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Remembering Toni Morrison's 'beautiful human urgency'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, an appreciation of author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who died last night.

Jeffrey Brown looks back at how she helped to transform modern American letters.

This tribute is part of Canvas, our ongoing arts and culture coverage.

Jeffrey Brown: As editor, teacher, and, most of all, writer, Toni Morrison changed and enhanced American literature.

In 2012, on the campus of Howard University, where she'd been an undergraduate, she looked back to her younger self just starting out in the world.

Toni Morrison: I was so confident and capable. The future was, you know, right there, right at your fingertips. And I was so happy to be among what I hadn't had when I was in Ohio, African-American intellectuals. And that was the company I wanted to keep.

Jeffrey Brown: She worked as a book editor first, and was nearly 40 when her first novel, "The Bluest Eye," was published, followed by "Sula," "Song of Solomon," and other books, 11 novels, children's books, and essay collections that made her reputation for bringing to the fore a distinctly African-American story rooted in the history and the legacy of slavery, written in a powerful voice like no other.

Toni Morrison: "Sethe was trying to make up for the hand saw. Beloved was making her pay for it."

Jeffrey Brown: "Beloved," widely considered her masterwork, was published in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize.

A 1998 film version starred Oprah Winfrey as a mother who escaped her Kentucky master and, upon capture in Ohio, killed her own daughter, rather than have her forced back into a life of slavery.

Morrison spoke to the "NewsHour"'s Charlayne Hunter-Gault when the novel first came out.

Toni Morrison: I read an article in a 19th century newspaper about a woman whose name was Margaret Garner.

It was an article that stayed with me for a long, long time, and seemed to have in it an extraordinary idea that was worthy of a novel, which was this compulsion to nurture, this ferocity that a woman has to be responsible for her children, and, at the same time, the kind of tensions that exist in trying to be a separate, complete individual.

Jeffrey Brown: In a recent documentary film, "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am," Morrison spoke of her goals as a writer.

Toni Morrison: I didn't want to speak for black people. I wanted to speak to and to be among. It's us.

So, the first thing I had to do was to eliminate the white gaze. Jimmy Baldwin used to talk about, the little white man that sits on your shoulder, and checks out everything you do and say. So I wanted to knock him off, and you're free.

Now I own the world. I can write about anything, to anyone, for anyone.

Jeffrey Brown: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, the first African-American woman to win, praised by the Academy for her -- quote -- "visionary force."

And she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by Barack Obama in 2012. Morrison was on the bestseller list again in 1997 for her novel "Paradise," set in an Oklahoma town called Ruby.

And the "NewsHour"'s Elizabeth Farnsworth talked to her of the period when freed men left plantations, sometimes under duress.

Toni Morrison: The isolation, the separateness is always a part of any utopia, and it was my meditation, if you will, and interrogation of the whole idea of paradise, the safe place, the place full of bounty, where no one can harm you.

But in addition to that, it's based on the notion of exclusivity. All paradises, all utopias are defined by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.

Jeffrey Brown: In 2005, Morrison wrote the libretto for "Margaret Garner," an opera based on the story from which she wrote "Beloved." Composed by Richard Danielpour, it starred Denyce Graves.

At the time, Morrison told me how moved she was by the experience.

Toni Morrison: There's this other thing, which is a kind of restoration, redemption that the opera can offer via its music, its words, its singers, and its stage, to the audience, so that, when you leave, you know more, you felt more, and you felt more deeply.

But, somehow, you are more human than you were, or you feel more human, more humane, more capable than you did when you came in.

Jeffrey Brown: More human, more humane, more capable, words that express what Toni Morrison herself created in a literature that so deeply affected her readers.

Morrison died Monday in New York. She was 88 years old.

And joining us now is one of many writers who were influenced by Toni Morrison.

Tracy K. Smith is the former poet laureate of the United States. Her latest volume is "Wade in the Water." She's a professor and head of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, where Toni Morrison taught for many years.

Tracy, it's nice to talk to you again.

First, talk about Toni Morrison the writer. What stood out for you in the language, the stories she told?

Tracy K. Smith: Well, I feel like what stands out for me is the amazing vigor and resourcefulness, the beautiful aesthetic sense that drives her work, the way that we can be moving forward and deeper into a world that is made up of characters, voices, and then suddenly we're in what almost feels like a spirit level.

Her work activates a beautiful human urgency that stems from the social conditions that her characters -- her characters live in, are touched by.

But it never stops being poetry. It never stops being a living language. And I think that's something that's been hugely inspiring to so many writers, myself included.

Jeffrey Brown: And what story did she tell over her life as a writer?

Tracy K. Smith: I feel like Morrison provides us as Americans with a vocabulary for acknowledging and grappling with the effects, the ongoing effects of slavery upon all of us, no matter who we are.

She reminds us that the lives of blacks who are often at the center of that story exist on a mythic scale that were central to what America is, what it believes itself to be, and what it might actively be pushing against as well.

It's a story that lives in history, but I think it takes art to bring those questions and those realities into an urgent kind of contact with who we are as people.

Morrison used to talk about, you know, crossing the mere air that sits between yourself and another person and how difficult that is sometimes. But it's the language of literature and art that helps us to do that. It pulls us out of ourselves and makes us beholden to other people who might be strangers to us.

Jeffrey Brown: You were talking about the influence she had on you and so many writers personally.

Tell me a little bit about that. You knew her as a -- you were a young writer. She's there on campus. What is that like? Who was she to you?

Tracy K. Smith: Oh, gosh, I remember -- I remember, in my first year on this campus, I was given a classroom that sat in what was essentially a vestibule outside of Toni Morrison's office.

And on maybe the third or fourth week of class, she walked through that space on her way into her office, and my heart stopped. I knew she taught here, but I had never seen her. And I felt this huge welling of awe and gratitude just arrest me.

And I thought, oh, this is -- I'm in the presence not only of greatness, but I'm in the presence of the real. I'm in the presence of, you know, the living word, Logos in a way.

Of course, she was so generous and present and devoted to her students, and had a really beautiful way of breaking down that sense of awe and making herself useful to the young people that she was teaching.

But she never stopped being great.

Jeffrey Brown: That's for sure.

Tracy K. Smith on the life and work of Toni Morrison, thank you very much.

Judy Woodruff: She never stopped being great.

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