua joshua johnson in washington this week. The world lost a seer. I have a place that is mine. That's my work. When i write that's mine. It is free on. Nobody tells me what to do and i wouldn't listen if they i did that was author toni morrison the legendary writer died monday night at age eighty eight in new york state of complications from pneumonia morrison and was the first ever african american woman to win the nobel prize in literature. She authored eleven novels along with children's books and essay collections. Her novel beloved won the pulitzer prize in nineteen eighty eight. She made an indelible mark on american letters and america's understanding of itself through the lens of the black american experience agreeance she wrote from within the culture about the culture culture and for the culture and her work has affected the world. We asked you to tell us how toni morrison's work work had an impact on you. Here's some of what you had to say. This is jan from colorado. I was introduced to tony's writing with the boost die when i was in college college and i thought her writing was d- most exquisite i had ever which then years later i read beloved and i thought that was the most exquisite novel i had ever read years later. I worked in the film industry and my last film was the love it. I had the honor to meet her <music>. All i didn't get to speak to her. She came to that and i got to be around her for a moment and i'm really really sorry at her. Passing there was none like toni morrison. My name is jodie and i was devastated to hear of toni morrison's passing her body of work is transformative formative and meaningful impactful and when i discovered her writings and james baldwin writings ratings if it changed my life and career riding reaches people across all race religion and creed everything there she just was an interesting magnificent person i will miss telling him more and i and her legacy of literature will live on. That's how we keep living. I feel guilty. See i'm a teacher. I read every summer. I try to read one of her books. Every summer and i didn't this year but i will continue resting tease. The world has loss of great laureate but her literature your stories and your remembrances of tony morrison we'll drive today's show so as we discuss her life and legacy to help us with that. I'm joined now by dana williams. She's a professor of african american literature at howard university and the chair of the the english department. She also serves as the president of the tony morrison society dana welcome back to one a. Thank you for having me and from a studio. At smith college professor paula giddings she is a professor emeritus of african african studies at smith college and author of several books including when and where i enter the impact impact of black women on race and sex in america and the book ida a sword among lions ida b wells and the campaign against lynching. She worked at random in house publishing alongside morrison paula welcome to one a. Thank you good to be here paula. Let's start with you you as as well as dana new tony morrison as a mentor mentor and colleague paula. How are you dealing with this. News has been a very difficult <hes> few days as you can imagine but <hes> but i've been hearing from so many people you know tony with her work and her mentorship created a community and we are all talking to each other now and remembering <hes> about remembering things about toning about our relationship to her so that's been a positive part of of these days but very very difficult to the world is a different place now dana. How are you doing. I'm doing all right. I agree completely with what paul is saying that it's a difficult time i was talking to another one of our mutual friends pollen i miss morison's very close friend eleanor traylor the the other day and what she said very clearly and it resonated with me so completely she said i'm just devastated and it seems to be something of an overstatement. Perhaps we all understand completely that the world will be different without tony morrison in it dana. We heard a lot about in her biography this week but let's start briefly at the beginning. What was toni morrison's background general trajectory in the literary world. I'm so glad to hear that. Many people are getting the opportunity to see <hes> tony morrison the pieces that i am because i think it lays out for us quite beautifully loosely documentary. That was her story. Yes that is open in a number of major cities and i understand we'll be opening additional all cities of particularly after recent passing but that documentary lays out quite nicely for us on the background and really a her kind of intellectual development very early on she grew up in a community in lorain ohio which was surrounded by immigrants so her idea of of what it means to be a human and what it means to be a person living in the united states is informed by this reality that didn't have the traditional respect affect national boundaries. She really challenges us to think about what it means to be a part of an american narrative with so many of us have come from so many different places places. She also talks documentary a lot about the influence of her family. Having grown up hearing stories you mentioned oh go. I know i was just about to say we can talk more course about her intellectual development as an undergraduate student at howard at cornell and then again as a faculty member she was involved in so many different types of activities that it made it difficult to try to pinpoint specifically. Here's the moment where morrison emerges. I thinks she emerges straight from her mother and her father. You mentioned her hometown of lorain ohio. Working class industrial city twenty five miles west of cleveland which proved to be fairly influential on her literature and her world view. We got a voicemail from one of you who grew up in lorain ohio. My name is bill hendrickson. I'm calling from durham north carolina and went to high school with tony morrison in lorain ohio. I'm two years older than she was when she died. I'm ninety. She was eighty eight. I remember number her. I didn't know