JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, 13 Americans received the nation’s top civilian honor this afternoon in a White House ceremony.
The president paid tribute to former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, astronaut John Glenn, and he honored Madeleine Albright, the first woman secretary of state.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Madeleine’s courage and toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world.
JUDY WOODRUFF: He called Bob Dylan one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century.
BARACK OBAMA: By the time he was 23, Bob’s voice, with its weight, its unique gravely power, was redefining not just what music sounded like, but the message it carried and how it made people feel. There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. And I have to say that I am a really big fan.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And there was Dolores Huerta, who helped Cesar Chavez found the organization that became the United Farm Workers of America in the ’60s.
BARACK OBAMA: Without any negotiating experience, Dolores helped lead a worldwide grape boycott that forced growers to agree to some of the country’s first farm worker contracts. And ever since, she has fought to give more people a seat at the table.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Toni Morrison, one of the nation’s most celebrated novelists, was awarded the medal.
BARACK OBAMA: Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt. From “Song of Solomon” to “Beloved,” Toni reaches us deeply, using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct, and inclusive. She believes that language arcs toward the place where meaning might lie.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For Morrison, this honor comes as she has just published her 10th novel.
Jeffrey Brown recently talked with her about it and her life of writing.
JEFFREY BROWN: She would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and become internationally known. But in the early 1950s, Toni Morrison was a young student, an aspiring actress, in fact, at Howard University in Washington, D.C., just learning about the wider world.
TONI MORRISON: I was so confident and capable. The future was, you know, right there at your fingertips. And I was so happy to be among what I hadn’t had when I was in Ohio, African-American intellectuals. And that was the company I wanted to keep, and I found it here at Howard.
JEFFREY BROWN: In her new novel, “Home,” Morrison has revisited the early ’50s, telling the story of Frank Money, one of many black soldiers returning from the Korean War to pre-civil rights era America.
Hearing that his sister is dying, Money makes his way across a country filled with institutional and casual racism, heading for the rural Georgia town he thought he’d escaped and where he would never return. Unlike her memories of her college years, it’s not a happy portrait.
And when we talked recently at the newly restored Howard Theatre, Morrison, who’s now 81, said she very much intended that.
TONI MORRISON: I have noticed how people think of it as a kind of golden age, you know post-war, lots of money, everybody was employed, the television shows were cheerful. And I think we forgot what was really going on in the ’50s.
JEFFREY BROWN: What did we forget?
TONI MORRISON: We forgot McCarthy, anti-communist horror. We forgot that there was a war that we didn’t call a war, called a Korean police action. And it was a violent time for African-Americans.
JEFFREY BROWN: The home in the title is called Lotus, Ga.
TONI MORRISON: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s described — he describes it at one point as the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield.
TONI MORRISON: That’s right, and it. . .
JEFFREY BROWN: You sound like you enjoyed writing that line.
TONI MORRISON: True, because the whole journey back from wherever he was in the Northwest, Seattle, back to Georgia, for a black man in 1952 or ’53, was another battle, dangerous, threatening. You needed close friends. And he has to wage a second fight. But this one, I think, leaves him with his manhood.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, manhood is an interesting concept here. I mean, it comes up throughout the book, the idea of manhood and its opposite, emasculation.
TONI MORRISON: Indeed.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is that — that is a theme that you wanted to explore?
TONI MORRISON: Yes, what that means for a man and what it means for a black man, whose virility and whose manhood and adulthood is constantly threatened or belittled, and he has to — quote — “prove himself.”
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
TONI MORRISON: And so that’s why I took as a kind of semblance of how dangerous manhood was.
And, of course, as a black man, you keep wanting to assert it, assert it, because people are denying you that. So what I wanted this character to do was to learn another way to be an adult, to be a man.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, when Morrison won the Nobel Prize, she was best known for writing about African-American women in books such as “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” and her most famous novel still, “Beloved,” winner of the Pulitzer in 1988.
It was based on a true story of a woman who killed her young child, rather than have her returned to slavery. More recent novels include “Paradise,” “Love,” and “A Mercy.”
I’m curious about what moves you to want to write a story. I saw where you recently told students at Oberlin College and you said people say to write what you know, you know, that classic line.
TONI MORRISON: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: But you said to them, “No one wants to read that because you don’t know anything.”
TONI MORRISON: That’s right. I said, I’m not interested in your girlfriends and your grandmother. You don’t know anything. Write about something you have never, ever thought about before.
And, of course, I’m right and wrong. I mean, people write great books about what they know.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
TONI MORRISON: But I was trying to jolt them into some other area.
And — but, for me, it’s not quite that. I always have questions that I can’t answer by just thinking about it. What was it really like? How did she actually kill those children? So I’m asking those questions in A-book or B-book or C-book.
Here, I was interested in, what was it like before the late ’60s and ’70s? There was something. And it wasn’t what I remember. There was something going on in the country that really became the seeds and the little green shoots that became the civil rights movement and the anti- Vietnam War movement.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I saw in a recent profile where you talked of visiting a college campus, and you were dismayed to see that many of your books were taught more in law classes, black studies, feminist studies, not so much in the English department.
TONI MORRISON: It wasn’t in the English department.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what is going on? We still have categories of. . .
TONI MORRISON: Not anymore.
JEFFREY BROWN: No?
TONI MORRISON: Then, certainly. There were bookstores that agreed to do what African-American writers wanted, which is to have their own separate section.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right.
TONI MORRISON: And then, but what about the mainstream alphabet? I mean, can I be found under Morrison, or do I have to be. . .
JEFFREY BROWN: Right.
TONI MORRISON: And the same thing happened with other kinds of literature. They don’t know whether to put you in a group because that’s what you are looking for or to just let you float.
JEFFREY BROWN: Was that hard, though, for you?
TONI MORRISON: I sort of wanted to be alphabetized.
JEFFREY BROWN: You wanted to be in the whole. . .
TONI MORRISON: Yes, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: One more thing about this book, about “Home.” It is — one thing that’s striking about this new novel is, it’s a very stripped-down form of storytelling, more than I think in the past for you. Was that a conscious effort?
TONI MORRISON: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: It was?
TONI MORRISON: Sometimes, my editor would say, more.
JEFFREY BROWN: More?
TONI MORRISON: And I would say, it’s just more. It’s not better.
I can write forever about anything of a character. But I wanted this to be — it’s harder to write less to make it more. And that’s what was engaging to me when I was writing this book.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, in fact, the book, for all the horrors that we were talking about and the bad things, it ends with a sense of hope back at home.
TONI MORRISON: Yes. Very much so, yes, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: You wanted that too.
TONI MORRISON: Oh, yes.
I withheld color from all the book. Everything is either black or white or not mentioned, until he gets home, and then those cotton fields are pink before they turn, and then the trees. And he even says, were the trees always this deep green? So, all the palette is pushed toward the end. So the reader feels that comfort and safety of home.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new novel is “Home.”
Toni Morrison, thanks for talking to us.
TONI MORRISON: My pleasure.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, Toni Morrison reads an excerpt from her latest novel, “Home.”
The other Medal of Freedom winners today, beyond those we mentioned earlier, were former Israeli President Shimon Peres, John Doar, a civil rights leader in the ’60s, smallpox pioneer William Foege, Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low, Jan Karski, a Polish underground officer during the Holocaust, and Gordon Hirabayashi, who fought Japanese-American internment during World War II.