Toni Morrison: Where the Heart Is

T'oni Morriosn spseaking at West Point, 2013, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In The New Yorker, novelist Toni Morrison describes the moral backbone it takes to clean other people’s houses. This is the job she had when she was a girl, sometime in the 1940s. “All I had to do for…two dollars was clean Her house for a few hours after school,” she writes. “It was a beautiful house, too, with a plastic-covered sofa and chairs, wall-to-wall blue-and-white carpeting, a white enamel stove, a washing machine and a dryer—things that were common in her neighborhood, absent in mine. In the middle of the war, she had butter, sugar, steaks, and seam-up-the-back stockings. I knew how to scrub floors on my knees and how to wash clothes in our zinc tub, but I had never seen a Hoover vacuum cleaner or an iron that wasn’t heated by fire.”

Morrison earned pocket money for paddleballs, jacks, ice-cream cones, and movies. But she gave her mother half her wages, knowing that they would be used to pay the milkman or an insurance bill. “The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound,” she says. “I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest. I had a status that doing routine chores in my house did not provide—and it earned me a slow smile, an approving nod from an adult.”

Yet the work slowly chipped away at Morrison’s sense of self.

“I was ordered to carry bookcases upstairs and, once, to move a piano from one side of a room to the other. I fell carrying the bookcases. And after pushing the piano my arms and legs hurt so badly. I wanted to refuse, or at least to complain, but I was afraid She would fire me, and I would lose the freedom the dollar gave me…as well as the standing I had at home—although both were slowly being eroded. She began to offer me her clothes, for a price. Impressed by these worn things, which looked simply gorgeous to a little girl who had only two dresses to wear to school, I bought a few. Until my mother asked me if I really wanted to work for castoffs. So I learned to say ‘No, thank you,' to a faded sweater offered for a quarter of a week’s pay.”

Poto by Avi Werde on Unsplash

About this time, Morrison also had an illuminating conversation with her father. “I let drop a few whines about the job. I gave him details, examples of what troubled me, yet although he listened intently, I saw no sympathy in his eyes. No: Oh, you poor little thing.’ Perhaps he understood that what I wanted was a solution to the job, not an escape from it. In any case, he put down his cup of coffee and said, ‘Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.’”

Morrison describes the take-away message from this talk at the kitchen table:

  • Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.
  • You make the job; it doesn’t make you.
  • Your real life is with us, your family.
  • You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

Despite the manipulations of her employer, Morrison didn’t nurse resentment—she learned to separate her identity from the job. “I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow,” she writes. “I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation…I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.”

In her Pulitzer prize-winning novel Beloved Morrison describes the first generation of African-Americans to have a home of their own after the abolition of slavery.  Here the house is the place where a woman works out her salvation. It accepts her unending grief and bears witness to her courage and tenacity.  In the face of unbearable pain, home receives the tattered soul, giving everyone—including the most abused and broken — the gift of shelter and the capacity for hope.

The Origin of Others.  In her first work of non-fiction in years, Morrison urges minorities to take charge of their own stories and define their own lives, just as she did when cleaning houses.

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