Editor’s note: Almost twenty years after the Unitarian Universalist Association presented the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award to Toni Morrison for her novel Beloved, the author’s acceptance speech has inspired the installation of a unique memorial to America’s African slaves.
In accepting the Melcher award on October 12, 1988, Morrison observed that “there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” honoring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States. “There’s no small bench by the road,” she continued. “And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”
Inspired by her remarks, first published in this magazine in 1989, the Toni Morrison Society has now begun to install benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America. The New York Times reported July 28, 2008, that the first “bench by the road” was dedicated July 26 on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which served as the point of entry for approximately 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to this country.
Morrison’s 1988 lecture was published in the January/February 1989 issue of this magazine, along with questions from the audience and Morrison’s answers. The lecture and Q&A are republished here with her permission. [August 11, 2008]
Melcher Book Award acceptance speech
When a writer begins to think about value and worth it usually means dwelling on a moment after publication, after the work is done—a period which I can call “after Beloved” now.
It’s that post-publication period when one can assess what was done as well as why. Outside of its novelistic or literary merit, even outside of the reader confronting the transfiguration of the page, what is it for? It’s almost as though the novel substitutes for something, that it exists instead of something else. I have to think about what drove me to do it.
The primary conviction one has when one begins is that it is absolutely necessary. The secondary certainty is that I alone am the one who can do it. How delusional. It’s a strong feeling, but is it also necessary fiction one needs to construct in order to do the work? The work which takes so long, which one has to feel one would have just as driven to write without readers, without publishers? And my answer’s always, “Oh yes. Yes.” The question I’m putting to myself now is Why? Well, it has become a little bit more clear to me, a year after Beloved, what perhaps, in very personal terms, the book has substituted for.
There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, or better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to. But I didn’t know that before or while I wrote it. I can see now what I was doing on the last page. I was finishing the story, transfiguring and disseminating the haunting with which the book begins. Yes, I was doing that; but I was also doing something more. I think I was pleading for that wall or that bench or that tower or that tree when I wrote the final words.
Questions from the audience
When I read Beloved I found myself stopping because I was scared and felt threatened. Did you feel the same way?
I didn’t feel threatened. I felt a lot of melancholy, sometimes fury, a lot of affection. But none of that was of any use. Love, fury, melancholy, joy—all of these profound feelings are the reasons that you write, but none of them is useful when you do it, because if you write out of that, you don’t have control.
I meant it to be real. To look at it with a prolonged gaze seemed to me to be constructive. One comes out in a better position than one was in without that information. I wanted that sudden feeling of being snatched up and thrown into that house, precisely the way they were. They were picked up from anywhere, at any time, and removed without resources, without defenses, without anything. Naked. They had each other, they had a little music, and they had the urgency of the task at hand. So that’s what the reader has.
I think that everybody that reads your work feels like you’re writing directly to them, right to their soul. How do you do it?
You can connect with other people, on a very personal level, in a number of ways. You don’t give them everything; you open spaces where they can come in. I never describe the characters a great deal—just a mark, an odor, something peculiar to them. I also leave spaces in scenes, particularly sensual scenes. You have to assume that the reader’s sensuality is more sensual than your own. Therefore, you just provide the way in which they can step in.
In Beloved, this child just appeared. I knew that the mother, Sethe, would believe that she was her daughter, that she would need to believe it, and that her daughter, Denver, would need it. But I also knew that I was doing something that might not work—having a ghost who may not be a ghost. So how do I get the readers to go along with me on that? Those who read it anyway know that anything might happen at any moment, but it still has to have some basis, though not necessarily in fact. Ghosts are not difficult because everybody believes in them, even those of us who don’t believe in them, because we don’t put our hands outside the bed when we sleep. We’re convinced that there’s something underneath. So if you know that somewhere in the heart, there’s still this little voice that says, “Ah, no, but . . . just in case,” then you can move with that. You can use that remembrance that’s in me, in you, in everybody.
In the section of Beloved which concerns Sethe’s story, do you or does the novel take a moral position on the infanticide?
