Dive into the archive and explore this rare and intimate 1978 profile of Nobel-Prize winning author Toni Morrison. Originally airing shortly after the publication of Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon, this program features candid interviews with the author as well as Morrison reading extended excerpts from her first three novels.
Welcome to the "All Arts Vault."
I'm Maddie Orton.
The Vault is the place to go for special access
to all things arts.
So we're going into the archives to uncover some of our greatest
gems from over 50 years of archival content
and share these programs with you
as they would have been seen decades ago
when they first aired.
Today we present a program
featuring one of the great writers of our time,
one who has spent their career
exploring the Black experience in America
with great lyricism and immediacy.
That writer is Toni Morrison.
The program you're about to see originally aired in 1978,
long before Morrison became a household name.
When director Richard O. Moore
followed Morrison with his camera,
she was a working single mother trying to find a balance
between her writing and supporting her family.
Throughout the program, you'll see Morrison reading
from her first three novels -- "The Bluest Eye,"
"Sula," and the then-recently published "Song of Solomon."
Hearing her so beautifully read her early work is a rare treat.
To date, Morrison is now the author of more than 10 novels.
She's a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,
the Presidential Medal of Freedom,
and in 1993, the Nobel Prize in Literature,
making her the second American woman
and the only African-American
to have won the literature prize.
The Nobel Committee described her novels
as characterized by visionary force and poetic import
and giving life to an essential aspect of American reality.
We hope you enjoy the program.
I was in a writers' group when I was in Washington DC.
I joined a writers' group
because it was a nice thing to do once a month.
And I liked the people in it.
Most of them were poets, as I recall.
Some were published.
And we had certain rules we'd set up for ourselves.
One was you couldn't keep coming
without bringing something you've written, something you...
So one afternoon, I sat down on a couch.
My little boy was less than a year.
And he was, you know, pulling on my earrings and doing whatever.
And I was writing like this on a legal pad.
And he would go away and crawl back and so on.
And I got terribly interested in what I was doing.
Got really good to figure out which word came before the next
and what was explosive and so on.
But just hurriedly writing it for that evening's meeting.
I was in the middle of an extremely important sentence,
he spit up.
He threw up all over my paper.
The funny part is that I wrote around it.
[ Laughs ]
I mean, you know, every woman knows that.
You know that they spit up all the time.
That I could take care of,
but I might not get that sentence again.
Narrator: Following her graduation from Howard University,
Toni Morrison obtained what she describes
as a shaky MA from Cornell.
And for the next eight and one half years, she taught English,
first at Texas Southern University
and then at her alma mater Howard.
Now we'll call him now. I mean, not this instant.
Narrator: In 1966, she was hired by Random House,
beginning in Syracuse as a textbook editor.
And a year later, moved to New York City.
By this time, she had acquired two children and a divorce.
Her first novel, "The Bluest Eye," was published in 1970.
Morrison: Serious writing began really after
I took the job as a textbook editor.
Perhaps it was the recent divorce or the fact
that I had these two small children
that I was the sole supporter, I'd known that I was not happy.
And I was eager to learn my job, but my spirit was --
And I was very lonely.
So the writing became a thing to do, you know,
after the children were asleep.
I was very confused that the writing was...
something I did with relief.
It was a way of ordering, I think, the universe.
No, that's the point.
I have some stuff that I have signed her up for already.
Two pieces. But there's lots of other stuff.
"There was a woman named Ivy, who seemed to hold in her mouth
all of the sounds of Pauline's soul.
Standing a little apart from the choir,
Ivy sang the dark sweetness that Pauline could not name.
She sang the death-defying death that Pauline yearned for.
She sang of the stranger who knew.
'Precious Lord, take my hand,
lead me on, let me stand.
Through the storms, through the night,
lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord.
Lead me on.
When my way grows drear,
precious Lord, linger near.
When my life is almost gone,
hear my cry, hear my call.
Hold my hand lest I fall.
Take my hand, precious Lord.
Lead me on."
Thus it was that when the stranger,
the someone, did appear out of nowhere,
Pauline was grateful but not surprised.
He came, strutting right out of a Kentucky sun
on the hottest day of the year.
