Toni Morrison, one of the nation’s most influential writers, died this week at the age of 88 from complications of pneumonia. In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her classic work Beloved. Much of Morrison’s writing focused on the Black female experience in America, and her writing style honored the rhythms of Black oral tradition. Her work was deeply concerned with race and history, especially the sin of transatlantic slavery and the potentially restorative power of community. In 2012, President Obama awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We speak with three legendary writers and close friends of Toni Morrison: Angela Davis, author and activist; Nikki Giovanni, poet, activist and educator; and Sonia Sanchez, award-winning poet.
AMY GOODMAN: Toni Morrison, one of the nation’s most influential writers, has died at the age of 88. She died Monday in the Bronx from complications of pneumonia. In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her classic work Beloved.
Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. She did not publish her first novel, The Bluest Eye, until she was 39 years old. She wrote it while taking care of her two young sons as a single mother and juggling a day job as a book editor at Random House.
As an editor, she’s widely credited with helping widen the literary stage for African Americans and feminists. Much of Morrison’s writing focused on the female black experience in America. Her writing style honored the rhythms of black oral tradition. Her work was deeply concerned with race and history, especially the sin of transatlantic slavery and the potentially restorative power of community.
In 2012, President Obama awarded Toni Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Tuesday, President Obama said, quote, “Toni Morrison was a national treasure. Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful — a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy.”
Her friend Oprah Winfrey said Tuesday, quote, “She was our conscience. Our seer. Our truth-teller. She was a magician with language, who understood the Power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them.”
In a moment, we’ll be joined by three remarkable writers who knew Toni Morrison well: Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni. But first we to turn to the trailer to the new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.
TONI MORRISON: My grandfather bragged all the time that he had read the Bible. And it was illegal in his life to read. Ultimately, I knew that words have power.
OPRAH WINFREY: I wanted as many people who could hear my voice to understand the importance of her work, get people to trust, go, “Oh, this is something safe,” and then, bam, hit ’em with Toni Morrison!
FARAH GRIFFIN: One of the early reviews says, “She’s got a great talent. One day she won’t limit it to only writing about black people.” Like, really? It’s limiting for her to write about black people?
SONIA SANCHEZ: People began to buy Toni Morrison, and then we began to teach her. And as a consequence, they had to pay attention.
DICK CAVETT: I know you’re sickened to death of being labeled a black writer.
TONI MORRISON: I prefer it.
DICK CAVETT: Oh, I thought you probably were tired of it.
TONI MORRISON: Well, I’m tired of people asking me the question.
DICK CAVETT: Oh. Oh, yes, of course.
UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t know where this woman’s energy came from to raise two kids, to bring other people of color to the party and also write these novels.
UNIDENTIFIED: Toni was an editor at Random House.
TONI MORRISON: Navigating a white male world was not threatening. It wasn’t even interesting. I was more interesting than they were. And I wasn’t afraid to show it.
RUSSELL BANKS: Suddenly, the canon wasn’t the private property of white male writers.
SONIA SANCHEZ: I have thrown this book across the room and then walked down the steps laughing. Like, you read Toni, and you cry, but you’ve got to laugh.
TONI MORRISON: Texas Bureau of Corrections banned Paradise because it might incite a riot. And I thought, “How powerful is that?”
ANGELA DAVIS: When Toni Morrison published Beloved, it was an extraordinary turning point. We can never think about slavery in the same way.
TONI MORRISON: A friend of mine called me up early in the morning and said, “Toni, you won the Nobel Prize.” And I remember holding the phone, thinking, “She must be drunk.”
OPRAH WINFREY: Toni Morrison’s work shows us, through pain, all the myriad ways we can come to love. That is what she does, with some words on a page.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. When we come back, we’ll speak to Angela Davis, whose autobiography was edited by Toni Morrison. We’ll also speak to the legendary writers Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni, all dear friends of Toni Morrison. We’ll also hear more of Toni Morrison in her own words. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “We Can Fly” by Rhiannon Giddens. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue to look at the remarkable life of Toni Morrison, we’re joined by three guests, her dear friends and colleagues.
