Toni Morrison sits in the crowded parlor of an old Brooklyn mansion, a cup of tea, slightly tipped, in one hand. From her high-backed chair in the corner, she leans forward and carefully surveys the room.
“So,” she begins, “what did you think?”
Seated around her, squeezed together on sofas and chairs, are 13 members of the Mocha Moms, a nationwide support group for at-home parents of color. They all hold copies of Morrison’s new novel, “Love,” a multigenerational tale set at a coastal resort. Many feel as if they lived through the story themselves.
Tammy Greer-Brown, a mother of two from New York City, confides that she was getting a manicure-pedicure while reading the book. She became so upset during one chapter, a rape scene, that she left the salon in tears.
“It made me reflect on my life and situations where it could have been me,” she tells Morrison. “You helped me to clear my mind about my own fears, my past, my present, my future. ... And I am so grateful to you for that.”
The 72-year-old Morrison, a Nobel laureate whose novels include “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon,” will spend much of the fall giving television interviews and speaking at book fairs on behalf of “Love.”
But on this recent afternoon, she meets with readers at the Akwaaba Mansion, a 19th-century home converted several years ago into a bed and breakfast. For Morrison, the gathering can be likened to a rock star making a club appearance.
“Publishers generally prefer the thing that gives you the biggest bang for the buck. But I really and truly like to talk to readers,” says Morrison, whose publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had heard about the Mocha Moms and helped arrange the discussion group.
“They relate. It’s all very deeply personal, and that’s good. I’m very accustomed to the lit crits (literary critics), which is fine, but this level of reading, which is the first level, is the heart for me.”
The Mocha Moms was founded in 1997 by four women in Maryland. It now has more than 1,100 members, predominantly women of color but the group also includes men and whites. The mission is “to support and encourage women of color who are making parenting a priority in this season in their lives.”
“When I first heard about this group, I thought, ‘What?! Mocha Moms?”’ Morrison, a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, says with a laugh.
“Then I thought that, without having the name or organization, it was so much like what we had to do when I was young, when there were children, and having to work or not work and being so dependent on each other.”
Right now, the kids are back home with dads and baby sitters. Some women live nearby and either walked here or rode the subway. One, Adrienne Foster from Detroit, flew in for one night. “I got a cheap ticket. I was lucky. I just had to be here,” she says.
A look at love
Morrison’s new book explores many kinds of love: romantic love, parental love, love as desire, as control, as obsession, as connection.
The mothers have prepared most carefully for this talk, marking up their texts and huddling together to compare notes before Morrison’s arrival. “She’s a little complicated initially, but after a while, you get used to her,” says Cathy Haynes, a mother of three from North Brunswick, N.J.
Morrison, dressed casually in a light blue blouse and dark slacks, her long gray hair intricately braided, serves today as both artist and sage. Divorced since 1964, the author herself has two grown sons, Slade and Harold, whom she raised alone while working by day as an editor at Random House and at night on her own books.
“She seems to understand the breadth and depth of life,” Foster says. “She has such a well-rounded picture of relationships and how they function. ... We can take what she has written and apply it to our own lives.”
Morrison and the Mocha Moms talk for 90 minutes. They get into the book, but they also get personal. Some mothers recall a seminar they attended about “Stranger Danger,” how to protect their kids from people they don’t know. Tammy Greer-Brown confides she has a hard time telling her daughter not to be so outgoing.
“Don’t communicate your fear to them,” Morrison advises. “Then YOU become ‘Stranger Danger.”’
All the mothers worry about permissiveness. Nicole Barber, a mother of three from Morristown, N.J., says she’s horrified by how kids dress these days, grade schoolers outfitted as sex objects. She also doesn’t like the music kids listen to, but isn’t sure what to tell her son.
“He’ll hear it. It doesn’t matter. ... Just remember you are not his friend. You’re his mother,” Morrison scolds, but with a smile.
“Cuss him out all you want to. I give you permission.”