Black History Month Reflections from Fr. Brown: Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture

By Rev. Timothy Brown, S.J.
Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

During Black History Month, I recommend reading any work by Toni Morrison—first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Toni Morrison refers to a wise old storyteller in her address. Her choice of words is stunning. It is worth reading out loud. Yes, out loud—the address speaks to our country today.

Take a moment to examine her choice of words. What are the words that could heighten greater respect and understanding in our national dialogue today? We desperately need a Toni Morrison-inspired conversation. Morrison refers to the notion of “tongue suicide” gripping our nation…

I think of her work as a way to revisit North American history with new eyes. Franz Kavka put it best: “I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy, we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen seas within us. That is what I believe.”

Nobel Lecture 1993 – Toni Morrison

[In her Nobel address, Toni Morrison refers to a wise old storyteller.]

She is convinced that when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference, and absence of esteem, or killed by fiat, not only she herself but all users and makers are accountable for its demise. In her country children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the void of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidance, or expressing love. But she knows tongue-suicide is not only the choice of children. It is common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts, for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, midwifery properties, replacing them with 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 or 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.

Read other Black History Month Reflections by Father Brown

Central Park Five

A Lucille Clifton Poem

A Langston Hughes Poem


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