her but i remember her. As a tall slender african american woman in the high school lorraine was active in those days. This is world world war two with many industrial companies and we had people there from central america. It was kind of immigrant town and we all got together and i remember a tony morrison in what i'm referring to the radio show in the times <hes> how we all play together and she said that herself and it was a nice city and it was it's a nice time and <hes> read many of her books dana many of her stories and books take place in a mid western setting. Why was that was it just where she grew up. I think she wrote out of the culture that she knew that she was a part of and that's one of the gifts that she gave us. She never backed off from the particularity of black experiences and similarly didn't back off of the local experiences that she knew well so much happening in those spaces on and we had heard heard so very little coming out of that space out my was saying a couple of days ago that when we think about american literature very early on most people in critics are guilty of this as well associate that with the south because america didn't have this kind of formalized or really structured identity eh outside of the south end the confederacy and she rejected that outright but she did leave to study in what she called a space for black intellectuals in headed it to howard university. How did she find her time there. I think it was mixed at best down so while she was at howard she talked a lot about the challenges related needed to colorado but she was also a very active socially so it wasn't a situation as far as we can tell where she felt isolated or or will where she felt discriminated against on the basis of color in terms of internally or in the intra racial challenges. She talked a little bit about how how difficult it was to be in washington d._c. Where racism was very different from what she was accustomed to in ohio but while it howard she was a part of the modern dance club it and it's interesting to see some of the images now that we're saying all of which are wonderful where she's dancing but she was really invested in dancing thought at some point point about being a dancer she was participatory with the howard players a wonderful troupe that had done work abroad in all over the u._s. <hes> <hes> in spaces that we're both black and white and then i must of course include the kind of social things that we've heard about her being on the homecoming court at different points and being dean of pledges even at one point of alpha chapter of alpha kappa alpha sorority inc. We have many more stories stories to come and we'll celebrate. How tony morrison brought new voices into american mainstream literature do her work in the publishing industry. I'm kimberly adams of marketplace nice glad to be with you. You're listening to one a. from w. a._m._u. and n._p._r. Free support for n._p._r. And the following message come from carmax for more than twenty five years carmax has made it easy to sell your car they provide free appraisals and offers on the spot carmax will buy your car even if you don't buy there's in fact carmax has bought more than eight million vehicles to learn more and schedule your free appraisal visit carmax dot com. It has already been an eventful summer in politics between the two thousand twenty debates and the president's battle over immigration. There's a lot going on and win. There's news you need to know about the n._p._r. Politics podcast is there to tell you what happened. It's not to mention. We're hitting the road so you can meet all of the twenty twenty contenders appeal is gonna draw me completely crazy the politics podcast subscribe. This is one a. I'm kimberly. Adams of marketplace in for joshua johnson jeff and thomas emailed us my wife and i i read tar baby as peace corps volunteers tears in kenya in the early nineteen eighties and we were hooked. I've taught song of solomon to students at michigan state university. Sometimes when nearing the end of a morrison book i would delay finishing because i didn't want the story to end. Cindy emailed us the first time i read the book the bluest eye when i was a freshman in high school back in nineteen ninety. I cried because the young girl and the book was me. I two struggled with feelings of being ugly because of my darker skin tone tony spoke to the hearts of many young young black girls who did and still struggle with how beauty is depicted even during these modern times paula giddings for those that don't know what are the characteristics characteristics that mark a morrison work. Can you characterize her style and what made her work distinct. Well as everyone many people have talked talked about how lyrical her language was but with tony and i write and i'm talking from the perspective of person who writes history <hes> and tony really cracked the sky open for so many of us in terms of talking about the past and because you talked about the past <hes> from the inside out she had an interior. I'd you know when i listen to many of the comments of the people who are calling in and talking about tony one thing that ties them us all together is that she made us feel something not just into in terms of intellectual <hes> aspects of our work which is extraordinary as well but she made us feel because she really wrote from the inside out and she really told told us in so many words that you know we were. We are the universe we don't have to be. No one else has to be in our story that when we tell our story and a particular way retelling the american storytelling a global story and so you can really divide our think literature and <hes> writing about black culture you know before tony morrison <hes> and after tony morrison patrice art in accokeek maryland tweeted tweeted us morrison informed and deeply in deepened my feminism as a white woman of privilege. I needed to hear her stories. They cut to the heart. Let's hear here's some of morrison's own words about her entrance into the writers world. Here's a part of a speech. She gave for her academy achievement award from the canadian canadian gemini