The novel admits that it cannot negotiate the morality of that act, that there’s no one qualified who can, except the dead child. That is why her presence, or the belief in her presence, is so important. She alone can ask that question with any hope of a meaningful answer. I personally don’t know. I can’t think of anything worse than to kill one’s children. On the other hand, I can’t think of anything worse than to turn them over to a living death. It was that question which destroyed Baby Suggs.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t think about being a writer as a young person. I was content to be a reader, an editor, a teacher. I thought that everything that was worth reading had probably been written, and if it hadn’t somebody would write it eventually. I didn’t become interested in writing until I was about thirty years old. I didn’t really regard it as writing then, although I was putting words on paper. I thought of it as a very long, sustained reading process—except that I was the one producing the words. It doesn’t sound very ambitious or even sensible now. But I’m very happy with that attitude. The complicated way in which I try to bring the reader in as co-author or a complicitous person really stems from my desire to be engaged as a reader myself.
After I wrote Song of Solomon I began to think of myself legally as a writer. Up until that time I had another job; I never put “writer” on my tax return. I put something that I thought the income tax people would respect. But after that book was published I remember someone saying to me, “This is probably what you do.” I said, “You mean this is what I’m going to be when I grow up?” They said, “Yeah.” And I quit work.
Recently many black female authors have been receiving some criticism for the lack of positive black characters in their work, especially male characters. Do you see this as a real concern?
It’s true that when I first began to write, my work was much criticized—even despised I think—because I was not writing happy stories, about people who were able to put it all together in spite of difficulties, about people who had risen to a certain status. I realized that it was a problem, and I realized how important positive images could be, but I thought that nobody intelligent would take that seriously as criticism of a writer. If the critics felt that they could force me to “write positive images,” then clearly they assumed that I was writing for white people. It was a demand that I create an image for the “other” as opposed to my making an intimate and direct account to the people in the book and to black people. I thought the complaint was just headline stuff: things to say to reporters.
I have persisted in letting the characters manifest the idea. I don’t choose them for their category. Song of Solomon is loaded with a whole realm of positions: physicians, well-educated doctors, entrepreneur husbands, and so on. Milkman is not, you know, barefoot. I have used what seemed to me to be necessary for the explication of the idea, pulling from the whole range of the available. It’s humiliating to be asked to write propaganda. That’s not literature.
What writers do you read, and who do you turn to for inspiration?
As a publisher, as an editor, you get a little stupid because you read what’s submitted and you have to keep on top of that. You don’t have a lot of free time; it’s a 24-hour job. But there are people whom I read religiously, and people whom I read over and over again. Sometimes it’s just technique. I regularly read all of Marguerite Duras for example. I like the way she writes in French and English. I read a lot of Latin American novels—almost all that I can get. But I’ve also been reading fewer and fewer novels and more and more biography for some reason.
With regard to inspiration, I have to tell you that I was so self-conscious about developing a style of my own, about going to a place that I thought was virgin territory, that I was terrified of reading. Most writers don’t read anybody while they are writing, because they don’t want anything to rub off. I was very concerned about developing this sound that I thought would be my own. I was not convinced I had done it until Sula. That book seemed to suggest that I had hit on a voice that was mine, that I didn’t write like anybody else.
I do know that I’m often dependent on painting for what one means literally by inspiration. I find literary solutions in paintings sometimes. It’s not just the action and the characters. You have to have a subtext, something underneath—image or scene or color—this is making contact with the reader.
What do you think of grouping yourself, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and others under the title of “black women writers”? Is there some benefit in teaching all of your works together?
It can’t hurt. I don’t mind being taught with Alice Walker, William Shakespeare, Milton, Marguerite Duras, or anybody. In some quarters, contemporary black women’s literature has been perceived as secondary or tertiary, a kind of limited ghettoization. But that’s only if I accept that definition. And I don’t.
Writing is my love. I’m young and I know there’s a lot I haven’t seen yet. How much living is necessary to tell a good story or to write a good book?
I think it differs with people. Experience just for the sake of it is almost pointless. If you can’t make anything coherent out of it then it’s not information. It’s not knowledge. And it certainly may not be creatively handled. Some people sit on the edge of bank and fish all day. They don’t even talk and yet they’re complex and fascinating. You have to work within your own life.
