In the short story by John Cheever, “The Death of Justina” the author writes a sentence that is, at the same time, a polemic, an accusation, a plea, and an existentialist query. The main character Moses, on seeing the undertaker and his helpers at the funeral, says, “How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?” Toni Morrison wrote both death and love in such critical, lyrical, and historical terms that every novel of hers read to me like a kind of alarm, a bell going off in my subconscious, slowly and gradually rising to the level of a clarion call. She meant her readers to understand death, and degradation, pride and self-hatred, love and all its pale shadows that look like love but ultimately taste of ashes.
In June, Film Forum opened Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, a documentary film directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and then on August 5, Morrison died at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. So we who loved her work and her have tasted ashes. But the film also helps us celebrate her: a Nobel Laureate who wrote such piercing, gut wrenching prose that when I read Beloved in my 20s, I had to try a few times, pick up the book, and put it down and pace myself. Love and death are difficult things, which are made more fraught by the imposition of slavery, systematic oppression, and organized abuse. I don’t know of any other fiction writer who could find the dangling thread in her readers and pull and pull until we became unraveled heaps crying because more than a century ago a man whipped a chokeberry tree into another human being’s back.
To capture the life of this woman, this bringer of comprehension of our most subtle and devious aspects, the film wisely asks other authors and some academics to weigh in and explain who and what Morrison was. To help me parse what all took place in the film I had a conversation with a friend, Steven G. Fullwood, an archivist formerly of the Schomburg Center, who founded the Nomadic Archivists Project which he co-directs with Miranda Mims. Fullwood is the new project director for the Center for Black Visual Culture, and in his long experience with literature and poetry has edited and published many Black and LGBTQ writers and poets. He also happens to have read more of and about Morrison than I have. Together we thought through the film and whether it faithfully rendered a writer, a phenomenon who is still clanging in our heads.
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Hyperallergic: We want to talk about Toni Morrison’s film, The Pieces I Am. Maybe we can start with your general impressions?
Steven Fullwood: I was moved by this idea that she allowed someone to film her life after many years of telling biographers that she would never write about her own life. She felt it was boring. She really didn’t have much to say. I was sort of surprised by that move. I left [the film screening] and I called a friend immediately, and we were debating about whether or not I had a right to ask for a Toni Morrison film that she didn’t want to do.
Do you remember, there’s a part of the film where she’s Chloe Anthony Wolford?
H: Yes, I do remember that.
SF: She said that Chloe Wolford wouldn’t be doing this film, and so I got my answer early on in the film: The kind of film that we’ll be focusing on would be her professional life as a writer, as an editor, as a speaker.
I saw it a second time, and the second time I saw it I was so much more enchanted, because I just let myself be enveloped by her voice and her storytelling. It really connected me to why I love her so much. Her and her work. I’ll say her work. It’s that Morrison has a way of writing stories that allow you to be in them so you’re not just being told a story. She has this gift of helping you become a part of that story. It sounds a bit hokey, but I do feel like when I’m reading her work, I’m in her work. What did you think about the film?
H: I genuinely think that the film was good [and] conventional in a way that they get the main protagonist, Toni Morrison, sitting in a chair telling stories, and the camera’s dead on. It doesn’t move except metaphorically to jump cut to shots of the outside of Toni Morrison’s house, down by the water, the rocks, and then, of course, talking heads who essentially gather around the campfire to say, “Yes, Toni Morrison is great in these and these ways.”
Here’s the thing. She’s a teacher and so this anecdote comes to mind. Someone once described teaching as essentially the profession which entails placing bombs in children that will go off at some point you don’t know. You won’t be there when the bomb goes off. I think of that with Toni Morrison. I think that in Beloved, she set small bombs in the literature and in me, that went off years later. It was years later, I was thinking about a scene where Paul D is caressing the scars on Sethe’s back he describes as [a] chokeberry tree, that I finally was able to connect that with the archival image of the slave who had been whipped so many times that his back was just a mass of scars. I was like, that actually did happen to people. Oh my God.
SF: How do you capture that intellectual sensibility? Because people go to Morrison and they either love her or they go, “I just don’t know what she’s talking about. There was a fully dressed woman [who] walked out of the water, rested her head against the tree,” And you’re talking about the water as amniotic fluid. You could go. “Oh, it’s a ghost,” but with Beloved, I think it tried to wrap its arms around one of the most heinous things that have happened to people of African descent in this country — the most. From there, all of these other things spiral out into Jim Crow and other things.
That bomb you’re talking about: I read Toni Morrison novels to feel grounded in this moment, because I know she’s actually letting me in to pay attention. I don’t think there were bombs that went off for me, but they were more like, “Oh shit!” That kind of thing where you go, that’s a really profound way to look at that friendship or men and women’s friendships, or what jazz looked like outside of the Harlem Renaissance or the way people thought about it. What was it like for just regular folk? Yeah, I just wanted to bring in that she’s definitely not a conventional writer in any sense of the word.
