As timely as could be after the Daniel Handler debacle at the National Book Awards 2014, grand dame of American letters Toni Morrison spoke out on the issue of race on the Colbert Report in terms that ought to help lay the whole issue to rest, for those who have ears to hear.
Asked by Stephen Colbert if she felt any burden after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison said “I know that my books are worthy. Which is separate from me.” And asked what she would like to be pigeonholed as – other than an African American writer – she answered: “as an American writer.” In that context, by the way, please note that her picture for this article is taken from the official Nobel Prize website – something that can be done with very few other living writers, whatever their nationality or the color of their skin.
With a sardonic laugh when Colbert claimed that “I don’t see race,” Toni Morrison continued:
You have to know something about racism … There is no such thing as race. None. There’s just the human race. Scientifically, anthropologically, race is a construct, a human construct; and it has benefits. Money can be made off of it. People who don’t like themselves can feel better off of it. It can describe certain kinds of behavior that are wrong or misleading. So it has a social function, racism. But race can only be defined as a human being.
Asked, following on from this, if her entire writing career was a mid-life crisis in the light of her late start as a writer (at age 39), Morrison instanced a crisis of a different kind:
I wanted to show how painful this constructed horrible racism was on the most vulnerable people in society – girls, black girls, poor girls – and that it really and truly could hurt you. That’s what I was looking for and no one I thought had written that book. So since I really wanted to read it, I thought I should write it.
I’d be interested to see if Daniel Handler ever makes the nomination slate for the Nobel Prize, but perhaps Nobel Prize-envy, or Presidency-envy, is partly to blame for his little upset at the National Book Awards? After all, as Toni Morrison has just pointed out so gracefully, racism is a great way of feeling better about yourself. And, also, by the way, of causing pain to vulnerable young girls, like Jacqueline Woodson‘s Brown Girl Dreaming – the subject of Daniel Handler’s gaffe. Time for some more soul-searching, America. And reading the complete works of Toni Morrison might be a good place to start. After all, even the author, after rereading them for the first time in decades, can attest that they’re damn good.