The question white folks could not stop asking Toni Morrison

By Elizabeth Cali

In December 1973, New York Times critic Sara Blackburn published a now infamous review of Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula. After extolling Morrison’s fiction writing capabilities, Blackburn posited that Morrison was far too talented to limit her subject matter to African American lives and cultures – or, what Blackburn referred to as “the black side of provincial American life.” The question was implied: when would this talented author write about white people?

In 1975, during the Black Studies Center public dialogue at Portland State, Morrison theorized her novelistic focus on African American people and their cultures in her writing.  While she never explicitly refers to Blackburn’s review in her comments, this is one of her clearest explanations of the significance of writing for Black readers, about Black people.

And yet, despite Morrison’s explanation, the implied question – when will she write about white people? – became both overt and repetitious during Morrison’s illustrious career. In two particularly well recorded instances in 1998, 60 Minutes lead Charlie Rose and Australian Uncensored interviewer Jana Wendt both asked Morrison when and if she will ever write about white people. By that time, Morrison had published six novels and had won the Nobel Prize in Literature.