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Terry Gross and Toni Morrison on Race, Or Not

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August 23, 2015

I keep NPR on as I do routine work like cleaning, and it's a quick way to get the news as it happens. has this singular ability to make me want to hurl things. Right now, I'm listening to Terry Gross interview Toni Morrison an older interview, from April '15). She's genuinely perplexed by the story of Morrison's father throwing a white man down the stairs of their house, when Morrison was a very small child, because he feared the worst for his daughters.
Gross can't understand it, and by that I mean, she doesn't get it, and keeps pushing at it, finally trying to wrap her head around the story by wondering if the incident did not "disturb" Morrison in some way. Morrison asks her to think about her own father might have responded to a black man making his way up the stairs: "That wouldn't disturb you."
Gross remains blank and responds, explaining why she still doesn't get it: "It's a product of being in this not very violent working class/middle class family where I didn't see a lot of violence growing up, so *any* violent act would probably have been very unnerving to me." Her response, which is one of genuine bewilderment, not of the interviewer wanting to make sure questioning listeners get the full story, leaves Morrison having to explain that her father was not in fact violent to them -- a resistance to the narrative Gross's words summon up, of the intractably violent Black man who must, surely, have caused harm to his family if he could have done something like that to a perfect stranger.
This is why, these are the many whys, I rail, constantly, against the idea of "racial harmony." The only thing that will move us forward is to fully gauge the deep brutality of race history and to come to terms with the fact that shit was fucked up and that we are living examples of how shit is fucked up, on all sides. This is completely related to the economic (and too many people writing on race want to dissociate it from all that), but if we don't get how race has functioned to obliterate and brutalise millions, we are where Terry Gross is: a woman who has done thousands of interviews with thousands of different people and has presumably had to do some amount of reading on the history of race and who still can't get why a black man in 1940s Ohio might have responded the way he did to protect his children.
The interview continues, of course, with much pleasant chit-chat about Morrison's writing habits and her frustrations with age, the dangerous topic of race having been quickly skirted around.

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