[Toni Morrison 1]

An interview with author Toni Morrison in 1979 about her life, work, and philosophy.

00:00Copy video clip URL No image. Microphone test with Ramsey Lewis’s “Oh Happy Day” playing in the background. 

00:28Copy video clip URL Co-director Julie Gustafson on camera during set-up. 

00:54Copy video clip URL Set-up and audio test with Toni Morrison and John Reilly on camera. 

01:58Copy video clip URL Reilly begins the interview by reading about the “tangle of pathologies” that have resulted from the historical destruction of the African-American family under slavery, from Daniel Patrick Moynahan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” 

02:42Copy video clip URL Morrison addresses the use of the term “pathology” to describe Black life: “Describing Black people’s life as a deviance from the norm, describing the family structure as ‘pathological’ is still common, even after that report. There’s some difficulties with Black families, but not the ones that he has described. What happened really with slavery is that they managed to destroy the tribes, but the reason for the survival of the race was the flexibility of that structure. The fact that they tried to substitute tribalism with large families, the fact that there were ways, places you could go for help, places you could go for succor.” She elaborates on the centrality of community and family support within the Black community. 

05:33Copy video clip URL Reilly asks about “elastic” and expanded family structures in Black communities. 

06:04Copy video clip URL Morrison affirms the expanded nature of the family in relation to the “nuclear family” of white communities but objects to the term “elastic” which applies instability or stress. She tells the story of her move to New York and her mother’s efforts to find “her people” in the area – relations, no matter how distant who would form Morrison’s family/support group in her new home and who feel responsible for her wellbeing. 

08:42Copy video clip URL Defining “family” as being less about love or than it is a connection that leads one to feel responsible for someone else. “I can’t imagine my mother, whom I love – but even if I didn’t, I can’t imagine putting her in an institution if she got helpless because I was helpless and could not feed myself and I could not clean myself when I was an infant. She did that because I couldn’t even spit as a baby. And then things go around in a circle, so if anything like that happened to her I would give her back that gift if that’s what she needed. I am her people, not just her daughter. I am her people. I am her comfort. It’s like wanting that familiar person around you so there can be some peace and some dignity for when you die.”

10:37Copy video clip URL Morrison discusses her father’s death, and the nature of different relationships between generations in her family. 

13:21Copy video clip URL Transmitting a strong feeling of family and community to her own children, which is difficult because she doesn’t live close to the rest of her family. It requires work. She notes that even though children leave home and sometimes leave their community she does not think that they are trying to “make it on one’s own” as individuals, but that they are searching for family. “Everybody is looking for family. Maybe not the one they were reared with but they’re looking for this incredible group of people who will be that for them, that cell.”

14:59Copy video clip URL Angela Davis’s book on incarcerated women in New York, who put pictures of children – not necessarily their own – on the walls, and who call each other by the traditional names for family relations: aunt, grandmother, etc. 

18:21Copy video clip URL Sociologists miss the strengths of the Black family and the Black communities “because they were trying to miss it.” Threatened by the perception of Black strength as a threat, “they found the illness because they had fabricated the fever. They were looking for ways in which these were weak people. They were looking for proof that they were incapable of, I dunno, overturning the government or becoming Andrew Mellon or something. So they found it. I don’t mean that they lied. I mean that they looked for it… and they found what they believed to be deficiencies.”

20:20Copy video clip URL A question from Reilly about the power structure’s refusal to admit the staggering inequality in wages for Black versus white workers, and the efforts on the part of that power structure to attribute perceived deficiencies to weaknesses in Black families. 

21:20Copy video clip URL The impossibility of “making it” within the system while maintaining a strong sense of family for Black workers.  



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