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Kerry James Marshall, A lithe young man..., 2021© Kerry James Marshall Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, London

Hilton Als on bringing Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking work to life visually

Having created a visual narrative of her work for Toni Morrison’s Black Book, the Pulitzer winner talks fan letters, the ‘Black global village’, and feeling bored by the language around race

​​Hilton Als has many strings to his bow. A Pulitzer Prize-winning in-house critic for the New Yorker, writer of note and curator, his insightful and deep-thinking approach gives him access to the emotionally resonant and profound. A master of understanding where genres meet, Als has curated the exhibition Toni Morrison’s Black Book at David Zwirner in New York, which explores the seminal publication by one of the most important literary forces the United States has ever produced.

While working as an editor at Penguin Random House, Morrison published work by Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Henry Dumas, Lucille Clifton, Gail Jones and Chinua Achebe. During this time, she published her own work including Sula, Beloved, and The Bluest Eye, and would go on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Humanities Medal, the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In this landmark exhibition, Als explores the mainly visual Black Book through works of art, touched by his unique perceptions and eye. Morrison, who inspired Als from a very young age, wrote in a unique and groundbreaking way about race, the Black American experience and as Als terms it, the “Black global village”. She gave Als permission to create a show such as this one before her death in 2019, as he told us in this interview.

​​What was your first experience of Toni Morrison?

Hilton Als: Well, my first experience of her was when I was 13 and I wrote her a fan letter about Sula. I had a very profound relationship to Paul Marshall’s book Brown Girl, Brown Stones. It’s about West Indian Americans in Brooklyn, and then I read Sula and the drama and the beauty of that book was so resonant for me in terms of the ways in which I understood how women live their lives… I didn’t have any language for it, but Toni had the language for it, and I wrote her a fan letter and sent it to her at Random House and she wrote back, saying: ‘I’m so glad that Sula has helped you with your work – Toni Morrison.’

Of course, I thought, ‘this is it’. She’s going to adopt me, I’ll be her person forever! But of course, when I wrote back there was not another response. She was busy! That was my first encounter with her. The second time she had a book coming out called Love, and the New Yorker asked me to profile her and she didn’t want me to because I’d written critically about her a little bit.

I went up to see her where she lived – we went to a restaurant near her house and she said, ‘I didn’t like what you wrote about me in your essay.’ I swear to you, this was my response: I turned around to look behind me as I didn’t know who she was talking to because I was such a different person back then, and I have loved her for so long. I looked back towards her, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, who are you talking to?’ And she said, ‘You!’ And I said, ‘I didn’t know who you were talking to, I thought it was someone back there somewhere,’ and she said, ’I can see that’. 

Then that totally brought us peace in the relationship and also an openness of experience with each other. It was a generous thing for an older, established writer to do and it was very touching to realise that even Toni Morrison could be hurt.

That’s wild. But now I am thinking about the emotional power and potency of her work. Maybe if you put that much out there, you are sensitive to what people say about it, no matter what.

Hilton Als: Yes – when you’re writing, you’re dreaming on paper really, right? You’re inventing and you’re dreaming and then suddenly, there’s this sort of disjunctive reality that happens. It can’t be anything but a weird feeling.

Do you have a favourite piece of writing by her? Is there anything you come back to repeatedly?

Hilton Als: I love all the books. Song of Solomon gave me a window into my father’s behaviour that I didn’t have before, and was important to me as a man. I didn’t have many male friends growing up, and I was incredibly moved by her ability to enter into the lives of men and to say something very profound, which was that women don’t get to leave children or homes, but men get to go out there and claim space, and it was something that I think that she wanted me personally to do more of.

That is one of the things that’s important to understand: that great artistry has a lot to do with how you’re able to inhabit and imagine other people. Her great artistry was her ability to understand the Black global village. I think that was so important to her. She was growing out of a segregated America, and she saw the value of Black people. There were a lot of people who were doing nationalist poetry and she didn’t like that, she felt it was sloganeering and quite empty. She wanted to have more of the complexity of life and the complexity of village life.

Of all Toni Morrison’s work, what made you want to work with The Black Book in this way?

Hilton Als: The book was so significant to me growing up in terms of showing me history without ideology. There are not many words in it, because she wanted to avoid pointing us towards [ideas], she wanted visual evidence of what our influence had been in the Americas, and it was a very smart move on her part. The images gave you history as a real thing, almost like a new Israel, and you were watching yourself develop in tandem with this historical information that was so vital and important. So it was freeing me from the historical perspective that was still nascent when I was a kid about how Black people got to the United States.

She wrote that she wanted to do a book for the young, as she was worried that young people would think that there was slavery and then 1964 and then nothing. She wanted a kind of encyclopaedic visual document. I just wondered who this extraordinary person was.

Why did you feel like there was something important about doing an art show or tackling this work at this moment in time?

Hilton Als: Well, a couple of things happened. She gave me permission, which was very important to me. This was obviously before she died. I think it freed me to do a show that I wanted to about her work, but also in the spirit of the blackboard, meaning that they would be these disparate elements that would come together, and the roughness and the silkiness of those juxtapositions in her book that I really wanted to – at least spiritually – accommodate in the gallery. I also wanted to do something that was akin to this idea of non-ideological: not ideological, but about race at the same time.

The conversation about race often has a language that bothers me, and the language is sort of flat and implies we’re moving through history without complications, and desires, and joys. A lot of it bores me, and I wanted to do a show that was free of that. To go back to the argument that Toni had put forward, that maybe visual culture was a way to examine this without it, meaning that art was the way to examine it.

“A lot of [the conversation about race] bores me, and I wanted to do a show that was free of that” – Hilton Als

A higher art, novels, paintings, etc. Sculptures might be a really wonderful way to examine this phenomenon of Blackness, which you can’t do without talking about everybody else, too. So, I wanted to do something that felt liberated, that honoured her work as a writer, and as an editor, and a thinker. I wanted to put in a space to honour her, really, and to honour the fact that she wouldn’t give up on complications.

With all that in mind, where did you begin with selecting the works for the show?

Hilton Als: Kerry James Marshall, who from the beginning was present to the project and interested in talking to me about Toni’s books. He was so interested in having conversations about the work and about her. It was so beautiful to me, and I have to say that his encouragement and of course, David Zwirner’s, were the sustenance I needed to keep imagining.

You have ‘A Little House’ [by Beverly Buchanan], which [represents the] significant action of Sula and large chunks of Song of Solomon, and shows that Morrison was moving out into the larger world. In the next gallery, there is Beloved, and the second gallery is really her work post-Beloved. Then we move into Modernism, and the larger world of how Blackness influenced Modernism.

How do you think that Blackness and Modernism did converge? 

Hilton Als: Well, [Morrison] really started in jazz, right? It starts to make language as much of an event as the story, [with] shifting perspectives and turning time upside down and [stop start] narrative. Remember, she had written her dissertation on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, so those were important influences to her, but also what was super significant was her own will to experimentation and love of those Modernists, and how Black culture jazz entertainment, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, all of those artists had had a big effect on the literary temperature of the time.

Finally, Is there somebody, or a book, or another piece of art that you’d like to make a show about?

HA: Yes, but I can’t tell you now because it would ruin the surprise.

Toni Morrison’s Black Book is on display at David Zwirner Gallery in New York until February 26