The Blackest Eye

Why did we need to take Toni Morrison so literally?

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As she observes the racial dynamics at play in the Democratic presidential contest, Toni Morrison must be somewhere biting her nails.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer never struck me as the nervous type, but if ever there was a case for the jitters, it is now. In recent months, Morrison has had to stand back and watch -- maybe in horror -- as an airy observation she made about Bill Clinton a decade ago continues to nip at Sen. Barack Obama's chances of becoming this country's first African American president.

In a 1998 article in the New Yorker magazine, Morrison wrote:

"African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: this is our first black president. Blacker than any black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displayed almost every trope of blackness: single parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food loving boy from Arkansas ."

Her statement seems to suggest that because of the seemingly intractable endurance of American racism, Morrison was convinced that neither she nor "our children" would see the day when an actual black person would occupy The Big House.

She seemed to be saying that Clinton was the best we could reasonably expect to see in a couple of lifetimes. That explanation appears plausible -- until one considers Morrison's response sometime later, when television host Tavis Smiley asked her if she felt still felt that Clinton was black.

"Yeah, I do," said Morrison. "I mean, culturally speaking, he certainly is."

That no one seriously challenged Morrison's assertion says more about our society than it does about her. We have become so celebrity-obsessed that we often fail to critically examine the ideas of authoritative voices. In this case, the ideas proceeded from the mouth and pen of the deeply revered Morrison.

I mean, this is the author of "Beloved," as brilliant a work of literature as has ever been produced. How, one might wonder, can genius give voice to such a ridiculous remark?

In truth, smart people do it all the time. Witness Andrew Young, who makes foolish statements regularly these days. Like anyone else, Toni is at least entitled to an occasional gaffe.