With the virtual onslaught of loss which has characterized 2019 so far, the news of the passing of Toni Morrison, one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, and the first Woman of color to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, comes as unfathomable. The seminal writer and chronicler of the Black American experience has left an almost unfillable hole at a time when she is perhaps needed the most as guiding light and conscience for a country so torn apart and at odds with itself.
That she left us with a rich and overflowing legacy of work is perhaps some comfort – that she set an example to be discovered, used and passed on is the highest achievement of any human being.
As a way of tribute, and a reminder of the moral imagination and imperative presence she brought to the world, here is a text excerpt of the Nobel Prize lecture she gave on December 10, 1993:
“The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”
Click on the player for the complete Nobel address.
May her words never leave us – may her example be a virtue.