Blues, Love and Politics: When Toni Morrison and Cornel West Get Together, What Do They Talk about? Answer: Everything from Baldwin to Beloved to Mel Gibson

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On March 24 at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, The Nation Institute sponsored a conversation between Toni Morrison, recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize, member of The Nation's editorial advisory board and author of Love, Beloved, Paradise, Jazz and The Bluest Eye, among other books, and Cornel West, professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton, Nation contributor and author of Race Matters and many other books and articles. In his introductory remarks, institute president Hamilton Fish noted that "tonight, we continue a conversation that began in 1865, the year a group of Northern abolitionists published the first issue of The Nation magazine." Following is an abridged and adapted version of that conversation; you can watch and listen to the entire conversation via a link at Editors

CORNEL WEST: We want to begin just by raising the general query of how you would characterize our historical moment.

TONI MORRISON: I feel two things at the same time: terrified and melancholy, and I think in both domestic and foreign affairs it's frightening-the altercations, the agenda. There have been other frightening moments, but the melancholy that I feel now is about a country like this with the best shot in the world, that a country like this with a certain kind of plenitude and intelligence and ambition and generosity and some history from which to learn, could, indeed, throw it all away and become the worst parts of its own self.

Cornel, I see you sitting here nodding and frowning, but what is curious to me is that whenever I read you, as well as talk to you, and as clearsighted as you are and as aware as you are of these difficulties, you always seem to be something I used to be but no longer am, optimistic. And since I'm rapidly losing that quality, maybe just because of age, I wanted to ask you why.

WEST: I've always viewed myself as a person with a deeply sad soul but a cheerful disposition. So that when you say you feel terrified and melancholic, that describes my situation too, but it's just that I always believe that struggle and the unleashing of moral energy in the form of moral outrage can make a difference no matter what the situation is. And it may have something to do with just having a blues sensibility, a tragic orientation, a sense that no matter how mendacious elites may be, they can never extinguish the forces for good in the world. And if that's true, then they're mighty but not almighty.

And in some ways that's a characterization of just being black in America, it seems to me. Since 9/11 all Americans feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated, and that's been the situation of black folks for 400 years. In that fundamental sense, to be a nigger is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated. And now the whole nation is niggerized, and everybody's got to deal with it. And I think we're at a moment now in which a blues nation has to learn from a blues people.

I'm thoroughly convinced, and one of the reasons why I think that your work is not just powerful and monumental but will be read hundreds and hundreds of years from now, is that it's really been the artists who have exercised what the Greeks called parrhesia, frank speech, free speech, plain speech, truth-telling in a sentimental nation. And when I read your work, I say somebody's still serious about telling the truth about the country, and it's painful, it's unnerving, it's unhousing, but somebody's still telling the truth. And I think that's true for so many artists. You've got a blues sensibility, don't you?

MORRISON: A very complicated sense of blues as it morphed or changed or influenced jazz, but for me it's a question of not whining. The blues is about some loss, some pain and some other things. But it doesn't whine; even when it's begging to be understood in the lyrics, the music contradicts that feeling of being a complete victim and completely taken over. …