When passionate storyteller Toni Morrison accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, she began her speech with a well-known parable, one that exists in many cultures: ‘Once upon a time there was an old woman.’ In the version Morrison tells, the woman is blind, black, the descendent of slaves in America, and living in a house on the outskirts of town. The woman is clairvoyant, and one day a group of children decide to test her powers. They approach in a group, and one of them, holding out his hand, says ‘Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.’
From this deceptively simple beginning, Morrison, the eighth woman – and the first black woman – to win the prize, details an intricate theory of language. The author of The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, Morrison, who grew up in Ohio and worked for many years as a book editor on the East Coast before turning to writing full time, has long been interested in questions of race and the search for self. For Morrison, these themes are best expressed through language, which possesses an agency of its own. Words have real power, she argues, with the ability not only to represent but to create meaning. ‘Word-work is sublime,’ the old woman in Morrison’s speech thinks, ‘because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.’
Nobel Lecture 1993
Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me … So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency – as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: ‘Is it living or dead?’ is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse. For her a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis….
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 voice of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language…. 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, 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 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.
Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence…