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Mining Toni Morrison’s lessons to a black woman writer from a 2010 Chicago visit

In an hour spent in her hotel room with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who was in Chicago to be honored at the library foundation’s 2010 Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner, a black woman writer gained lessons of a lifetime.

Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey talks with Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison during the annual Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner Oct. 20, 2010, in Chicago, Illinois. 
Photo by Frank Polich/Getty Images

Seven months earlier, her peer, Maya Angelou, had given a talk at St. Sabina Catholic Church, and I got to reverently seek her counsel afterward, ecstatic to scratch off my bucket list meeting one of my writing heroes.

Now — it was Oct. 20, 2010 — I was headed to the Park Hyatt Chicago to interview the great Toni Morrison, another idol whose novels, like the late Angelou’s, had populated my journey to journalist.

As a black woman writer, you dream of sitting at the feet of trailblazers like these, whose journeys to the pinnacle of writing careers were far from painless, unapologetic as they were in probing and exposing horrors of the black experience in America, slavery to Jim Crow.

So after the Aug. 5 death of 88-year-old Morrison, I furiously searched for notes from the wonderful afternoon I spent nine years ago with one of the most provocative and respected novelists of the 21st century, when she visited Chicago at the invitation of the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

Ushered into Morrison’s hotel room, I was riveted by the signature cascade of silver dreads — putting me in mind of a lion as she reclined in the corner of a plush leather sofa, waving me to settle on the opposite side.

We began with my stammering how I’d read all of her novels, from the 1970 “The Bluest Eye,” to the 2008 “A Mercy,” then her newest work, on which she’d given a mesmerizing talk/reading the night before at Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

On the afternoon we were chatting, she was preparing for an “In Conversation” with Oprah Winfrey on her career that evening at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner.

She let me stammer on, as I told her how each of the novels had made me feel. Transported. Seen. The black struggle understood. And yet, uncomfortable, admonished.

I shared how I’d fallen in love with lyrical language in storytelling while devouring the 1977 “Song of Solomon” in eighth grade. That by the time I read 1970’s “The Bluest Eye,” 1974’s “Sula,” and her 1981 “Tar Baby” in high school, I was consumed with scrutiny of the black experience in storytelling. Then, reading 1987’s “Beloved” in college left me completely enamored with perfecting subtlety of messaging in the aforementioned mission.

In October 2010, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison hit Chicago for two days of celebration of both her career and her then newest novel, “A Mercy,” selected for the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program. Chicago Sun-Times Reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika chatted with her for an hour in her hotel room before Morrison’s “In Conversation” with Oprah Winfrey at The Forum.
Provided photo

Her light brown eyes twinkled with an amused expression as I got through all that, ending by telling her I’d really just rather talk than conduct a formal interview. She gave a hearty burst of laughter, and we proceeded.

Out of that talk came nuggets that have guided my writing since.

On the power of the written word and goal she sets for herself as a black woman writer: “Most knowledge is narrative, except for music and math. Constructing a story — writing — is an extension of what humans do to improve the human race. To me, it’s not a selfish, congratulatory process. It’s not solving problems. It’s opening them up.”

On the gangs and violence that then — as now — terrorized Chicago’s inner city: “Racism creates a sort of self-loathing and is lethal. It’s crippling. And that’s what we’re seeing. The consequences of racism are dysfunction, self-loathing. To transcend this, we need to understand it.”

On writers who inspired in her own early career: “It was mostly African writers, Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head. Linguistically, they wrote to black people, for black people. There was a distinction in the language, which I found liberating. As an African-American writer, you should be free to write as you wish, to whom you wish.”

On what makes her happy, and which of her works, favorite: “I’m happiest when I’m writing or thinking about writing. We have to tell the untold stories, our stories. I like all of my novels, different ones for different reasons. But the one I love the most is always the one that I’m engaged in at the moment.”

On her media-fanned friendship with Oprah, with whom she had dinner on TV in 1997, then gave permission to make “Beloved” into a 1998 movie: “I remember she called me up on the telephone about wanting to do the movie, and I said, ‘How’d you get this number?’ I’ve always admired her, of course, like everybody else. But we’re not really friends in that way.”

True to every past interview I’d gobbled up in preparation for our meeting, Morrison was authentic, having no interest in political correctness for her Afrocentric, feminist views.

Before leaving, I asked her advice to me as a black woman writer. She said:

Write from your life experiences. No one else can tell the stories littered on your path. Stand on your truth, and you’ll never need validation. When at the end of a painful journey you arrive, hold open the door for the next sojourner.

And when I asked for a photo with her, she said: “Only if it’s for you, if you’re not going to put it on Facebook.” I said I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. Somehow, I don’t think she’ll mind now. Rest in peace.