Toni Morrison was more than an acclaimed novelist. She was, for much of the last quarter-century, a voice of national conscience who spoke with piercing moral clarity about politics, race and cultural change.
She received particular attention for comments about three modern American presidents, writing with eloquence and fury about the values they embodied. In one enduring phrase, Morrison, who died Monday at 88, called Bill Clinton “our first black president” — an assertion that stirred years of debate, and for which she later expressed a measure of regret over how it had been misinterpreted.
“Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and other celebrated novels and works of nonfiction are surely her most enduring literary contributions. But Morrison’s thoughts about the presidents who helped shaped the last three decades of American life might help historians better understand the writer — and the times in which she lived.
In The New Yorker in October 1998, Morrison lamented what she saw as the mistreatment of President Clinton, beginning with the Whitewater real estate scandal of the early 1990s and culminating with the furor over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“The Presidency is being stolen from us,” Morrison wrote. “And the people know it.”
Morrison, appearing to suggest that African American men could surely relate to Clinton, wrote that the embattled president, “white skin notwithstanding,” was “our first black president.” She went on:
Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.
In the years that followed, some liberal Democrats embraced Morrison’s characterization of Clinton. But her words were also contentious. Clinton, progressive critics argued, harmed African American families with welfare reform efforts and a 1994 crime billthat many experts blame for accelerating mass incarceration.
Ten years later, in an interview with Time magazine amid the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Morrison said readers had “misunderstood that phrase” about Clinton:
I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.
As that 2008 presidential primary race got underway, Morrison publicly endorsed Barack Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois.
In a letter to Obama quoted by The New York Times, written at “one of those singular moments that nations ignore at their own peril,” Morrison explained that her endorsement was not based on Obama’s racial identity: “I would not support you if that was all you had to offer or because it might make me proud.”
The author told the future president:
In addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don’t see in other candidates. That something is a creative imagination which, coupled with brilliance, equals wisdom.
Morrison told The Guardian in 2012 that she “felt very powerfully patriotic when I went to the inauguration of Barack Obama,” adding: “I felt like a kid.”
In the same interview, she bemoaned the “hateful” attacks on Obama from conservative critics and some 2012 Republican presidential contenders. She criticized what she saw as racially coded language in Republican politics, such as when Newt Gingrich called Obama the “food-stamp president.”
As Obama’s second term approached, Morrison told The Guardian, that GOP rhetoric was now “really embarrassing for my country.”
Obama, who in 2012 bestowed Morrison with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, paid tribute to the late author Tuesday on Twitter:
Morrison was one of 16 prominent writers who, immediately after the 2016 presidential election, contributed short essays to The New Yorker about the meaning of Trump’s surprise victory.
In “Mourning for Whiteness,”Morrison lamented fatal police shootings and racially motivated violence, such as the 2015 church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, and decried that so many white Americans were “prepared to abandon their humanity … in the name of white power and supremacy.” She expressed fear over the implications of Trump’s rise to power:
So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.
She also directly condemned the new president: “On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters — both the poorly educated and the well educated — embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump.”