Elena Sheppard
April 22, 2015 10:59 am

This crazy thing happened when I was a college senior: I had Toni Morrison as a professor. For an English major and book worm, who also just so happened to be writing her thesis on Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning Beloved, this was a literary lottery win. For me, the weekly three-hour seminar was something of an academic mass. The handful of us who lucked out enough to be in her course would shuffle into the classroom, take our seats around the table, and wait for her to take her spot at the head. To say she had presence would be an understatement. We had all read her books —the lyrically gorgeous, troubling, heartfelt, impassioned stories, many of them about young Black women — but sitting in a room listening to her musings on life and literature was more than I thought possible.

We read a handful of books she’d selected in that course, all about people dealing with feelings of displacement. We’d discuss the reading, touch on style and literary themes, and inevitably she would tell us stories, filling the room with a kind of wisdom that even in the midst of my Ivy League university I had never before seen. She talked about politics, writing, big names like they were no big deal, and she always, always discussed race. One of the most lasting things I learned in her course was something I’m almost embarrassed to admit I never realized before it: In this country, when we discuss “people” we are referring to white people. When we are discussing someone of a different race — someone Black, someone Asian — we use a qualifier. “I was at dinner with my friend, she’s Black,” or “this Asian guy walked into the party.” If we were to say: “I was at dinner with my friend,” the assumption would almost always be that the friend was white. It was the most important lesson on race and power that I’ve ever learned. It was taught to me by Professor Morrison.

I’ve thought a lot about this disheartening and thought-provoking life lesson as I’ve read and listened to the interviews Morrison has done in promotion of her new book God Help the Child. The novel, which by review accounts is a massive success, is about an African-American mother named Sweetness who does not understand why she has given birth to such a dark skinned baby and decides to distance herself from the child. While the book is surely a must-read, so are many of the interviews Morrison has done in promotion of it. Hearing her thoughts on race, injustice, social hierarchies, and life brings me right back to that seminar table my senior year: Professor Morrison presiding over the room, a handful of books that meant something powerful to her on our syllabus, and all of us students soaking in every word she said.

While her thoughts on many topics are well worth reading, her thoughts on race (particularly during this interview cycle, at this time in our nation’s history) are must-reads. Here are a few highlights from her recent interviews. Professor Morrison has so much to teach, and all we have to do is listen.

On Racism:Race is the classification of a species. And we are the human race, period. But the other thing – the hostility, the racism – is the money-maker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.”

On the current state of affairs in the United States with respect to Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott:People keep saying, ‘We need to have a conversation about race . . . This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back. And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’ I will say yes.”

On injustice:They don’t stop and frisk on Wall Street, which is where they should really go.”

On dark skin vs. lighter skin: “I noticed what we call skin privileges was at Howard University. It’s a brilliant school. However, there was something called the “paper bag test”—whether your skin is darker or lighter than a paper bag. There were whole sororities that were proud that they had the lightest skin color. It was shocking to me.”

On writing:The writing is — I’m free from pain. It’s the place where I live; it’s where I have control; it’s where nobody tells me what to do; it’s where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing. It is dangerous because I’m thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place.”

On childhood:Even when you think you’ve had a wonderful childhood, I suspect there’s always some little drop of poison—that you can get rid of, but sometimes it just trails in the blood and it determines how you react to other people and how you think.”

On the pursuit of happiness:This world is interesting and difficult. Happiness? Don’t settle for that.”

Check out her novel, God Help the Child.

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