H: Right. The film isn’t able to replicate the complexity of her work. But it points to how that complexity has affected other people. It does that really well. And I do like the fact that it shows several sides of her life, the difficulty with having a full-time editor job and then trying to be a writer and a mom at the same time. I love the fact that she does talk about her support network, moving back in with a mother after the divorce, getting her brothers to help out with raising her sons. That’s wonderful.
The editing life — for a film that’s conventional, they do an interesting thing where she’s talking about working [as an editor] with Angela Davis. At some point Davis is talking about that experience. She says, “I was used to being really analytical.” Toni Morrison comes along and she says, “Yes, but you were in a room. What did the room smell like? What else was in the room with you?” And then the film goes to a small animation where words on a legal pad are being crossed out, written over in red, and then you see that scheme roll out words on the page being crossed out or being moved and edited. I love that, because that is my experience as an editor.
SF: I think that that’s probably the most least-known part of Morrison’s life. People know Morrison as an author. They don’t know much about her as an editor. They listed a few people, and Angela Davis spoke about her experience with her. One of my favorite writers, Toni Cade Bambara walked into her office, and Morrison was like, “Well look at these two smart women.” She was with playwright Hattie Gossett, I believe. Morrison said it was very hard to edit her [Cade Bambara], because you might dislodge a thread in her work. I recommend anyone who’s interested to really look at the Conversations With Toni Morrison. There are two volumes, and when Morrison talks about her writers as opposed to her own writing, it’s distinctly different, but it’s still very, very detailed and very thoughtful, and like you said, What did the room smell like? Who were you with? She would try to get you to feel what she felt when she’s talking about her writers.
I still find it amazing that you can still have your own style and your own vision, and at the same time help the writer say what he, she, or they needed to say better and more clearly.
H: That’s right, and I don’t know whether you noticed this: Toni Morrison laughs a lot.
SF: What I think it is… I’d read something just today where she says “I’m very comfortable with my flaws and I’m very comfortable with my talents.” How awesome is that to be able to have that? What you’re doing is your life. You’re not looking at it in a judgmental way. You can find a lot of humor in her work too, despite the fact that she’s dealing with some really heavy issues. She did laugh a lot and I think that quality is also very endearing.
H: One of the other things I noticed: The filmmaker made a conscious effort to inject the film with modern and contemporary art: Mickalene Thomas. Faith Ringgold I think I saw, Rashid Johnson, Charles White, Benny Andrews, and there was a bunch of people whose work I’ve seen before, but I couldn’t name. I thought that’s not something you typically see in a documentary film.
SF: Yeah. I think it’s important to place Toni Morrison in a lot of different contexts. You can look at her as this American writer; you can look at her as a Black woman writer — she always said that [she wanted] that specificity.
I also feel like one shouldn’t be limited to a certain kind of image. This woman has written over a dozen books, edited more, so I enjoy it. The name of the film comes from a quote and I want to read it. I think it comes from Beloved. Sixo talking to Paul D, and he says, “She is a friend of mine. She gathered me, man. The pieces I am, she gathered them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
H: It is. Let me round this out by just asking this maybe somewhat provocative question. If anything is missing from the film, what’s missing?
SF: All the books post-Beloved. It just stops there. It just stops at the Nobel. Well actually, it does include Jazz, and they show pictures of the covers, but they really don’t talk about her work after that. I think that’s missing, but I also feel like that was pretty deliberate. I feel like that was a decision the director made to end on that note, because it was such a big note, the Nobel. But honestly I did miss that. I wanted to hear more about her other work.
H: I really wanted to hear from her sons. I really wanted to hear from her family, and there was no one to say, “Well, you know, Toni was like this as a mother, or she was like this as a sister.” I was hungering for that.
SF: And that goes back to what I was saying earlier. Do we have a right to ask for those things when someone says, “This is off the limits. Here’s what I’ve given you.”? The ways in which we treat the people who create art for us: We want to know all about them. We’ll scour the Internet, we’ll listen to each other, go to their events and stuff, and it’s well if that person dies and all you have was their art, that’s all you would have. And Morrison has been notoriously private about her private life. I was talking with someone about Lauryn Hill, someone who didn’t protect her private life in that way. What happens to you? Or D’Angelo?
H: Oh, you think there’s a psychic cost?
SF: It’s definitely a psychic cost. You don’t belong to the world in that way. You still have a right to a certain amount of peace and security and space, and I don’t think that folks think of it that way when they’re bum-rushing the stage and demanding things from you, which is why I don’t think I have a right to any of that. I’m really apprehensive about that because I think it’s a symptom of the 21st century.
H: I hear you and I respect that. I wanted a sense of who she was outside of her art, but I also recognize that honestly, the art is enough. I think it was Fran Lebowitz in the film who says that you should read Toni Morrison every 10 years, because you’ve changed and you can see other things in the novels that weren’t present to you before, puts the pieces of you in order.
SF: Yes. The pieces we are.