Angela Davis, the renowned activist and author, distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a close friend of Toni Morrison for over 40 years. Toni Morrison edited her 1974 book, Angela Davis: An Autobiography. She’s joining us on the phone from California.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we’re joined by Sonia Sanchez, award-winning poet, one of the foremost leaders of the Black Studies and the Black Arts movement, author of 20 books, including Morning Haiku and Shake Loose My Skin. She was also a dear friend of Toni Morrison.
And we’re joined by Nikki Giovanni, poet, activist, educator, currently the university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech. Professor Giovanni is the author of over two dozen books. Her most recent, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter.
We’re going first to Angela Davis. Can you talk about the legacy of Toni Morrison and then how you first came to know her, Professor Davis?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, good morning, Amy. I’m still, of course, recovering from the news that Toni is no longer with us. But I think it’s important for us to recognize how her words have radically altered the lives that we live. She has helped to transform our collective sensibilities and also our awareness of the place of art and literature in the world.
You know, sometimes I think back to the way in which I imagined slavery before reading Beloved, and I realize how abstract that imagination was. She taught us, I think probably for the very first time, to imagine enslaved women and men with full lives, with complex subjectivities, with inferiority. And I think that her work has literally revolutionized the way people all over the world think, not only about black people in the U.S., but how they imagine their own lives and their pasts and their futures.
I met Toni Morrison for the first time not long after the conclusion of my trial. She was an editor at Random House publishing company, and she approached me with the idea of my writing an autobiography. And, of course, at that particular moment, I wasn’t interested in writing an autobiography. Besides, I was 28 years old, and I thought, “Who writes an autobiography in their twenties? You know, this is a project that should wait several decades.” And I also imagined the autobiography genre as something that was produced by people who had standing in the world, who felt that they had lived their lives in a way that would provide models for people in the world. And I told her this.
But she was very insistent. And when I explained what kind of work I might produce, that might not fit into the genre of what I thought would be an individualistic autobiography, she persuaded me that I could write a political autobiography. And Toni, of course, had a way of creating the argument that could persuade you to do anything, so eventually I agreed. And that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. I am so happy that I wrote an autobiography, if only for the reason that it introduced me to Toni Morrison.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go, Angela, to a clip from a 2010 conversation between Toni Morrison and you, Angela Davis, at the New York Public Library. She sort of laboriously came up onto the stage and immediately joked about how she had just had hip replacement, the rest of her body had to catch up with her magic hip. But you were both speaking at the event called “Frederick Douglass: Literacy, Libraries and Liberation.” Here, Toni Morrison talks about the legal creation of whiteness.
TONI MORRISON: The interesting thing is that they established these laws. And the laws were very, very interesting. They said things like any — no blacks shall be allowed to carry a weapon, ever, for any circumstances. OK. Second, any white can maim or kill any black for any reason, without being charged.
Now, you see what that did to the indentured servants who were white: Now they’re better, freer, more powerful. They’re in the same situation. They’re still enslaved. But they’re not — but they can carry weapons, and they can beat up black slaves without punishment. So they have this little margin of status, nothing else. Nothing else but that little margin.
And that little margin has worked its way through this country since then. That was in the 17th century. And you know the Southern strategy. You know all these things in which you flag race and racism as a cause or even a goal. And racism is not a goal. It’s a path. It’s just a route to power and money. That’s what it is. That’s what it’s for, whether it’s via war or segregation or what have you. The thing itself is just a manipulation and a tool. And its purpose is what I just described that went on after the Bacon Rebellion.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Nikki Giovanni right now, poet, activist, professor, currently the university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech. Professor Giovanni is the author of over two dozen books. Her latest, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter.
