In her new book, A Mercy (Knopf, 2008), Pulitzer Prize–winning author Toni Morrison mines the epic themes of race and class, love and friendship, oppression and freedom—this time through the rarely told tale of early colonists and the black slaves with whom they lived. It’s a page-turner, riveting and complex, and Morrison, ever the chain-rattler, hopes it bears bigger lessons for humanity. Empresslike with her thick, graying locks, yet given to easy, raucous laughter, the 77-year-old says there’s more in the works—a sign that after nine novels (including the acclaimed Beloved), the Nobel Prize for Literature, and tours as an editor, professor, and social critic, she’s not about to start taking final bows.
Q: You set your new novel in the late 1600s in Virginia, long before slavery had matured as an institution. Why? I was very interested in separating racism from slavery. The assumption has always been, in this country, that [slavery] began with a few colonists, and then came the Africans, and that relationship is the reason for much of the racism that still exists in this country. And I didn’t believe it, because nobody is born [a racist]. Racism is constructed. It was an insisted-upon protection for the landed and the aristocrats.
Q: You’re saying people start off in pretty innocent fashion? Think about all the ordinary folks who came here [from England]. Who were they? What was so horrible about where they were that they would spend half a year on a ship going someplace else? Well, 70 percent said they were servants—but many were felons or prostitutes or homeless people. And lots of children. Their choices were jail or transportation [to America].
Q: But then they arrived to find laws that gave them great privilege. Any white could kill any black for any reason. Now, you’re a poor white person who is indentured, and what you have is nothing but a little superiority over another race. And who does it protect? The people in power.
Q: You imagine some complex and surprising relationships, though. Well, once you take racism—not race—out of the picture, there is this rich, wonderful territory to investigate. The collection of people I put together were trying to make a community, make a family. What were the obstacles, the pleasures, the triumphs, the management, in a totally ad hoc universe? Anything might happen at any point!
Q: Might any of this inform how we live with one another today? It would be beneficial if people could imagine a world where there are strong ethnic and racial differences without hierarchy.
Q: Is this your hope? My hope is that it becomes not just imaginable, but rational. Everyone knows that children don’t feel any of this. You have to be instructed, told. It has to be reinforced. I always thought about that little white child who is nursed by a black woman and then learns that his affection is wrong, that he should not have loved and respected her. So if what you love is wrong, that is as shocking and traumatic as if you had the same experience with your biological mother.
Q: Will there ever be a time when race doesn’t matter in this country? Well, as long as it’s useful, as long as it’s profitable, as long as it is used to maintain power by nefarious people, no.
Q: You aren’t so optimistic. I have guarded optimism. Guarded. Because the young people I talk to are just different. They’re not hanging on to the powerful stories. They’re just marching along, marrying who they want to marry. They are not like my generation or even the generation right after me.