awards. I had no reason and no encouragement be a writer. I didn't think about it until i was over over thirty and i only thought about it then because there was something i wanted to read about and i couldn't find it. I thought everything i needed to read or wanted to read need had probably been written by somebody somewhere and at some point i discovered there was a silence <hes> absence a vacancy about somebody somebody i knew intimately which was young black female now there were books in with such character appeared but she was always a joke <hes> <hes> an instrument of somebody's pity or to add comic relief most people know tony morrison and as an author but before she was recognized writer she was an editor she moved to new york after her divorce to work at random house publishing as an editor transferring to new york city as a trade editor. She served as an editor at random house for nineteen years. This was a very important role for morris and dana williams. What did that role. Well look like and why is it so important to her story. Well it actually looked like everything from introducing new writers into the world onto selecting the cover of that writers book to making determinations about where where to market in how to market whether to have a book party or not. I'm consulting with the sales team about how to get that writers books on the shelves or in the front windows of bookshops because we tend to think about books and book sales only as we know them now but keep in mind major department stores were the major venues for selling books and independent bookstores and then there was also mail order or book of the month club so she did all of the work from getting blurbs from writers for the back of their books to selecting the the pictures to writing the copy for the flat. I mean it really was just an incredible feat in really challenging to imagine how she was able to do all all of it right herself at a certain point she certainly stopped editing in writing full time but she really midwifed a generation of writers leaders and made possible like essentially i think she encouraged writer so that she would have company is one of the things that i found the most remarkable about her anytime that we interacted with each other. She was very clear that she wasn't an anomaly that she wasn't exemplary that they were other writers who were yearly remarkable remarkable writers as well and so i think she really tried to get some company for herself and for the writers and i don't think it's an understatement to suggest is that african american literary studies as a standalone feel has a lot to do with the work that morrison did at random house where she published tony kaye bombarda angela davis quincy troupe henry thomas i could go on i mean from fiction to pros lucille clifton june jordan and then you know non traditional books as well like a cookbook or the black book or railroads about trained people and so on paula giddings you saw this firsthand as we mentioned earlier that you are the typist for morrison's first novel the bluest eye can you tell us about that experience and how you saw morrison in a sort of shepherding this generation of black authors through the process well <hes> i came to random house right after graduating from howard our university <hes> black editor by the name of charles harris recruited a number of us come into publishing which was trying to diverse diversify did that <hes> in that period so i was in the <hes> <hes> i met tony at random house when she came up to the trade eight division and i was in the secretarial pool along with a number of my friends <hes> and one day tony came to us and asked if we type something for her <hes> <hes> and we said sure <hes> and she said you know if you do it i promise you i will make you the best carrot cake you ever eaten re said shorts absolut absolutely absolutely emil a number of lived in a small <hes> shotgun apartment on the upper west side in new york and sure enough. We type the the pages <hes> she she came to their apartment <hes> she brought this wonderful carrot cake and it still is the best carrot cake yeah i have ever had and <hes> and later on we were typing parts of <hes> retyping parts of the bluest eye mhm <hes> there so it was quite extraordinary <hes> <hes> <hes> to think about someone like tony. They're in publishing at that time and i'm so glad by the way i want just want to say how important dina's work is <hes> on this so glad she's working on this aspect aspect of of tony's career but if i might say tony taught us how to because we're young pups in publishing which can be pretty intimidating at the time but tony the way she just walked in the world then she was older she was about. She was in her late thirties early forties. When i was just coming into publishing after after college and she was just fearless she was intimidated by no one <hes> <hes> she <hes> and she <hes> <hes> as she said in the film pieces that i am. She said i wasn't intimidated about any of those white males there her she says i was so much more interesting than they were and i wasn't afraid to show it you know and so we saw house she just <hes> just just in addition to the wonderful authors that she brought in as dana talked about <hes> just the way she handled herself and her your whole perspective of life was quite was was was wonderful and really important lesson for us and it's worth noting of the publishing industry to this day is still about eighty five percent white and it was even less diverse when tony morrison was coming up through the ranks. Let's hear another message from you. From in our inbox highlighting one of the other writers that tony morrison supported alan from sunset beach tony morrison was the person who really brought the work of henry moss to light after his death he was <hes> a black writer who was killed by transit new york city police officer decades ago but he wrote off in about the connotation tation of of blacks and whites and america and so does work has been discussed but he's also been club. I think the blackest writer <hes> by some critics <hes> african american writing but she was really largely