Professor Giovanni, I went to see you at Virginia Tech years ago. It was after the Virginia Tech massacre. We sat in your office, and you kept getting interrupted by phone calls, because you were extremely excited about preparing this event at Virginia Tech where you and Maya Angelou would be celebrating the life of Toni Morrison. She was coming. It was after the death of her son. And you just wanted to cheer her up and share her magnificence with the world. Can you talk about how you first met Toni Morrison and what she has meant for you?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, I first met Toni because I stalked her. I read The Bluest Eye, and I was living in New York and simply walked — I lived on 92nd and Central Park West, and I walked down to Random House, because I never did understand how to take a subway. And I walked down to Random House and said, you know, “I’d like to see Toni Morrison.” And the security guard said, you know, “Is she expecting you?” And I said, “Well, no.” And he said, “Well, who are you?” And I wrote my name and sent it up. And she sent the message back: “Ask her to wait.” And she came back down after a few — I guess she cleaned her desk or whatever. And we went across the street and had a cup of coffee. And it was just — you know, when you’re talking to any genius, you’re shy. I don’t know if I’m shy, but certainly trying to find the right words. But we had a cup of coffee, and a relationship grew out of that.
Maya — when Slade died, I went down to see Maya. And I say “down” because Maya was at Wake Forest. And I said, you know, “What should we do?” And it wasn’t cheer her up, because you lose a child, you can’t be cheered up. But it was to comfort. And the sister who had to come in — and good morning, Angela, and good morning, Sonia, because both of them — we called Angela right away, because I knew that they were close. And, of course, Sonia came. We had a sheer good fortune, because Toni had said it’s sheer good fortune to miss someone before they’re gone.
And I’d like to say, you know, we’re talking about it today, that we’ve lost Toni, but Toni Morrison is Shakespeare. Toni Morrison is a storyteller like Jesus. We will never lose Toni Morrison. She will always be here. And she’ll be here in somebody else’s mind, and she’ll look like something. You know, we’ll look like we’re fighting about how does Shakespeare look or something, but Toni Morrison will always be with us, because she has created a body of work of genius, and it’ll always be there. Two hundred years from now, we’ll be reading Toni.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Giovanni, you mentioned The Bluest Eye. I want to go to another clip of that 2010 conversation between Toni and Angela Davis at the New York Public Library.
TONI MORRISON: When I wrote the first book I wrote, The Bluest Eye, I really wanted to know why that girl felt so bad, the one who — a real-life girl who said she wanted blue eyes. We were talking about whether God existed. I, of course, was persuaded that he did, and she was persuaded that he did not. And her proof was that she had prayed for blue eyes for two years — two years — and she didn’t get them. So, obviously, he wasn’t up there.
But when I looked at her and thought about how awful she would look if she got them, and then I thought — the second thing was how beautiful she was at that moment. You know, she was just — but I didn’t even know whether she was beautiful or not, until I thought about what she might think. Then the third thing, of course, is: Why does she want that? You know, what makes her think that’s an improvement? And that kind of self-loathing, which is real, you know, when you don’t have any support, made me think of that as a real subject for a book, not some, oh, victim, but really how it works.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Giovanni, as Toni Morrison talks about writing The Bluest Eye, about a young black girl in rural Ohio in the 1940s, who was raped by her father, driven to madness, if you can talk about the significance of this book and why you walked to meet her? It was a 2000 pick for the Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. And people might say, “Oh, why are you raising that now?” Well, actually, Oprah Winfrey said she wouldn’t even have made a book club if it weren’t for Toni Morrison. Nikki Giovanni?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: And I think she’s right. You know, Pecola didn’t like herself. And I think that’s what Toni was dealing with, that Pecola — The Bluest Eye was just a metaphor. Pecola wanted to be something, that somebody could be seen, that she could look at herself.
And I’ll tell you, the kid that I like so much right now is Renée Watson, who is a big woman. And she’s begun writing about what it is to be a big woman, that she can look at herself, because you look at yourself, and you say, “Oh, I’m too fat.” I’m somebody who always needs to gain weight, because I’ve had a situation with cancer. I’m not fighting cancer; I’m trying to live with it. But I need to gain weight. I need to make sure that my weight doesn’t — I don’t want to lose weight. And we live in a world that I turn on my television, and it’s like, “Wow! You can lose weight.” I don’t want to lose weight. I want to gain weight. But there are people who are waiting — who are big, and nobody’s writing about them, except Renée is writing about them. And I think she’s a brilliant young woman. I think the next Nobeless should be Edwidge Danticat, who is just an incredibly wonderful, wonderful writer.
