Toni Morrison

She was amazing. As we were leaving, a student said to me, "I love the fact that she just seems so nice." That may sound like a sort of meaningless comment, but in this context it wasn't. I think the student was trying to get at Morrison's presence in the auditorium, which was striking in its understated warmth; it's hard to describe how someone can hold everyone's attention by being thoughtful, soft-spoken, and kind, and yet that's exactly what she did. She stood there, a 75-year-old woman with long grey dreads, in the middle of the stage in a 2000-seat opera hall, and I couldn't look away from her. She spoke slowly and easily, like someone telling a story, but there was a current of intention and focus holding her talk together.

She co-wrote an opera based on the life of Margaret Garner, the woman whose story was part of the inspiration for the novel Beloved, and she was there in Charlotte to give a speech the day before the opera opened. Garner was a woman who escaped from slavery with her children--escaped into Ohio--but then, because the Fugitive Slave Law said that no slave was ever free no matter where they went, she and her children were recaptured. As the white men were coming for her, she killed one of her children--she had hoped to kill them all, but they stopped her--because she wanted the children to be dead rather than to have to live in slavery.

Morrison started her lecture by talking about motherhood. She said that in the late '70s and early '80s, when she was developing the idea for Beloved, one main current in feminist discourse was a questioning of motherhood. Feminist authors and activists were articulating the ways in which motherhood is confining to women; they saw it as something that keeps women from being free. Morrison said she wondered if motherhood could be seen instead as something that actually frees women. She related some of her own experiences as a mother, her realization that she was enabled to be someone different in the presence of her children than she was in the other venues of her life. Her kids needed her to be a competent grown-up, and so she was able to drop some of the personas that the rest of the world wants from women.

She also thought about this question of motherhood as freeing in relation to slavery. She said that it might well be freeing to have your children if your history was one in which your children were property that you created for someone else's use. She questioned what that would mean, for your children to be taken from you to be used as cogs in someone else's machine, for you to be a machine that produces more laboring bodies, and that's what initiated Beloved.

And even as she talked about slavery, and about the sorts of brutal histories that her novels articulate (she describes her work as "literary archaeology"), she was kind and hopeful.

At the end of her talk she took questions from the audience--I think the event planners were surprised by this, because they didn't have microphones in the auditorium, so people just had to yell out what they wanted to ask. As she was answering one of the last questions, she related the story of a friend of hers who's "had some work done"--Botox, apparently. Morrison said, "I told her she looked good. She said she was worried because she was going to do a television interview, and she wasn't able to lift her eyebrows anymore, but that that would probably wear off." Then she paused and said, "I think it's it's sort of like a burqa. It's another way of covering our faces, keeping us hidden." A murmur went through the auditorium as that comment sank in, and all the wealthy women in the room who'd probably had some work done themselves registered what she meant. But her tone wasn't condemning or scornful; she was curious, and accepting, like a writer who's interested in how we humans do things, and interested in helping us be a little better to each other and ourselves.


Kenneth said...

Remind me to tell you about the time Toni Morrison was trapped in an elevator at the University of Chicago with Homi Bhaba.

Alison said...

Is that the set-up for a bad nerd joke?

Maig said...

I really enjoyed this post. I like your style of writing it, too. Just the way you worded things gave off the presence you were describing. I would have loved to have been there.

The Mom said...

And Maig, you said exactly what I wanted to say when I read this earlier, but decided not to say! Good for you! (Oh-oh - 2 exclamation marks in one comment.) Alison, I always like the way you write, and you did write very descriptively about Toni Morrison's talk. I'm so glad you're getting to do such meaningful things for yourself and for your students. I was just thinking this morning that if you had been one of my teachers in college, I'm sure you would have been one of my very favorites. I'm so proud of my part in helping to make you the open, perceptive, caring, sharing, intelligent woman you are today. (Feel free to edit out any of this you don't want on the blog - it's mostly for you, anyway.)

Anonymous said...

Has feminist thought dealt with the perspective of motherhood as having different meanings for people of different race and class backgrounds? The Penn sociologist, Kathy Edin, in her two books (2nd authors I cannot remember) _Making Ends Meet_ and _Promises I Can Keep_, discusses how many poor and working class mothers find the act of having and raising children to be one of the most meaningful acts of their life. It creates meaning for them, gives them purpose and fulfillment in a world that is otherwise pretty bleak in comes of social outcomes and prosperity.

I'm not suggesting motherhood is 'liberating', but a good number of feminists seem to come from much more wealthy outcomes, with possibilities and opportunities much different than the poor. Just that motherhood has very different outcomes based on the individual's social location.