Toni Morrison: The Power of Language
Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature died yesterday in Bronx at the age of 88.
The most celebrated of her many novels and essay collections are “Song of Solomon,” which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and “Beloved,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Many of her writings appeared regularly on The New York Times best-seller list.
That same newspaper has a great summary of her works and on the “Towering Novelist of the Black Experience.”
In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison spoke of the power of language, the power of words. How language can be used to educate, to absorb and give knowledge, to be creative, to persuade for the good, but also how it can be misused to harm, to destroy.
As expressed in “Open Culture,” Morrison “has sustained such a weighty mission not only with a love of language, but also with a critical understanding of its power—to seduce, to manipulate, confound, wound, twist, and kill.”
That understanding is clearly reflected in Morrison’s poetic Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 26 years ago, a view that is as valid today as it was then – perhaps even more pertinent in our troubled times.
Her entire address can be read here.
I found this passage on the consequences of the misuse of language – something we are beginning to know too well — to be the most powerful and the most applicable today:
“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.”