Toni Morrison discusses racism and "A Mercy" during keynote speech

There are few authors that can bring together people no matter their age, race or gender.

Toni Morrison is one of those authors.

Tuesday night at the Chicago Public Library's 'One Book, One Chicago' keynote speech, Morrison brought the house down with a lecture and reading from her newest release "A Mercy," which was this fall's choice for the city-wide library book club.

The speech was held at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which was completely filled. The stage was set with a singular red chair, a glass of water and a simple table decorated with a vase of purple flowers surrounded by greenery. Above were the symphony's taut microphones which are pointed in all different directions. They are normally used to pick up all the sounds of the orchestra, but here they seemed to make sure no word the professor said escaped the audience's ears.

The night began with a speech by Mary Dempsey, the commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. Dempsey listed off all the awards Morrison has won in her illustrious career, including the fact that she was the last American to win the Nobel Prize in literature (1993).

When Morrison walked on, wearing a grey and black dress that matched her hair, the audience clapped furiously, giving her a standing ovation. Morrison started by talking about the beginning of her writing career and where she gets her inspiration.

"I was always interested in the consequences of racism," Morrison said. "In the self-loathing that is involved in it. A self-loathing that is frequently lethal. But, before we as a society can get through racism we need to understand it, so, (with "The Bluest Eye,") I decided to look at it through the eyes of an innocent figure, which I thought was a female child."

Morrison then told the story behind "The Bluest Eye": One day she was walking with a friend discussing whether or not there was a god. She said yes, there was a god, but her friend said that there wasn't a god. When Morrison asked her friend why, the friend replied that she had been praying for two years for blue eyes and her prayers hadn't been answered, so there must not be a god.

"I looked at her and in that moment she looked so beautiful," Morrison said. "If she had actually had her prayers answered she would have looked grotesque. This is just one example of the consequences of racism, which is such a flavorful part of America and that was really what I was exploring in that book and in this book"

When she started writing "A Mercy," Morrison said, she looked at the idea of innocence. "If nobody starts out that way (racist)," Morrison said. "What about a nation? We seem in this country to combine the idea of slavery and race, but that isn't true. Look at Greece and the Mayans."

"I wanted to look at a moment when people came here running from something terrible," Morrison continued. "Religion was bloody and this was a time when people held onto their beliefs with ferocity because of the culture they came from."

"A Mercy" is set in the late 17th century, which is a time in which black slaves and normally white indentured servants were just beginning to be separated, putting the servants above the slaves. According to Morrison's speech, it was not until after the Bacon Rebellion in the 1670's, which was fought by an 'army' of black slaves, landed gentry and Native Americans, that the government of Virginia put into place laws that began to separate the races. Those laws included the rule that black slaves could not own a weapon and that any white person could maim or kill any black person at any time, for any reason.

"The function of racism is dysfunction," Morrison added. "It is a route to power, but that power is not yours. It is not yours."

Morrison then discussed why she writes about 'good' people: "Evil is not interesting," Morrison said. "Good is interesting because it is allusive, it is something that you don't get paid for."

The main character of "A Mercy" is Florens, a slave, who is given away by her mother (for good reasons) to a family that lives on a rural farm. Every other chapter is told from her point of view with the chapters in between being told from the point of view of various characters in the book. According to Morrison, because of her early abandonment Florens is hungry for love and affection, but grows to understand that she only really needs to love herself.

"The book begins with Florens saying, "Don't be afraid,"" Morrison said, ""And ends with her saying, "Are you afraid? You should be." So you can see her growth. She ends much more like what her mother wanted her to be. Really these are all characters who are looking for self."

Originally, Morrison said, that her editor asked if Florens and her mother could meet towards the end of the book. "I thought about it," Morrison said, "But then I decided against it because slavery cuts through families. That is what it does, and it is unapologetic and there are no answers for those it affects."

Finally Morrison read the last two chapters of the book and the audience fell silence listening. Those that have read the book know that Morrison perfectly walks the line of telling the story through the eyes of the separate characters, some of whom (like Florens) are uneducated, but still crafting these beautiful, metaphorical sentences that draws awe from readers.

Closing the book, Morrison stood up and the audience roared with cheers and applause like it was a rock concert. Dempsey returned to the stage to present Morrison with a framed copy of the catalog card for "A Mercy" and both walked off stage to the thunder of frenzied applause.

Tonight, Morrison will appear at the CPL's Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner, an award which she will be presented at the event. She will also discuss "A Mercy" with interviewer Oprah Winfrey. Tickets for individuals start at $1,000.

For more information on the book, CPL events surrounding "A Mercy" and the meeting times for various discussion groups visit chipublib.org.

Sponsored Link: Amazon's Toni Morrison Store

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