He came big.
He came strong.
He came with yellow eyes, flaring nostrils,
and he came with his own music.
Pauline was leaning idly on the fence,
her arms resting on the cross rail between the pickets.
She'd just put down some biscuit dough
and was cleaning the flour from under her nails.
Behind her, at some distance, she heard whistling.
One of those rapid high-note riffs
that Black boys make up as they go while sweeping
and shoveling or just walking along.
The kind of city street music
where laughter belies anxiety and joy is as short
and straight as the blade of a pocket knife.
She listened carefully to the music
and let it pull her lips into a smile.
The whistling got louder,
and still she did not turn around,
but she wanted it to last.
While smiling to herself
and holding fast to the break in somber thoughts,
she felt something tickling her foot.
She laughed aloud and turned to see
the whistler was bending down,
tickling her broken foot and kissing her leg.
She could not stop the laughter.
Not until he looked up at her,
and she saw the Kentucky sun drenching the yellow,
heavy-lidded eyes of Charlie Breedlove.
When I first see Charlie, I want you to know it was like
all the bits of color from that time down home,
when all us children went berry-picking after funeral,
and I put some in the pocket of my Sunday dress
and they mashed up and stained my hips.
My whole dress was messed up with purple.
It never did wash out, not the dress, nor me.
I could feel that purple deep inside me.
And the lemonade mama used to make
when pap came in out of the fields.
It would be cool and yellowish
with seeds floating near the bottom.
And that streak of green them June bugs made
on the trees at night, we left them down home,
all them colors was in me, just sitting there.
So when Charlie come up and tickle my foot,
it was like them berries, that lemonade,
them streaks of green the June bugs made all come together.
Charlie was thin then with real light eyes.
He used to whistle.
And when I heared him, shivers come on my skin."
I was born in Lorraine, Ohio, 1931.
My mother and her family are from Alabama.
My father from Georgia.
My maiden name is Wofford.
My married name is Morrison.
I was a very good student, but I don't think
I went to college because of that.
I wanted to leave that town, and that was the way to go.
I chose Howard because it was a Black university,
and I really wanted to be among
what I thought would be intelligent
Black people by the boatload. [ Chuckles ]
Narrator: Although she and her sons now have
an apartment in New York City,
Toni Morrison's real home is an hour's commute away
in the town of Spring Valley in Rockland County, New York.
Morrison: So she sits across the river.
She took me to her real-estate person
who showed me 11 houses in that day.
And my mother says to me, "You moved all the way
to New York to live in a place that looks like Lorraine, Ohio?"
[ Laughs ] And I said, "Yes."
When I wrote "Sula," it was because I knew
then I couldn't stop writing.
Same thing with "Song of Solomon."
I always wrote for the people in the book.
Those were always the people over my shoulder who watch.
And they say, "Unh-unh.
Unh-unh. I didn't say that."
Or they say, "Okay.
That's just about right."
[ Chuckles ]
I suppose "The Bluest Eye" was about one's dependency
on the world for identification,
self-value, feelings of worth,
whereas I wanted to explore
something quite the opposite in "Sula,"
where you have a woman who is whimsical,
who depends on her own instincts.
And both exaggerations I find deplorable,
but my way is to push everything out to the edge
to see of what it is really made,
so that Sula would be "a free woman."
There's a lot of danger in that, you know?
Because you don't have commitments
and you don't feel that connection.
I think freedom, ideally,
is being able to choose your responsibilities.
Not not having any responsibilities,
but being able to choose which things
you want to be responsible for.
And so she is paired with a friend, Nel,
who is the salt of the Earth,
who takes on the responsibilities of her children
and whatever, as opposed to her very close friend,
who has none, accepts none,
and really and truly operates out of whimsy, whim,
and whatever mood strikes her.
"Eva was mean.
Sula had even said so.
There was no good reason for her
to speak so feeble-minded and not, old, whatever.
Eva knew what she was doing, always had.
