Sometime in 1987, I think, I accidentally got to hear Toni Morrison read at a private gathering.
I was a neophyte assistant at a large publisher in New York City. A sympathetic editor had offered me her invitation to an “informal conversation” she couldn’t attend arranged between some publishing bigwigs and famous writers at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue.
There were a few dozen attendees, including Morrison, Barbara Tuchman, Jimmy Breslin and some other big names. I didn’t speak to anyone and no one spoke to me, other than the hostess, who questioned me intently about my invitation.
I was shunted to a side table too close to the dais where the writers held forth. I saw them all in profile as audience members asked questions and the discussion roamed from politics to the economy to the state of literacy in the United States.
Morrison sat silently through most of it, at ease, even regal. She was one of two women on the platform and, though I can’t remember, I’d be surprised if she wasn’t the only Black person in the room.
She had won just two national awards 10 years earlier and a few minor honors since. Her books were taught in some high schools and banned in others for her frank language and unblinking look at racism and its work. She had just published her fifth novel, “Beloved,” that year and was about to win a Pulitzer for it. In another five years, Morrison would become the second American woman and first African American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. She wrote another six novels, works of nonfiction and critical essays in a shining career spanning six decades.
I’ve forgotten whatever it was someone finally asked her, but I remember her answer.
She talked about food. Why she wrote about it, the role it played in her stories, the sensuous power it evoked. And then she read us an example from her book.
Biscuits burning on a wood stove in front of hungry children, a pocket full of stolen pig knuckles, a sack of fresh-hulled peas left on a porch for a starving family. And then what had to be endured to get their food and what they had to put out of their minds to consume it, like the sight of a slave scooping butter out of the churn to rub on his face, trying to fathom a crime he witnessed but couldn’t stop.
Her serene delivery was unnerving, as if these images were the most natural thing in the world.
In her book, they are.
“Beloved” is a ghost story about a haunted people — us.
Straddling decades across the Civil War and the river between free Ohio and slave Kentucky, it’s a story told in small pieces that gracefully gather weight as they come together through the present and “rememory” of its characters, and the occasional omniscient voice that gives life to the land and its memories too. Powerful images of the landscape, water, seasons and smells elevate the ordinary with the symbolic force of dreams.
The character, Beloved, is the ghost of an infant killed by her mother to prevent her capture by slave hunters. In the world Morrison builds, it’s normal, if terrifying, to live in a house possessed by the enraged spirit of that murdered child. The residents simply endure one incomprehensible event after another as part of lives spent in slavery, in hiding, and finally — though never entirely — in freedom.
“You know as well as I do that people who die bad don’t stay in the ground,” says one. “Jesus Christ himself didn’t.”
But any haunting pales in the firelight of evil done by humans, mostly white men, and both shed light on their lives even as some threaten to snuff them out. We visit that house and the roads to it over and over again, moving forward and back through time, but we are never lost because of the firm, soft hand of the author who leads us there, and because everything she shows us is uncomfortably familiar. Every American is part of that haunted family, and the ghost is no longer a child.
After shunning the house for years, the community finally comes together to confront what is happening there after Ella, a neighbor, decides a reckoning is overdue. “As long as the ghost showed out from its ghostly place — shaking stuff, crying, smashing and such — Ella respected it. But if it took flesh and came in her world, well, the shoe was on the other foot. She didn’t mind a little communication between the two worlds, but this was an invasion.
“ ‘Shall we pray?’ asked the women.
“ ‘Uh huh,’ said Ella. ‘First. Then we got to get down to business.’ ”
Driven from the house, we follow Beloved down to the river behind it, a highway to another life in every sense of the word. On the muddy banks, her “footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there.”
Only then does Morrison drop our hand to let us see what we already know in a new way.
“Beloved” and her other novels are banned to this day in school districts across the country because of Morrison’s firm grip leading us through the fields and forges of slave labor and all that was reaped. One district bleated that it could not expose students to such literature out of context. One would think a classroom is the first, last and best place for a student to get that context.
Defending herself, Morrison once defended another banned book.
“The brilliance of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ is that it is the argument it raises,” she wrote. Calls to ban it for its language were “a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”
As to her own work, Morrison was unapologetic.
“Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.”