So, when we start to look at what made Pecola, if Pecola had been able to read Renée, or had been able to read Edwidge, or had been able, for that matter, to read — and I love him so much — Kwame Alexander, if she had been able to find somebody that said, “But you are. You are a pretty girl. It’s all right” — and you say, “Well, rape is a horrible thing.” I think rape is pretty bad. I’ve never been raped, so I’m happy about that. But I think that it’s not something that the person who was raped did; it’s something that was done to you. And so, things that are done to you, you have to find a way to push that — you have to find a way to push that back. It’s not your fault. And I think that Toni was taking the steps to say, “It’s not your fault.” I mean, Ohio — look at Ohio right now, and that’d be a whole discussion that we’re not going to have. But look at Dayton, and look at what’s happening in — look at what’s happening in America. And so, we’ve got to do better. So we need a little more — we need a little more Toni Morrisons.
AMY GOODMAN: And I do actually want to talk about that with you before the end of the show, because here you are at Virginia Tech, 32 people killed in the massacre there. You taught the actual shooter. And that’s another discussion, but I do want to get back to it. However, I want to go to Sonia Sanchez right now, the award-winning poet, one of the foremost leaders of the Black Studies and Black Arts movement, author of 20 books, including Morning Haiku and Shake Loose My Skin. Sonia, you’ve said, “What Toni has done with her literature is that she has made us look up and see ourselves.” Explain when you first discovered her, how you teach her to your students, what she has meant in your own writing.
SONIA SANCHEZ: Good morning, Sister Angela and Sister Nikki and Sister Amy. It is good being on this program. I just had surgery on my mouth yesterday, so I’m hoping that you can understand what I’m saying.
But, my dear sister, we were at the beginning of the Black Studies movement here in America, and I was blessed to teach — initiate the first course on the black woman in America. And that was at the University of Pitt in 1969. And, of course, when I moved back to the East and came back home, I then had to begin to look for books and other books that I had to include in that discussion of black women. And I, of course, read The Bluest Eye.
Let me tell you, my dear sister, when I read The Bluest Eye, I sat down on the floor. You know, I read in all kinds of positions, sometimes in bed stretched out, sometimes on the couch sitting rigidly rigid, sometimes walking back and forth as I read. I did not put that book down. I literally started it from the beginning, and later on that night, up in my study, where I had ended with a cup of hot tea, that I began to finish that book.
And what I knew, that this woman, this sister, Toni Morrison, did something with language, with words, how she, in a sense, in that book and all the other books, untangled this language that had captured us in this place called America, how she began to stand those words up and how she let those words minuet our blood, you know. And so she opened up this thing called sorcery, the sorcery of our language. And she was spitting teeth on our words, but she was recapturing our most sacred vows, those vows in our language, in a place called America.
And, you know, I taught that book. That was one of the books that I constantly taught, that I always said to Sister Toni — when people began to talk about her greatest book, you know, I said, “Well, you know, I always gravitate back towards The Bluest Eye, because of what it says and what it does for us as black women.”
I, at some point, began to look and understand that, you know, in many African cultures, when you have twins, it is said that the first twin that comes out comes out to search and make sure it’s OK for the second twin. So you come out, and you look around. I maintain, when I teach, that The Bluest Eye was that first twin, coming out, looking around, searching, saying, “Is it OK to say this? Is it OK, what I’m going to say? Is there fertile land for this? Are there fertile eyes for this? Is there fertile memory for what I’m going to say?” And then all the other — all the other children came out, from Sula on down to Beloved. But that first one, The Bluest Eye, was the one that came out to say, “Hey, is it safe to do this? Let me tell you what’s happening out here as you prepare to bring us these other books.”
So, one of the things, every time I read her, I would always put on my eyes. You know, I used to tell her this, because I was always in the eyelash of her memory, where there was always a miracle called Sister Toni Morrison.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and we’re going to come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Sonia Sanchez, we’re talking to Nikki Giovanni, and we’re talking to Angela Davis, about the late, great Toni Morrison. She died at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx with complications of pneumonia on Monday night. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.