Toni Morrison Spoke to Us and for UsPublished Tuesday, February 18th, 2020
CSU Professor of English and Fulbright Scholar K. Zauditu-Selassie pens a compelling tribute to the late Toni Morrison.
Don’t ask me who I’m speaking for
Who I’m talking to
Why I’m doing what I do
The light of my existence.
Jayne Cortez— “Don’t Ask/1980”
Nobel Laureate Chloe Ardelia Wofford, better known as Toni Morrison made her journey to the ancestral realm on August 5, 2019. This is not another elegiac testimony that will list her awards and prizes, or even share anecdotes concerning my having known her both personally and professionally for more than twenty-five years, although I do have a couple of amazing stories of those encounters over that timespan. Instead, I want to say a few things concerning her commitment to cultural memorization and the art of Black storytelling. Born in 1931, Morrison was raised, post-depression in the Mid-West industrial town of Lorain, Ohio at the lip of Lake Erie and the mouth of steel mills. Her literary figurations are embedded with memories of her time: Black people being punished, jailed, beaten, and murdered for affirming that “blackness,” overtly—Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Mark Clark, Fred Hampton, Henry Dumas, George Jackson, or circumstantially, like Emmett Till murdered in Mississippi or the four little girls who died in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on a Sunday morning.
Morrison asserts that the experience of trauma sharpens the “moral imagination” (“Peril” 7). She notes, “Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning” (“Peril” 7). She describes the type of artist needed to undertake the task of making meaning and the purpose of those imaginations:
Writers who are unsettling, calling into question, taking another, deeper look. Writers—journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights—can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace; and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to. (“Peril” 5)
In her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture, Toni Morrison begins with a folkloric tale of an old blind woman and her encounter with some young people, who as the story goes hold the power of life in their hands in the form of a bird. The blind woman also holds the fate of the bird; however, it is in her mouth. Like the blind woman, the stories Morrison told and their examples drill down to language’s elemental power to chart a more optimal journey for black people, the group for which she writes and out of whose seeds of experience her craft is rooted. Her stories narrate the enduring features of black people’s encounter in America, bemoaning such disquieting conditions as: their not having had a home in this place, the historical occurrence of being "set adrift from the one(s) you knew," and the social situation of being placed "at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company" (Home 28-29).
In her writing or talking books, as I have experienced her novels and essays she raised existential questions engendered by the durative oppressive conditions of Black people in an attempt to help them recover from deportation from Africa, mouth murder and the continuing offensives that brutalize America’s African population. There must be tellers—truth tellers, who as the adage goes, speak truth to power. Old folks admonish, “Somebody betta tell somebody somethin’ about somethin’.” Daniel Everett argues: Language gives humans their humanity” (Language 4). In her keynote address to the American Writers Congress, Morrison discusses the sanctity of language and the need to protect from these soul assaults. She says:
Language is holy. To destroy a culture, you first denigrate its language. You prohibit its spoken use and limit its printed form. You screen at and filter it until it accommodates itself to the presiding language, the one that has the biggest navy, and the most guns. To control future generations, you must control the word and the books that contain it. (“For A Heroic Writers Movement” 163).
Control of the Black narrative is key to black resistance. Morrison was clear about the power in telling one's own truth and the ways in which language molds culture and culture molds language by including the disquieting horrors of enslavement usually obliterated in historical accounts. She finds a place—a home for words to exist. In this home words are not censored. Writer and critic Salman Rushdie discusses the graveness of the situation. He writes, “To lose language and home, to be defined by others, to become invisible, or even worse, a target; it is to experience deep changes and wrenches on the soul” (Imaginary Homelands 210). Controlling one’s own language must not only become the modus operandi, but also the modus vivendi. In West Africa, the djeli or griot ties present day events with past, and offering guidance for the “future” by invoking the names of her community, recounting stories, and providing shared memories through a common language. This exclusivity of language generated as acts of resistance, defies those who “ain’t in love with your mouth.” Morrison elaborates, “What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear” (Beloved 88). She suggests that although the languages from Africa may be gone, something remained in the trace of memory were meaning dwells allowing black people to drill down to the deep structure, foregoing the surface structure of lexical items (words) to reclaim “the message—that was and had been there all along” (Beloved 62). She insisted we must tell our stories in order to grow strong.
We salute her on her journey. We will wrap the enduring wreath of words that she has bequeathed around our sturdy shoulders as we teach her work in the secondary and higher education classrooms. In this way her wisdom and testimony will persist into perpetuity befitting the power and magnificence of her words, which touched the hearts and minds of the world.
Fulbright Scholar K. Zauditu-Selassie, MFA, DA, is a professor of English in the Humanities Department at Coppin State University. Her book African Spiritual Traditions in the Novels of Toni Morrison can be found at major retailers.