Writing in the wake of Toni Morrison’s passing on Monday, August 5, 2019 is a daunting task. Her craft outshines my ability to describe it. Nevertheless, I want to gesture to her writing, which is powerful in both form and content.
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?
—Toni Morrison from her Nobel Lecture, 1993
Emily Dickinson first taught me that “there is no frigate like a book.” Reading about places, time periods, people, cultures—other worldviews—makes the world bigger than my own, specific experience. Because of this desire to read broadly, I have read a handful of Morrison’s novels over the last two decades.
Consequently, I took note when I heard the news Tuesday of her passing; I stood back to think about her writing, her life, her legacy.
Having read some of her works, I am tempted to write a summary / response for a half dozen of her novels, short stories, essays, and speeches. If you are not familiar with her work, you can readily find very competent reviews online. Her writing brings me into the day-to-day lives of black Americans, particularly black women, in ways inaccessible to me outside of a book.
Morrison received numerous awards–including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993). People are probably most familiar with her novel Beloved (1987) in part because it was adapted into a major motion picture in 1998.
But reading tributes to Morrison also speaks to the challenges of really understanding another person.
Reading the powerful, beautiful, meaningful tributes to Morrison invited me to stand aside and listen to the voices of black women.
Morrison’s writing can never reverberate for me the same way. I encourage you to read a handful, a dozen, two dozen or more of these tributes by women of color. They are easy to find by Internet searches. If I try to talk at length about Morrison’s writing, I’m like a French teacher* extolling the virtues of Paris when I am sitting next to someone who is a lifelong resident of The City of Light. It would be better if I use my voice to refer people to the person with direct experience.
This is evident: I can appreciate another person’s experience, but I should not appropriate it.
My language interferes. Consequently, I am standing here as a directional pillar, pointing to Toni Morrison’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, which is formally called the Nobel Lecture. Find the transcript to Morrison’s lecture on the Nobel Prize site.
She delivered her lecture on December 7, 1993. Morrison tells a story about a wise, black woman from a rural area who receives young visitors, probably traveling from the city. She is blind, so she cannot really understand who they are. Nevertheless, she assumes their motives are to test her wisdom because one member of this group asks her this question: “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?” There is a notable silence.
Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”
Read the full speech to see how Morrison tells the story with great art and wisdom. This folk story is about language, identity, relationships, power, vulnerability, compassion—and more and more and more.
I am awed by the fact that I first read** an excerpt from her lecture the day before Morison’s death was announced. The. Day. Before. This timing has heightened my awareness of the narrative that is the heart of her lecture. This image of the questioning youth standing before the wise woman is now framed with stillness, bathed in light.
Morrison describes the power in my hands: the power of language, how I choose to use that power, and how I can transform relationships by learning to listen–really listen to other people–especially those who have lived experiences very different from mine. I am going to add Morrison’s Nobel Lecture to my teaching materials, not so that I can tell my students what Morrison is saying. I’m assigning it so that my students can teach me what Morrison’s lecture means to them.
Yes, my students and the works we read together should transform me.
If my act of reading broadly is done in a way that maintains my long-held ways of thinking, ways of being, then I am colonizing the experience of people different from me. This means that I subordinate the writings of diverse people to my goals, my needs, my views. My world stays an object of my own fashioning if I collect facts about the works I am reading without transforming the way I function in the world.
What if I instead allow authors from outside of my own home culture to transform me in substantial ways? What if I discuss readings without pinning down the meaning of the works we read?
As a teacher, and a person, I may be a ship sailing to a predetermined destination. But others can significantly influence me. I have a choice to be open to transformation. This often means that as a teacher, a family member, a neighbor, a ward member, a citizen I will certainly end up in a place that I did not intend. This is scary. However, the benefits outweigh the risk: we are all enriched by changing course so that we can travel together in the spirit of equity.
list (verb: intransitive): If a ship lists, it leans to one side.
But do not LIST-en to my description of the power of Morrison’s writing. LIST-en to Morrison herself and to black women who can better testify to the power of Morrison’s language, life, and legacy.
*I’m drawing this analogy about authenticity from a response Toni Morrison provided to Australian journalist Jana Wendt, who asked Morrison in a 1998 interview why she didn’t put white people in the center of any of her novels. Her replied unpacked the question, and part of her answer pointed out that people don’t ask Russian writers to leave their home culture to describe French culture.
**Elizabeth A. Havey (Beth) maintains a blog called Boomer Highway. Havey published a post “Toni Morrison and the Freedom of Words” about Morrison and the power of language on August 4, 2019, which is the day before Morrison’s death. I learned about Morrison’s passing when tributes started pouring in on August 6th.