She'd stayed away from Sula's funeral
and accused Nel of drowning Chicken Little for spite --
the same spite that galloped all over the bottom,
that made every gesture and offense,
every offset, a smile, a threat so that
even the bubbles of a leaf that broke in the chest
of practically everybody when Sula died
did not soften their spite and allow them to go
to Mr. Hodges' funeral parlor or send flowers from the church
or bake a yellow cake.
She thought about Nathan opening the bedroom door
the day she had visited her and finding the body.
He said he knew right away she was dead,
not because her eyes were open, but because her mouth was.
Looked to him like a giant yawn that she never got to finish.
He'd run across the street to Teapot's mama,
who, when she heard the news, said, 'Ho!'
like the conductor on the train
when it's about to take off, except louder.
And then she did a little dance.
None of the women left their quilt patches in disarray
to run to the house.
Nobody left the clothes halfway through the wringer
to run to the house.
Even the men just said, 'Mm," when they heard.
The day passed, and no one came.
The night slipped into another day,
and the body was still lying in Eva's bed,
gazing at the ceiling, trying to complete a yawn.
It was very strange, the stubbornness about Sula.
For even when China, the most rambunctious whore in the town,
died, whose Black son and White son said,
when they heard she was dying, 'She ain't dead yet.'
Even then, everybody stopped what they were doing
and turned out in numbers to put the fallen sister away.
It was Nel who finally called the hospital,
then the mortuary, then the police,
who were the ones to come.
So the White people took over.
They came in a police van and carried the body
down the steps past the four pear trees
and into the van for all the world, as with Hannah.
When the police asked questions,
nobody gave them any information.
Took them hours to find out the dead woman's first name.
The call was for a Miss Peace at 7 Carpenters Road.
So they left with that -- a body, a name, and an address.
The White people had to wash her,
dress her, prepare her, and finally lower her.
It was all done elegantly, for it was discovered
that she had a substantial death policy.
Nel went to the funeral parlor
but was so shocked by the closed coffin
she stayed only a few minutes.
The following day, Nel walked to the burying
and found herself the only Black person there.
Steeling her mind to the roses and pulleys,
it was only when she turned to leave
that she saw the cluster of Black folk
at the lip of the cemetery, not coming in,
not dressed for mourning, but there, waiting.
Not until the White folks left,
the gravediggers, Mr. and Mrs. Hodges,
and their young son who assisted them,
did those Black people from up in the bottom
enter with hooded hearts and filed eyes to sing
'Shall We Gather at the River?'
over the curved earth that cut them off
from the most magnificent hatred they had ever known.
Their question clotted the October air.
'Shall we gather at the river?
The beautiful, the beautiful river.'
Perhaps Sula answered them even then, for it began to rain.
And the women ran in tiny leaps through the grass
for fear their straightened hair would beat them home.
Sadly, heavily, Nel left the Colored part of the cemetery.
Further along the road, Shadrack passed her by,
a little shaggier,
a little older, still energetically mad.
He looked at the woman hurrying along the road
with the sunset in her face.
He stopped, trying to remember where he'd seen her before.
The effort of recollection was too much for him
and he moved on.
He had to haul some trash out at Sunnydale,
and it would be good and dark before he got home.
He hadn't sold fish in a long time now.
The river killed them all.
No more silver-gray flashes.
No more flat, wide, unhurried look.
No more slowing down of gills.
No more tremor on the line.
Shadrack and Nel moved in opposite directions,
each thinking separate thoughts about the past.
The distance between them increased
as they both remembered gone things.
Suddenly, Nel stopped.
Her eye twitched and burned a little.
'Sula?' she whispered, gazing at the tops of trees.
Leaves stirred, mud shifted.
There was a smell of overripe green things.
A soft ball of fur broken scattered
like dandelion spores in the breeze.
'All that time --
All that time, I thought I was missing Jude.'
And the loss pressed down on her chest
and came up into her throat.
'We was girls together,'
she said, as though explaining something.
'Oh, Lord, Sula,' she cried.
'Girl, girl, girl, girl, girl.'
It was a fine cry, loud and long,
but it had no bottom, and it had no top.
Just circles and circles of sorrow."
Narrator: Toni Morrison's third novel, "Song of Solomon,"
published by Knopf in 1977, received wide critical praise.
