During the forties, for a black family on a run-down block in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, there was no question of fitting in. Not that there wasn’t integration of a sort. Lorain, and occasionally the Wofford house, was mixed by necessity. “We were mostly poor-ish, and we had no choice except help one another,” Morrison explains. “I remember powerful exchanges”—sampling the Czech neighbors’ cabbage rolls, occasionally sharing a room and even a bed with white boarders.
It wasn’t the South, from which her sharecropper grandparents had fled with little more than a violin and (just barely) their lives. Nor was it quite the sepia-toned portrait of class solidarity that Morrison occasionally paints. Landlord after landlord hounded them out of white areas, and while all the kids played under the 21st Street bridge, the races were apart, eyeing each other across the tracks. Morrison has often spoken of vacillating between her mother’s quiet optimism and her father’s unvarnished hatred of white people.
In school, though, everyone had to mix. “The school was a leveling agent—like the cemetery,” says Jeanne Atanasoff, a high-school friend of Morrison’s who corresponds regularly with her. “But she was way ahead of the rest of us. The whites voted for her for class treasurer!” She was also in the drama club and the National Honor Society. “She was so liked, and she was focused. They didn’t have affirmative action then. She was respected because she was an achiever.” The only way she could fit in was by standing out.
After school, Chloe kept close to home. She and her three siblings would dance to her grandfather’s violin or the songs of her mother, Ramah. “She had the most beautiful singing voice in the world, and she could sing anything,” Morrison says. “People used to come from all around to hear her in church, and go weeping.”
At night her parents told R-rated ghost stories, like one about a murdered wife who returned home holding her own severed head. The following evening, the kids had to retell the tales with variations: Maybe it was snowing, or there was blood dripping from the head. “This was all language,” she says now. There were also fifteen-minute plays on the radio, which “influenced me as much if not more,” she remembers. “If they said ‘green,’ you had to figure out in your head what shade that was. And you only heard voices. So everything else you had to build, imagine. Everything.”
Morrison’s neat, pretty house on the Hudson looks nothing like the squat boathouse she bought in the late seventies, on the same plot of riverbank. “In those days,” she says, “people didn’t move this close to the water. Now it’s like the most expensive property in the village.” A few months after she won the Nobel Prize, the boathouse burned down “to the Earth.” Her son Slade was in the house when an errant cinder leaped out of the fireplace; he escaped, but much of the family memorabilia was gone—a loss that still brings her to the verge of tears.
The house built in its place is warm and colorful, enlivened with African sculptures and tureens and abstract art and a spiral staircase. But there’s something a little too new about it. Though Slade was an abstract painter, none of this work is his; it’s been put into storage. One closet hides an elevator, which Morrison presciently installed not long before her hip replacement in 2010. “I have gotten up to fourteen minutes of walking,” she says. “I go outside, around the decks.” Before she retired from teaching in 2006, Morrison had two other homes, one in Princeton and a skylighted split-level in Nolita. She also owns a couple buildings upriver. And just a few weeks ago, she rented a new Manhattan apartment. She’s attributed her house-gluttony to all those childhood evictions.
The title of the new novel, Home, refers to Frank Money’s Georgia hometown, which lies at the end of a long, tortuous journey. Traumatized by atrocities in Korea and the Deep South of his childhood, Frank races back to save his sister from a sadistic white doctor. It’s an archetypal postwar homecoming story, reminiscent of The Odyssey. But it’s really about the upheavals that took Frank away from home in the first place, along with a generation of Korean War veterans and southern black migrants, during a supposedly tranquil and homey decade that was, for them, anything but.
Morrison’s fifties were very different from those of her haunted hero. She had opted for college at historically black Howard University, expecting some sort of Utopia for African-American intellectuals. Instead, she found herself in a segregated city (Washington, D.C.), on a campus segregated de facto by skin tone instead of race. The cruelties of racism were starker than in Ohio; even worse was the realization that its victims could be almost as cruel to their own kind. That Morrison’s firsthand political awareness came relatively late might, paradoxically, explain its importance in her work. “I had friends who lived in the South, and they absorbed it, and it doesn’t stand out as foreign to them,” she says. “But it does to me. So I look at it.” Yet it’s only now that Morrison is reexamining that decade for the first time. “Emmett Till was killed in 1955. It was all lying there, like seed corn—the seeds that blossomed in the sixties.”