“We do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” RIP Toni Morrison
Some deaths diminish us. Toni Morrison was one of those. For all the legacy she left behind through her writings, her words, her life, the most powerful perhaps was the legacy of the complete ownership of the life she had lived, and her taking the power of that life and translating it onto the page through language that sawed through your chest and made you gasp with its sheer power.
Toni Morrison owned the language she wrote in. She bent it to her will, if she grappled with it and fought battles with it, we, the reader did not see those. What we saw, what we read, were stories that pierced to our hearts with their universality, which simultaneously stayed rooted in the world she came from. Stories of every woman. Stories that told us, that no matter how dire things may seem, there was always hope, and there was always a tomorrow. Her powerful language and her clarity of vision made for a combination that grabbed you by the lapels and shook you until your brain rattled as you read her writing. Her books are that rare thing, rooted in every day, yet transcending the everyday.
Toni Morrison owned the language she wrote in. She bent it to her will, if she grappled with it and fought battles with it, we, the reader did not see those.
In 1993, she was awarded the Nobel for being a writer “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She was the first African American woman to be given the award. Her acceptance speech, delivered in Stockholm on December 7, at the Swedish Academy was a watershed speech on the power of language, perhaps the only tool that has helped humans evolve to the level we have. As a writer, this speech is more than just an acceptance speech to me, it is a manual of how one must treat language and respect its power and ability to move, to transform, to enervate, to mould, to define and redefine. How we use language is what defines us, language is what makes us human, language is what elevates us above the other species on this planet.
Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech came into my inbox yesterday after the news of her passing became public. I had listened to it before. I read it again. She uses a fable to talk about the power of words to oppress, to subjugate to liberate. And as is fitting, as a storyteller and a woman, she begins with once upon a time, there was an old woman. She tells the story of the woman who is a seer, and who is set upon by those determined to disprove her abilities. These children come to her and stand before her, knowing she is blind and unable to see them. They ask her if the bird they claim to be holding in their hands is dead or alive. Her reply is what determines the power of language. Through her replies, the old lady makes them realize that they are the owners of what has happened to the bird if it is alive or dead. Through the narration of this simple fable, Morrison showcases what makes her a storyteller who goes beyond the mere narrator of a story. She puts before us the power of language to oppress, to be violent, to heal, to soothe.
Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable. – Toni Morrison
She talks about language as a living thing. She speaks about Abraham Lincoln’s powerful Gettysburg address which was eloquent and moving, and yet used language precisely, sparingly, to the most effect. She quotes from the address, this sentence, that says more than pages could. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” With this sentence, Lincoln did not try to sum up the horror of battle, nor of the loss suffered there, he simply put before his audience the magnificence of the sacrifice of those who fought the war, without embellishment, without needless eloquence, so it went straight to the heart.
She says, “Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.
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.”
Perhaps it would be appropriate to end with these lines from her. “Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.