The film opens with a photographic piecing together of Toni’s face at different stages of her adult life, a decoupage that changes as she grows older. Toni’s voice is the backdrop. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
Later, looking through my old copy of the novel Beloved, for which Toni won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, I discover those same words in its final pages, and they’re spoken by Paul D about Sethe. It’s a beautiful thing for a man to say about a woman. It’s a beautiful thing for anyone to say about another person, particularly when that person is regarded as an abomination by most everyone else.
The great Toni Morrison died last August at the age of eighty-eight, but this documentary about her life and work was released only a few months before that, in June 2019. Recently it was offered to me as part of a streaming bundle, after the civil protests started that were sparked by the murder of George Floyd. It’s a very different film than I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, discussed in my previous blog. Toni Morrison changed the literary landscape in this country by adding to the canon with her unforgettable narratives about African-Americans. If the extent of her impact wasn’t clear to me before, it is now through this film. As Robert Gottlieb, her long-time editor at Knopf, says, Beloved was a big event. “It crystallized the past for African-Americans. I don’t think of it as a work of history. I think of it as a work through which, if we choose, we can look at our history.”
Part of the film is an extended interview that takes place at her home overlooking a river. She speaks directly to the camera. She’s serene and wise, serious but quick to laugh, a natural-born storyteller both on and off the page. We also hear from her contemporaries: writers and poets, literature professors, critics and book editors, and Oprah Winfrey (who produced and starred in the film version of Beloved); there’s footage of her accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in Sweden in 1993, and from interviews with Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose, and of her long career at Random House, where she was the first female African-American editor in the company’s history.
It was while working at Random House that she wrote and published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970. Toni was thirty-nine, but it was a childhood memory that sparked the idea for the story. Toni grew up in Lorain, OH, a steel town on the shore of Lake Erie. It was, she says, very mixed in terms of race and culture, mostly a poor labor class with very few middle class people. One day Toni and an 11-year-old friend were arguing about the existence of God. Toni believed, but her friend didn’t because she’d been praying for blue eyes for two years and hadn’t gotten them. Astonished, Toni looked at the girl, who was “very very black and very very beautiful.” Later, processing this as an adult, she asked herself, How does a child learn self-loathing? She set about answering the question by writing the book she wanted to read. In an interview with Bill Moyers, she talks about the “master narrative” and explains. “Whatever ideological script is being imposed by the people in authority on everybody else. . .It has a certain POV [point of view]. When these little girls see that the most prized gift they can get at Christmastime is that little white doll, that’s the master narrative speaking. ‘This is beautiful, this is lovely, and you’re not it.'”
One day years later Toni was sitting at her desk at home looking out at the river when she saw a woman walk out of the water fully dressed, wearing a hat. The woman sat down on the shoreline in front of her house. Toni looked at her, but the woman never looked back and then she got up and disappeared. That’s when the author realized it was the solution to a story she was writing about a dead girl called Beloved. The book was her fifth novel, and the seed of the idea was a newspaper clipping she’d seen while editing a book for Random House. Back in the 1850s, Margaret Garner, a young mother and a slave, crossed the Ohio River with her husband to freedom, with help from the Underground Railroad. She was later recaptured, but she slit the throat of her daughter rather than see her returned to slavery. At her trial, the prosecution had to decide whether to try her for murder or the destruction of personal property. The conundrum: if they tried her for murder, it would mean admitting she was a human being. In Toni’s creative mind, only the daughter could rightly decide the mother’s fate.
Toni’s grandparents were sharecroppers in Alabama, but they moved north during the Great Migration. Toni’s older sister taught her to read when she was three, and the future author went to the East Coast for college, in part to escape the prying eyes of her strict parents. She attended Howard University in D.C. and later taught there after getting a Masters at Cornell in American literature. While teaching at Howard, she married an architect and had two sons, but they divorced when he seemed to want a traditional 1950s-type wife. The single mother edited books, wrote books and taught books at universities including Rutgers, SUNY-Albany, Yale, and Princeton. Along the way, some of the books she wrote were banned in schools (and at least one prison) and the news that she’d won the Nobel Prize was reported in The Washington Post in an article that quoted three male authors who were not happy with her win. They said things like, Beloved was a fraud; it was a fake version of the slave trade. Her win was a triumph of political correctness.
Early in her career she was praised for her talent, but criticized for her subject matter.
“When Sula came out, the early reviews, even among liberals, said things like, ‘She has a great talent. One day she won’t limit it to writing about black people. No one says that when Irish writers write about the Irish.'” Farah Griffin, Columbia University professor, in the film
About that Toni said, “I’ve spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.” About Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (which we read in my high school) she said, “Invisible to whom?” It’s not that she didn’t want white people to read her books. She hoped everyone would read them. But guess what? she says. “There’s a whole other world going on where they are not even looking.” The novelist Walter Mosley describes her work as “Shakespearean but pedestrian.” Like Shakespeare, Toni was writing about epic battles but ones that didn’t involve Kings and VIPs–just ordinary people.
The river setting at Toni’s house in the film is beautiful, but the location was undisclosed. Later I found out she lived in a little town north of NYC called Grand View-on-Hudson. I grew up in a town on the other side of the Hudson River, almost directly across the water! I wished it were more of a connection, but more importantly, I wondered why I hadn’t read more of her books after reading and loving Beloved. So I started with her first.
In the film, Toni says, “I started my career by putting my entire plot on the first page. So the reader reads the first page; he knows exactly what happened. And if he turns the page, it’s because he wants to find out how it happened or he loves the language.” I read the first page of The Bluest Eye and when I turned the page, it was because I had to find out how it happened. And because I loved the language.