My life now is as uneventful as you can imagine. And that’s just the way I like it. I’m interested in what I think. I’m interested in what I imagine. I am not fascinated with my autobiography however. I’m reminded of a number of biographies about the wives of great writers that I’ve just been reading. It’s amazing how the fecund imagination of certain powerful gentlemen has been in fact almost a theft of the fecund existence of the mate. So I don’t have an answer for you. If you find that your work is mediocre it may not be because you haven’t lived. It may be because you have not learned enough about the craft.
After reading your books, I always feel so drained. I see my mother there. I see my grandmother there. I see my aunts there. It’s absolutely overwhelming. After you’ve finished such a work, do you feel drained?
The draining you should feel only for a little while. Don’t you feel nurtured and full later on?
I feel glad that it’s there on paper. But I was wondering how you felt after you’d written it.
Well, this book was difficult for me because I had done different things with other books, and posed certain technical obstacles for myself in order to stay interested in the writing in a way other than “how does it all turn out?” The process itself is extremely interesting to me. And from one book to the next I learned a lot about how to do certain things.
For Beloved though, there was almost nothing that I knew that I seemed sure of, nothing I could really use. All of my books have been different for me, but Beloved was like I’d never written a book before. It was brand new. And I knew that I was in the company of people whom I absolutely adored, in a situation which I absolutely abhorred. To stay in their company, to listen, to imagine, in invent—and not to write—was exhausting.
I thought, more than I’ve thought about any book, “I cannot do this.” I thought that a lot. And I stopped for long, long, long periods of time and said, “I know I’ve never read a book like this because who can write it?” But then I decided that was a very selfish way to think. After all, these people had lived that life. This book was only a tiny little part of what some of that life had been. If all I had to do was sit in a room and look at paper and imagine it, then it seemed a little vain and adolescent for me to complain about the difficultly of that work. I was also pricked by the notion that the institution, which had been so organized and had lasted so long, was beyond art. And that depressed me so much that I would just write some more.
I can see that you could have been really caught up because I could not put the book down. What was your family doing while you were haunted by these characters?
Writing is always displacement. It’s like walking underwater. And everything else looks a little dim and a little far away. It can last for a long time. You miss things, and friends who don’t understand get mad at you. Friends who know that you’re not responsible during those times come back. But children make you pay. You have to pay them for that neglect.
I was very moved by your opening remarks about creating a memorial through art for those who have no memorial. Who do you see as your models for that sort of effort?
I guess I’m just beginning to think of it in terms of a three-dimensional thing. I’ve always had a very close, rather intimate family relationship, because my parents do, and their parents did. I never felt that distance from history. I do all sorts of things because I’m embarrassed to think that my great-grandmother would laugh at me. And she’s been dead a long time.
But somebody told me that there’s a gentleman in Washington who makes his living by taking busloads of people around to see the monuments of the city. He has complained because there is never anything there about black people that he can show. And he’s black. I can’t explain to you why I think it’s important but I really do . . . I think it would refresh. Not only that, not only for black people. It could suggest the moral clarity among white people when they were at their best, when they risked something, when they didn’t have to risk and could have chosen to be silent; there’s no monument for that either.
I don’t have any model in mind, or any person, or even any art form. I just have the hunger for a permanent place. It doesn’t have to be a huge, monumental face cut into a mountain. It can be small, some place where you can go put your feet up. It can be a tree. It doesn’t have to be a statue of liberty.
Copyright © 1988 by Toni Morrison. Photograph (above): Novelist Toni Morrison, shown here in a 2006 photo, received the UUA's Melcher Book Award for Beloved in 1988 (AP Photo/Michel Euler). This article originally appeared in World: Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association 3:1 (January/February 1989): 4-5, 37-41.
- Bench of Memory at Slavery’s Gateway.New York Times story about the Toni Morrison Society’s installation on July 26, 2008, of the first “bench by the road.” Morrison introduced the idea in a speech published in this magazine in 1989. (New York Times, 7.28.08)
- Beloved: A Novel. By Toni Morrison. Vintage, 2004. (Amazon.com)
- Toni Morrison Society.Scholarly organization is placing “benches by the road” to mark notable sites in the history of American slavery. (tonimorrisonsociety.org)
- Frederic G. Melcher Book Award.Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual award honoring the book that has made the most significant contribution to religious liberalism. (UUA.org)