responsible for bringing his work to light after he died dana. Can you talk a bit more about tony morrison as a mentor for black writers and other people even academics yeah i think it's important to think about her in that regard because there are correspondences between her in tony kaye bombarded for instance bombards <unk> incredible writer she's deceased now but she was also very close friends with ms morrison and the correspondence between the the two of them. It's i mean it's just laugh out loud funny in some instances a morrison say for instance that she didn't have to line in its four bombard because she would think faster than she could write. She'd send her away to do something and she come back really quickly and then more bombard conversely would say you know i really appreciate the eight out of the work that you're doing for me but i probably should get an agent because morrison was literally doing the agent work and the editor work and the friend in work and in some instances of making sure that she had a typist may letting her stay at her place if she needed to be in new york to get something something done very quickly another writer that she worked with very closely leon forrest <unk> similarly had a tremendous amount of respect for her and was very very clear that he would not have been published had it not been for tony morrison who interestingly enough simply picked up the phone to say hello when he called saying kay someone suggested that they couldn't understand my book but that you would and that was the kind of person that she was on to receive those it was more challenging texts as we have heard her say about jokingly about beloved. That's called reading when you have to read something over and over again. It's really reading and i think it's critical to understand the significance of that kind of relationship to have someone who could read your work closely and to understand stand it and to make sure that it was championed in those rooms where editors were making decisions about whether to give a book contract. Contract are not very often. She spoke four gail jones who was something of a recluse who refused to promote her own books but morrison was so enamored by gail jones's full body of work that in that particular instance she said you know i need you to go out and do the promotions but if you won't i can still sell this book anyway so she incredibly generous to as an editor. Cecilia emailed us. Tony morrison wasn't enlightened figure and i believe one of if not the most profound writers we have had the privilege is to have benefited from. I'm a white woman with blue eyes. The bluest eye was the first book of hers. I've read it was the first time i ever felt such resonance from an author and i felt that she was was telling my inner story. Even though it was a different manifested physicality with feeling of being unlovable due to some perceived ugliness shane etc dictated by unlimited views of our ignorant species she was able to meet us deep down where our sorrows dwell and with great love help us rise above it and find meaning and all this suffering. We're hearing your tributes about tony morrison more in a moment stay close. Don't stamp pad and free black support for this n._p._r. Podcast and the following message come from the united states postal service every day. 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Tony morrison did eventually split her time between editing and and being a mother of two and then also to write her own work but there was a time when her work did not receive awards forty eight black writers including the likes of maya i angelo amira bakar amir bucker and alice walker penned a letter to the times book review then published chastising the literary world for not recognizing recognizing morrison either for the national book award or for the pulitzer prize beloved did then win the pulitzer prize that april in one thousand nine hundred eighty eight critics talked a a lot about the absence of white life in her work which she pointed out as a deeply racist sentiment. There's a moment circulating on twitter right now from an interview tony gave back in one thousand nine hundred ninety eight with journalist. Jada went went pushed her on why she didn't give more attention to white experiences in her novels. Let's let's listen and you will maintain this safe place for yourself for your art. You don't think you will ever change and write books that incorporate right what what lives into them substantially. I have time venus substantial. You can't understand how powerfully raise this question christians any as you could never ask a wide author. When are you going to write about black where he did or not or she did not even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center and being unused to being in the same gene used to being in and saying you know. Is it ever possible that you will enter the mainstream. It's inconceivable inconceivable that we're already. Am is the mainstay. Here's another quote from morrison. I spent my entire writing life life trying to make sure that the white gays wasn't the dominant one in any of in any of my books paula. Can you talk more about the white gays and morrison's work to a radical it in her novels. You know many of those quotes that you're that we're hearing was at a time time when we really think about tony not only not writing about white people per se or or putting them at the center enter over story but at this period of time at the center of a story weren't just black people but black women and black hair doesn't protagonists tagging <unk> black protagonists who weren't <hes> particularly special in that certain kind of way in terms of respectability etc who who were <hes> ordinary people <hes> dealing with extraordinary circumstances in so many ways toni morrison's the first one in sulu not really talk about black women's friendships as a center of her <hes> work <hes> and so <hes> so yes yes <hes> that was part of what sometimes unsaid in this period of time <hes> what people were talking about not only. Are you just talking about black people. You're talking about black women as the center of