Interview in 1981, excerpted from Issue 19
Donald Suggs: Your first novel, The Bluest Eye, deals with the destruction of a young black girl at the hands of a black community that had adopted white standards of beauty. How did you develop your own literary values in the academic and publishing worlds, both dominated by white standards of excellence?
Toni Morrison: I think that when I was writing The Bluest Eye that idea was uppermost in my mind even in attempting it. It was my desire to read such a book, one that had its own aesthetic integrity. I didn’t phrase it that way. What I thought was that I would like to write a book that didn’t try to explain everything to white people or take as its point of departure that I was addressing white people, that the audience for it would be somebody like me. And when that happened certain things just fell away: certain kinds of editorializing, certain kinds of definitions, and to think about the subject matter — those girls — their interior life, my interior life, to do, I suppose, what black musicians have done which is to make judgments myself about what was valuable, what was not valuable, and what was worth saving. That was the impetus for writing it, because I had read a lot of very powerful black literature by men, but I had the feeling that they were talking about somebody else. It was not for my enlightenment. It was for clarification…It was extremely important for them to do this, for Richard Wright to say, “let me show you America.”
SUGGS: Could you elaborate on how the process you’ve described extends to teaching black students?
MORRISON: That’s very difficult because I’ve done it with mixed classes, but never to an all-black class. It might be interesting to see how that works. But in mixed classes you have an obligation to everyone in the class. So the important thing is not to start with white value systems and then see how blacks reflect off them. The problem has been to start with a black value system and how the texts connect with it or reject it. That was the pedological problem, for me to draw up what I think are the characteristics of all black art, the given reality of the black world, which even some black people don’t articulate, and the perceived reality. Identify them and then we can go to the books.
SUGGS: Teaching white students must present special problems. How do you approach realities of the black experience which might be commonly accepted in an all-black class?
MORRISON: You start by saying, in the beginning was dispossession and violence. Then you look at what happened, what positive things came out of that, what black people were able to do with the forms of reclamation and dignity, the forms of that resistance and so on. I take a lot for granted, I used to, rather, and I thought that everybody knew what I meant. But they don’t, so I try and say what does it mean to have no self? When the “other” denies it, which is what slavery is, and what do you have to do to reclaim the self or status and what it means to have no art that you can claim. I just bring in all these quotes from everybody in the world, from then to now, in which it’s clear in the criticism that what they’re saying is that black Americans don’t have anything.
SUGGS: Alice Walker has criticized books which she felt had “white folks on the brain.” What effect might it have on the works of black women writers who have been commercially successful largely due to whites at the bookstore cash register?
MORRISON: There is an advantage to having a wide readership, both black and white, which is that it makes it possible for lots of other writers to get published. Once there’s a market — and you have to remember that the whole system is controlled by whites — once that readership exists, then it’s likely that other black writing will be purchased by companies and distributed and sold. That is important. As far as it affects the writings, it can’t. I suppose one could let it. Writing for the gallery is something that a writer must resist no matter who he is. You know the writers that are writing for their audience because they write the same book over and over again with the sort of cute things that their readership likes. Serious writers write things that compel them, new challenges, new situations, and a new landscape that they have not been in before. But I had always made sure from the beginning that the address of the novel would be interior, that I would write for a reader who wanted what I wanted, and I could put myself up as a person whose demands were at least different and then would be higher and higher. But paradoxically, what happens is that the more specific one is, the more specificity there is in writing, the more accessible it is. Tolstoy was not writing for little colored in Ohio. He was writing Russian, specifically upper class things about a certain situation and so on. And so was everybody who was of any interest. That subtle racist argument about how universal art works better than any other is fraudulent entirely. Anybody who sets out and writes a universal novel has written nothing. The more concentrated it is in terms of its culture the more revealing you find it, because you make those connections. You see, there are more connections among us than differences, and that is the point. You don’t wipe out a culture. You don’t wipe out the ethnic quality. You certainly don’t address yourself to a parallel or dominant culture. Some black writers did. Much of what was written during the Harlem Renaissance was written with white readers in view, very sort of “let me show you how exotic I am.” You can always hear that voice. That may be what she meant. There are contemporary writers who do it still. I don’t think that readership has anything to do with it. I suppose there may be black writers who have a larger white readership who write for that readership, but I can’t imagine it. That only happens on television. You have these little comic book things. You try and straddle some line where it’s this, but it’s really that. It’s black face really. It may be in a different dress, but that’s what it is, black people playing black people. It’s interesting though that there are a lot of women who write books with an audience of men in mind. I can feel when they’re getting over on some man. He looms too large. What is this? The wilder they get in their approbation, the more important he must have been. That’s a mighty big gun, isn’t it, for just that little character over there? A big Gatlin gun they used to call it, just to blow this little man away. So he really must have been important. The gun’s too big.