Toni Morrison and the Power of Language

Toni Morrison

In the days since Toni Morrison became an ancestor, the outpouring of feeling has served as a testament to her greatness and her impact on the world. Thousands—perhaps millions—of people have shared quotes by her and about her, striving yet inevitably failing to express the fullness of what she meant and what she did here on Earth.

The story that white culture has long told about her is that she is a great novelist. (A great, Black, female novelist, of course.) But her greatness could never be contained in such a limited frame, and the millions of people whose lives she changed won’t allow it. For Toni Morrison, being a writer, an editor, a critic, and a teacher were inseparable from one another. She was all of these at once, and more. The power of language demanded no less. 

On Democracy Now! last week, Angela Davis shared the story of how Toni Morrison convinced her to write a political autobiography at the age of twenty-eight, and said:

Her words have radically altered the lives that we live. … I think that her work has literally revolutionized the way people all over the world think. … What was so remarkable about Toni was that she taught us that the real power of writing can transform our ways of thinking, of feeling.

In a piece in The Washington Post, Michele L. Norris shared:

She changed the publishing industry in the United States. That is not hyperbole. She was known as the ‘black editor’ at Random House, and she wore the title like a badge of honor, using her perch to knock down doors previously closed to black writers. She edited Angela Davis, Chinua Achebe, Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara. ‘I stood at the edge and claimed it as central,’ she said. ‘And let the rest of the world move over to where I was.’

There’s no way to overstate the significance of what she offered as an editor, a writer, a critic, and an educator. As Oprah Winfrey put it, “She was a magician with language, who understood the Power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them.”

Charlene Carruthers memorialized Toni Morrison by speaking these truths:

Like many of our greatest intellectuals, artists, activists, and community organizers, Toni Morrison unapologetically wrote for Black people, to Black women, to Black men, and Black children. She is among the best of us working within the Black Radical Tradition because she bared the souls of Black folks through compelling, unapologetic, and deeply human stories and conversations. 

‘Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world,’ she said in a 1981 conversation with New Republic. ‘That’s what I wish to do. … [There’s a] suggestion that to write for Black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only Black people. When I say “people,” that’s what I mean.’

Morrison wrote for us and touched the whole world at the same time. That is the embodiment of Black excellence. … Keeping her legacy alive means that we all take up the work of collective liberation. ‘If you are free, you need to free somebody else,’ she would say to her students. ‘If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’

The quote in the featured image for this post comes from the speech Toni Morrison gave in 1993 upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. If you haven’t listened to it or read it, I implore you to do so (you can do both online). Here’s the paragraph the quote comes from:

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.

It is in the tradition of Toni Morrison that I work, in my own small corner, to help others use language to describe and create the world as it could and should be, a world free from violence in all forms, a world that honors and celebrates the magnificence of all life. She didn’t write, or edit, or teach for me, and yet she changed my world.

In the same Nobel lecture, she said: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Rest in power, Toni Morrison.

3 thoughts on “Toni Morrison and the Power of Language

  1. Reblogged this on By sarah cavar and commented:
    “‘Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world,’ [Morrison] said in a 1981 conversation with New Republic. ‘That’s what I wish to do. … [There’s a] suggestion that to write for Black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only Black people. When I say “people,” that’s what I mean.’”


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