Toni Morrison never liked that old seventies slogan “Black is beautiful.” It was superficial, simplistic, palliative—everything her blinkered detractors called Morrison’s complex novels when the 1993 Nobel Prize transformed her into a spokeswoman and a target. No better were those blinkered admirers who invited themselves to touch her signature gray dreadlocks at signings, as though they harbored some kind of mystical power.
Still, even at 81, sporting both a new novel and a new hip, Morrison is as grand as she’s ever been. When we meet in her many-gabled house in the aptly named village of Grand View-on-Hudson, about 25 miles north of Manhattan, that bountiful woolen hair matches the lower half of a soft, enveloping sweater. Her face is polished in places and fissured in others, like the weathered stone of Mount Rushmore: the first black woman Nobelist, who’s lived long enough to speak to the first black president. Born only two years after Martin Luther King Jr., she’s a great-grandmother of assimilation—and she looks the part.
Morrison’s voice is as layered and visceral as her writing. The author growls, purrs, giggles, and barks. Discussing politics, her voice rises in indignation before cresting and breaking into a loud chuckle. (“They should have that in the military, or the prisons—a little affirmative action! Let’s bring some white guys in!”) She surrenders to a wheezing, shoulder-shaking, freight-train laugh when describing a particularly gruesome Funny or Die video. She booms theatrically in recounting the ghost stories her parents would tell every night. (“Sharpen my knife, sharpen my knife, gonna cut my wife’s head off!”)She slows to a pedagogical rhythm while discussing her “invisible ink”—symbols and allusions in her work that would be picked up only by a deep reader, or maybe someone writing a dissertation twenty years from now. And in more confessional moments, Morrison reverts to a register that’s gotten stronger with age, a husky but girlish whisper imparting both vulnerability and authority. That’s how she broaches, gingerly, the death of her son Slade, sixteen months ago, at 45, “which has clouded everything, everything, everything, everything,” she says. “It’ll be with me like a shroud, or a cape, forever.”
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford, and still thinks of that as her real name. She picked up the nickname “Toni” in school (from her saint’s name, Anthony), and Morrison was the last name of her long-ago ex-husband. To this day, she deeply regrets leaving that now world-famous name on her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970.
“Wasn’t that stupid?” she says. “I feel ruined!” Here she is, fount of indelible names (Sula, Beloved, Pilate, Milkman, First Corinthians, and the star of her new novel, the Korean War veteran Frank Money), and she can’t own hers. “Oh God! It sounds like some teenager—what is that?” She wheeze-laughs, theatrically sucks her teeth. “But Chloe.” She grows expansive. “That’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best,” she says. “Chloe writes the books.” Toni Morrison does the tours, the interviews, the “legacy and all of that.” Which she does easily enough, but at a distance, a drama-club alumna embodying a persona—and knowing all the while that it isn’t really her. “I still can’t get to the Toni Morrison place yet.”
That might be because Chloe knows Toni doesn’t belong to her. The things that made her Toni Morrison—Nobel laureate, political litmus test, college staple, gray-haired eminence—have never been completely in her control. Which isn’t to say that she didn’t break seemingly impenetrable barriers. As a student, then an editor, then an author and academic, Morrison fought unapologetically for the importance of considering racial politics in literature and of bringing marginalized American forces and shameful American secrets into the cultural mainstream. No one benefited more from her bold stance on the barricades of inclusiveness than Morrison herself.
And then the tide receded. Countervailing forces swooped in. “Political correctness” became a wedge issue, “cultural studies” a joke. Morrison still collects laurels most living authors would happily die for—the latest being the 2006 selection by a panel of top literary figures of Beloved as the best novel of the past 25 years. But two decades after she won her Nobel, Toni Morrison’s place in the pantheon is hardly assured. A writer of smaller ambitions would live on contentedly in this plush purgatory, but Morrison writes—more and more consciously, it seems—for posterity. Having once spearheaded the elevation of black women in culture—Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Oprah—she now finds herself struggling to cut them loose, to admit at long last what she’s always believed: that she’s not only the first, but the best. That she belongs as much with Faulkner and Joyce and Roth as she does with that illustrious sisterhood. That she will pass the test that begins only after Chloe Wofford is gone, and Toni Morrison is all that’s left.