It also became a Book of the Month Club selection.
All of this meant that,
although she continued to work as an editor,
Toni Morrison was catapulted into star status
as a literary celebrity.
Morrison: I went to Lorraine, Ohio, my hometown.
And a woman said, "I read so much about that woman's book,
I thought I'd buy it."
She said, "But I went upstairs,
and there she was in that low-cut dress."
So she returned the book. [ Laughs ]
The Dodgers just scored two runs in the top of the first.
Now there he is fixing it in time and history. Two runs.
And so we know exactly when it is.
Well, they gonna have to.
They gonna pay that fool to run, right?
Exactly. [ Laughter ]
Morrison: I edited Muhammad Ali's autobiography.
I edited Angela Davis' autobiography.
I edited a book that got a lot of attention --
I loved that book a lot -- called "The Black Book,"
this very exciting project for me.
I would like to stop writing around the edges of the day
and, you know, in automobiles and places like that.
I want to sit down in the middle of the day
and spend five hours at it and not feel guilty
that I've taken some time away from a full-time job
or some other chore I'm supposed to be doing.
That's what I want to feel.
And if "Song of Solomon"
proves to be more than a literary success,
it may make that possible for me.
But for years -- you know, I've been working
since I was 12 years old,
and I tell you I'm getting tired.
I am fortunate. I like the --
and I respect the work I do,
but I don't want to take every lecture, every class,
every everything to make the additional income
that I must have in order to be the head of a household
with growing sons.
Narrator: In the midst of parties and promotional appearances
for "Song of Solomon,"
Toni Morrison found time to go to New Orleans in connection
with a book she is editing on master chefs of New Orleans.
Morrison: I heard it all my life.
I must have heard it so early that I don't remember
the hearing, you know, the actual telling.
It was a given that there was a time
when Black people could fly at will, you know, like a bird.
That's a tremendous story.
And when I was an adult, I read those slave narratives.
The Federal Writers Project used to do collected stories
of the slaves and the children of slaves.
One question they always asked was about,
"Did you ever know anyone who flew?"
Everybody said, "Yes."
Either they saw it or they had a relative
or friend who had seen it.
And the situation was always the same.
Somebody got fed up and ran out into the fields
and whirled and whirled and whirled.
They flew away.
Man, greater love has no woman in the world.
I tell you. And I have greater love for you.
[ Laughs ]
It's the only way I got down here.
They say, "Well, where'd he go?"
They said, "Back to Africa."
Good to see you. How are you in New York?
How's New York? New York is all right.
This is where the action is down here!
I was very concerned about that being not a metaphor
for anything, really.
I would start with the simplest thing,
which is supposedly really true,
that there were Africans who could fly.
"Hagar was dead, and he had not loved her one bit.
And Guitar was somewhere.
In Shalimar, there was general merriment at his quick return,
and Pilate blended into the population
like a stick of butter in a churn.
They stayed with Omar's family,
and on the second and last evening, Milkman and Pilate
walked up the road to the path that led to Solomon's leap.
It was the higher of the two outcroppings
that were both flat-headed, both looking over a deep valley.
Pilate carried the sack, Milkman a small shovel.
It was a long way to the top, but neither stopped for breath.
At the very top, on the plateau,
the trees that could stand the wind at that height were few.
They looked a long time for an area of earth
among the rock faces large enough for the internment.
When they found one,
Pilate squatted down and opened the sack while Milkman dug.
A deep sigh escaped from the sack,
and the wind turned chill, ginger.
A spicy, sugared, ginger smell enveloped them.
Pilate laid the bones carefully into the small grave.
Milkman heaped dirt over them
and packed it down with the back of his shovel.
'Should we put a rock or cross on it?' Milkman asked?
Pilate shook her head.
She reached up and yanked her earring from her ear,
splitting the lobe.
Then she made a little hole with her fingers
and placed in it
Sing's snuff box with the single word Jake ever wrote.
She stood up then, and it seemed to Milkman
that he heard the shot after she fell.
He dropped to his knees and cradled lolling head
in the crook of his arm, barking at her, 'You hurt?
You hurt, Pilate?'
She laughed softly, and he knew right away
that she was reminded of the day he first met her
and said the most stupid thing there was to say.
Twilight had thickened, and all around them it was getting dark.
Milkman moved his hand over her chest and stomach,
trying to find the place where she might be hit.
'Pilate? You okay?'
He couldn't make out her eyes.
His hand under her head was sweating like a fountain.
'Watch Reba for me.'
'I wish I'd have knowed more people.
I would have loved them all.
If I'd have knowed more,
I would have loved more.'
Milkman bent low to see her face
and saw darkness staining his hand.
Not sweat, but blood, oozing from her neck
down into his cupped hand.
He pressed his fingers against the skin
as if to force the life back in her,
back into the place it was escaping from.
That only made it flow faster.
Frantically, he thought of tourniquets
and could even hear the rip of cloth
he should have been tearing.
He shifted his weight and was about to lay her down,
the better to wrap her wound, when she spoke again.
'Sing,' she said.
'Sing a little something for me.'
Milkman knew no songs and had no singing voice
that anybody would want to hear.
But he couldn't ignore the urgency in her voice.
Speaking the words, without the least bit of a tune,
he sang for the lady.
'Sugar girl, don't leave me here.
Cotton balls to choke me.
Sugar girl, don't leave me here.
Buckra's arms to yoke me."
The blood was not pulsing out any longer,
and there was something black and bubbly in her mouth.
Yet when she moved her head a little to gaze
at something behind his shoulder,
it took a while for him to realize that she was dead.
And when he did, he could not stop the worn,
old words from coming louder, louder,
as though sheer volume would wake her.
He woke only the birds, who shuttered off into the air.
Milkman laid her head down on the rock.
Two of the birds circled round them.
One dived into the new grave
and scooped something shiny in its beak before it flew away.
Now he knew why he loved her so.
Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.
'There must be another one like you,'
he whispered to her.
'There's got to be at least one more woman like you.'
Even as he knelt over her,
he knew there wouldn't be another mistake,
that the minute he stood up,
Guitar would try to blow his head off.
He stood up.
'Guitar!' he shouted.
''Tar, 'Tar, 'Tar,' said the hills.
'Over here, brother man. Can you see me?'
Milkman cupped his mouth with one hand
and waved the other over his head.
'Here I am.'
'Am, am, am," said the rocks.
'You want me? Huh?
You want my life?'
'Life, life, life.'
Squatting on the edge of the other flat-headed rock
with only the night to cover him,
Guitar smiled over the barrel of his rifle.
'And my man,' he murmured to himself.
'My main man.'
He put the rifle on the ground and stood up.
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes.
He could just make out Guitar's head and shoulders in the dark.
'You want my life?' Milkman was not shouting now.
'You need it? Here.'
Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath,
or even bending his knees,
he leaped as fleet and bright as a lodestar.
He wheeled toward Guitar,
and it did not matter which one of them
would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother.
For now he knew what Shalimar knew.
If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."
I'm just so happy that the novel that I'm thinking about now
came so fast after "Song of Solomon."
I was very depressed after I finished "Song of Solomon,"
as I think many writers are when they get through with the work.
So I was lying in bed, and I felt so sorry for myself.
I'm in a delicious pit of,
"Nobody loves me.
My hands are shaped wrong.
The weather's bad. [ Chuckles ]
I can't fix the water faucet."
I mean, it was just whatever you can think of.
I felt awful.
And I was sinking slow.
"If you surrender to the air, you could ride it."
These are the words Morrison leaves us with
at the end of her third novel "Song of Solomon."
It's a line that, within the novel,
speaks to the central flight myth woven throughout the story.
But perhaps it could also be read
as an invitation for us as readers,
and as an audience, to surrender to the enduring power
and beauty of Toni Morrison's writing.
Following the airing of this program, "Song of Solomon"
would go on to win the National Book Critics
Circle Award for that year and was cited by the Nobel Committee
when announcing Toni Morrison as the 1993 prize winner
The committee described
Morrison as a literary artist of the first rank.
We couldn't agree more.
We hope you've enjoyed this look inside the "All Arts Vault."
I'm Maddie Orton. See you next time.