the world and how can you do that. You know <hes> when i was before i retired when i was teaching. I started off every teaching on black women's history. I start off every class with toni morrison's quote and she said this in different ways throughout the years but when people asked her would you <hes> do you mind being called a black woman writer rather other than an american writer and she said no she said because as a black women writer my world is larger not smaller so this it was really an important and if you understand like women's history if you understand the literature the world is small the larger not smaller <hes> as a a part of it so instead of being an addendum to another to someone else or again as i mentioned before of trying to coax you know ever since the slave narrative. We've been trying to coax white people into being more moral being more just seeing us as human. She said we don't have to do that. We we can talk about that. Within from within our culture her works are required reading in high schools across the country her catalog a unique mix of sort sort of commercial and critical successes and her mark on the academic world is towering. You've both taught their work in her working classes dana dana what were these experiences like teaching the the work of tony morrison it was fun and challenging at the same time part of what that challenge with teaching ching was to show students how writing can be so beautiful than poetic and lyrical but so deeply sought full where every word mattered and that's the kind of language work that morrison did and it was only possible because she was this great mind but i think we can take take take that kind of thinking and and the work that is required for the reading the thinking the very deliberate word choice we take that for granted and paulo what was it like both with knowing her personally and teaching her work to students <hes> sheep. We had one course on <hes> think remembering <hes> in africana studies called him. It's a methods course which is a theory of study and we <hes> took took the novel beloved and we examined examined it from every perspective from a historical perspective from a literary suspected just very briefly for people who aren't deeply familiar with her work a basic summary of of beloved. Oh well <hes> beloved beloved of course is what many people think of her as her masterwork <hes> which tells the story of margaret garner <hes> ah enslaved woman who escapes slavery <hes> is pursued and when it appears like she's going to be caught instead of going back into slavery slavery and letting her with her children who was with her she kills one of her children <hes> to keep it from going back back into slavery <hes> and this is probably an example again of of how marcin just has it's no limits in to expressing <hes> ideas around freedom <hes> for in the motherhood and others so <hes> so it's an it's an extraordinary story written of course in a quite an extraordinary way <hes> and so ocean when we you could examine her work from every perspective and it's rich <hes> in every perspective <hes> <hes> and of course just knowing her <hes>. I've been thinking lately of how much she's just shaped by. You know my life as also as a teacher church. She asked me to come teach at princeton which i did <hes> for a year as well <hes> as a journalist enlist i wrote about her as a journalist and as a buy in particular has a biographer <hes> so the combination of understanding banding her work teaching her work watching the the eyes of students light up <hes> when you're teaching when they're they are reading this extraordinary extraordinarily writing of hers <hes> was <hes> was was just an indelible <hes> experience and this also had a her work also had a big impact on sort of how we think of american history because her novels and essays and stories cover almost four hundred years of american history it really when you think about her work you know soula actually the novel sulu which is the second novel actually years extend from nine hundred nineteen thousand nine hundred sixty five and she wrote about the colonial period she wrote about slavery reconstruction the great migration harlem renaissance i mean it's extraordinary and she puts <hes> humanity humanity our humanity in these periods and in these stories that were often historical silences and so <hes> many in so many ways <hes> so it so the imagination of her of her taking into the context most of what was happening in america and sometimes the world was one of the most extraordinary things about <hes> about <hes> about her in writing <hes> and it <hes> <hes> <hes> helped me so much as a writer of history to know we'll have read tony morrison and what people were not just doing what other not not just knowing where the people are saying about people the how people are feeling and this is this is what she gave to us. <hes> i just say one key when when when <hes> quick thing when i was when i told older i'm gonna write about to be wells who started the first campaign against lynching and <hes> she said <hes> an i'd been researching for some time time and she said well paul you know ida. Wells is very important well. Of course i knew ida. Wells was important. I'd been researching most of my adult life but when tony morrison says someone is important. I laughed with her. I said you'd probably extended my research about five more years because when you say she's important that is something you really have to think about in very very profound <hes> in deep ways. I'd like to thank my guest. Dana williams chair of the english department at howard university. Thank you thank you so much for having an paula giddings professor america at of african studies at smith college. Thank you thank you so much. Today's show was produced and edited by bianca martin to learn more about her and the rest of the team visit the one eight. Okay dot org slash staff. This program comes to you from w. a._m._u. Part of american university in washington distributed by n._p._r. I'm kimberly adams. Thank thank you so much for listening. This is one a. uh.

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