Toni Morrison

The piece from Toni Morrison is her Nobel acceptance speech, divided into a lecture and the actual acceptance portion. Her lecture begins with a common tale about a wise old woman, blind, who answered questions. I had recently read the same story as a Facebook meme, only in that iteration, the old wise one was a man. Some cruel or clever children decided to trick the wise one in both stories, bringing a live bird in their hands and asking if it was alive or dead, knowing they could change the outcome to make the wise one wrong, and, on the meme, the big reveal is the answer of the wise one, “it is in your hands.” That’s where the meme stopped, but that’s just where Morrison begins.

She examines the answer that the wise woman gave. “I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer” (418). By changing the story to metaphor, rather than the literal interpretation, Morrison performs her first act of alchemy. Language is now what the supplicants have brought before the wise one, asking what is it… She speaks of how language can die, how it can be neglected and abused and is the responsibility of those who use it. She delves into the mind of the wise, old woman, this practiced writer, this language user.

Morrison emphasizes the power of words through her metaphorical woman:
Word-work is sublime, she 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.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives. (420)
And what does it mean for women in particular to do language? When so many women are or have been silenced, how do we write our bodies and measure our lives with the words that have in many cases been used to put us down, even in our own minds?

Morrison then turns the entire story on its head by exploring the identities and motives of the children posing the question. Perhaps they were not cruel tricksters, but ardent seekers of knowledge, wanting nothing more than to learn from the woman whatever wisdom she might have for them as they attempt to understand the language in their hands. Morrison speaks for them, demanding of the old woman an accounting of her actions, a share of her wisdom to help them form a better tomorrow. “Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company” (422). And it is their torrent of words, their demands that create done language between the young and the old. A much more satisfying ending than the meme.

In class we discussed some of Morrison’s works of fiction. Long ago, in high school, I read Jazz. And last year, for another class, I read Beloved. The explorations, metaphors and depth in the analysis of story of the old woman are reflected too in the fiction of her that I have read. And also the emotional pull, the demanding passion of her characters.

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