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Toni Morrison's Legacy


American writer Toni Morrison died on Monday. She was 88 years old. Morrison's work explored the African American experience and the open wounds of racism in this country. Here she was speaking on CBS.


TONI MORRISON: What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong, still smart, you still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions. It's - part of it is, yes, the victim, how terrible it is for black people.

CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah, but you don't like that (ph).

MORRISON: I'm not a victim. I refuse to be one.

MARTIN: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah profiled Toni Morrison in 2015 for New York Times Magazine. And I sat down with her to talk about Toni Morrison's legacy and what the writer meant to her personally.

RACHEL KAADZI GHANSAH: For me and for so many people, Toni Morrison is one of the most towering figures in American literature. And that's not an overstatement. I mean, to say that she's iconic, to say that she's vanguard, to say that she's bold is to only tap slightly towards her presence as an absolute genius. When Toni Morrison wrote "Song Of Solomon" and "Sula" and "Jazz" and all of her novels, what she really did is show the world that black America had an interiority. And what she did in her capturing of all those details is that she really gave us a record of gesture (ph) and custom and being and belonging that I think wouldn't have been explicated in that way without her writing.

MARTIN: How did she permeate the culture as a writer? Because it was a long time coming.

GHANSAH: I mean, Morrison publishes her first work at 39. And before then, she had been working at Random House, where she had published books by Muhammad Ali, Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Toni Cade Bambara and Gail Jones. And one of the things that she keeps saying as she's working with Gail Jones' manuscript is that no other novel about a black woman will ever be the same after this. And I think that in some ways she's almost presaging her own work. After we start to read Morrison, I think we all got a sense of just how good our language was, just how powerful black vernacular was. And until she did what she did, I don't think that we really had a testament to that. And in changing the world, I think she changed the world just by being so genius. And after that, you couldn't come to the table with anything less than what she was offering because she became the standard. She's the metric.

MARTIN: And yet the establishment was reticent to acknowledge her greatness.

GHANSAH: Always.

MARTIN: Can you talk about this letter?

GHANSAH: So in 1988, a group of black authors, thinkers, 48 of them published and signed a statement in The New York Times. And basically, what they were doing was upbraiding the publishing industry for what they called the oversight and harmful whimsy towards Morrison and James Baldwin. They were particularly upset that after five novels that we now look back on as being seminal moments in American literature, Toni Morrison had yet to win a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize. It was very important to them that they recognized her. And two months later, what happened is that Toni Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer for "Beloved." I think what we know that "Beloved" does is that for the first time we got to hear a black woman talking about the experience of slavery as something that happened to the body but also something that haunted us forever. And I think what they were basically demanding is that she could no longer be rendered invisible.

MARTIN: I mentioned that you profiled her for the Times Magazine. You describe her as one of your own literary heroes. How did you first find your way to her writing?

GHANSAH: I think so much of Morrison is about transgression. The first time I found Morrison's writing was because I was a voracious reader after I learned to read. And so I was actually going through my mother's books, and I was reading things like "Madame Bovary" and anything I could get my hands on - the more salacious sort of the better. And I stumbled across "Jazz," and I'll never forget that she begins that book with the sound of someone clicking their teeth, and I said, what is this? And I was talking to a friend this morning, and she said, thank you, Toni Morrison, for all the work we've read that we didn't understand, but we understood before we knew what she was saying. And I think when I read "Jazz," I understood all of the womanhood in that story. I understood all of the violence in that story. And I understood all of the sexuality in that story.

And what Morrison did is that she made it very, very real. She also made it accessible. So Morrison could make these spaces that would seem sort of looming and heavy and grim very, very, very, very, very viable. I thought this morning of something Chekhov says. Chekhov writes about Masha in "The Seagull" of that I'm in mourning for my life. And I think - when I think about the loss of Toni Morrison, I feel like I'm in mourning for my life because she gave me the world. She gave me the universe. And I think she did that for a lot of us.

MARTIN: What do you remember most about the time you got to spend with her for the profile?

GHANSAH: The thing I remember most and the thing I would like to mention is that I'm thinking of her granddaughters. I'm thinking of her sons. I'm thinking of her as a real woman, not just this author. I'm thinking of all the people who loved her, her editor, Erroll McDonald. I'm thinking of them because Morrison was so incredibly generous, and she was never not telling stories. And I imagine that that absence is going to weigh on them very heavily as time passes. And I think all of us will think that we've lost someone that she's no longer with us. But I think what Morrison did is that she left us these words, and these words will stay with us forever. And thank God for that.

MARTIN: Losing her is a profound thing and would be at any time. And it feels - the wound feels deeper right now because of where America is at and because of the truth that she was able to illuminate about racism in this country. What do you want people to glean from her work in this moment? Why do you think that losing her now is such a wound?

GHANSAH: One of my favorite things that Morrison said is that we don't need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers movement - assertive, militant and pugnacious. And I think losing Morrison now, we lose a sort of role model for being bold, for being dynamic and for knowing that the language can be political, that the language is necessary and that the language is freedom. And I think that as we go forward as writers and thinkers and intellectual, the thing that we have to do is to speak with clarity and not let anyone sanitize our voices and our thoughts but also to have the freedom to say this space right here is mine. And this writing is where I'm free, and no one can tell me what to be.

And I think when I think about how to be like Morrison or how to honor her, I think the thing I want to do most is to continue to write unassimilated black literature that lifts up the love for the people, the love for the culture, the love for the resistance that we embody in this country as a historical project.

MARTIN: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah remembering the life of Toni Morrison. Thank you so much.

GHANSAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 7, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Toni Morrison was the only American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature since John Steinbeck won in 1962.

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