Lecture XIII.a-- Other Voices


          Toni Morrison

    "Good fiction should be beautiful, and powerful, but it should also work. It should have something in it that enlightens, something in it that opens the door and points the way." 
    - Toni Morrison

    Nobel Prize Site

    Toni Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Laureate in Literature.  Her novels are characterized by visionary force and poetic import; she gives life to an essential aspect of American reality. 

    Born: 1931, Lorain, OH, U.S.A
    Residence: U.S.A 

    Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, in 1931 in Lorain (Ohio), the second of four children in a black working-class family. Displayed an early interest in literature. Studied humanities at Howard and Cornell Universities, followed by an academic career at Texas Southern University, Howard University, Yale, and since 1989, a chair at Princeton University. She has also worked as an editor for Random House, a critic, and given numerous public lectures, specializing in African-American literature. She made her debut as a novelist in 1970, soon gaining the attention of both critics and a wider audience for her epic power, unerring ear for dialogue, and her poetically-charged and richly-expressive depictions of Black America. A member since 1981 of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has been awarded a number of literary distinctions, among them the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. 

    Beloved [Video] (1998) - Starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover 
    The Song of Solomon 
    The Big Box 
    The Bluest Eye 
    The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993 [ABRIDGED] 
    Tar Baby 

    Featured Internet Links 

    Longer Biography

    Nobel Lecture 

    From Toni Morrison's Nobel Acceptance Speech:

    "Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise." Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures. 
    "Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise."  

    In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement. 
    One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, "Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead." 
    She does not answer, and the question is repeated. "Is the bird I am holding living or dead?" 
    Still she doesn't answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.
    The old woman's silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter. 
    Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. "I don't know", she says. "I don't know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands." 
    Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision.  Whatever the case, it is your responsibility. 
    For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims. The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised. 
    Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. 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 thingks 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 unrea1 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. Like statist language, censored and censoring.  Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. Yet there it is:  dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public. 

    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, 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, 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 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. 

    Women Nobel Prize Laureates 
    In 1903, only two years after the Nobel Foundation was established, a Nobel Prize was awarded to a woman, Marie Curie, for the first time. Women have been winning Nobel Prizes ever since. In fact, one woman, Bertha von Suttner was influential in convincing Alfred Nobel to set aside a Prize for peace. Women have won Prizes in all categories with the exception of Economics (which was established in 1968 and first awarded in 1969). 

    1903 Marie Sklodowska Curie
    1963 Maria Goeppert Mayer
    1911 Marie Sklodowska Curie
    1935 Irene Joliot-Curie
    1964 Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
    Physiology & Medicine: 
    1947 Gerty Radnitz Cori
    1977 Rosalyn Sussman Yalow
    1983 Barbara McClintock
    1986 Rita Levi-Montalcini
    1988 Gertrude Elion
    1995 Christiane Nusslein-Volhard
    1905 Baroness Bertha von Suttner
    1931 Jane Addams
    1946 Emily Greene Balch
    1976 Betty Williams
    1976 Mairead Corrigan
    1979 Mother Teresa
    1982 Alva Myrdal
    1991 Aung San Suu Kyi
    1992 Rigoberta Menchu Tum
    1997 Jody Williams
    1909 Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlof
    1926 Grazia Deledda
    1928 Sigrid Undset
    1938 Pearl Buck
    1945 Gabriela Mistral
    1966 Nelly Sachs
    1991 Nadine Gordimer
    1993 Toni Morrison
    1996 Wislawa Szymborska


    Sula and Nel-both smart, both poor, raised in a small Ohio town-meet when they are twelve. Through their girlhood
    years they share everything, until Sula gets out, out of the Bottom, the hilltop neighborhood where beneath the
    surface hides a fierce resentment at failed crops, lost jobs, bug-ridden flour. . . 

    Toni Morrison, like many of the authors we have read, would be a right-sized subject for a whole semester of study.  Since we shall be covering her in one short evening, perhaps the links here will lead you to more exploration.  We have, however, been reading Sula, and it is a complicated, interesting text in itself. 

    One of the important things about Sula is that it comes at a time in Morrison's career when she is asking the hardest questions, and has yet to find the literary answers.  We see this to some extent in all of the writers we have studied.  In fact, this sense of unresolved issues would seem to be an identifiable feature of women's writing in many eras.  There is no "answer" to the problem posed by Mary Shelley, nor is there a "happy solution" to the issues raised in Kate Chopin's The Awakening.  We see these books as less problematical, perhaps, because society has gone on to provide at least a temporary palliative for the questions - but only temporary.  Right now the issue of human cloning is looming large again, prompting us to reconsider our responsibility as we attempt to create human life.  Similarly, the solution to Chopin's question is not acceptable, long term.  The abandonment of children to latch-keys and shopping malls, while mother and father work 12 hours a day is likely to cause deep problems down the line for all of us.

    But Morrison's questions continue to trouble us in even more critical ways.  

    The newest census information indicates that the racial distribution of the US (and California!) is changing rapidly - bringing with it a whole new perspective on the issues of tradition and progress, stability, and change.  In a sense, all of Morrison's books investigate that issue to some extent.  The other difficult issue - the intrinsic worth of human life/survival - shows up in this book in the death of Plum (and we will see the same question, posed in slightly different fashion, in Beloved).  Because of the persistent qualities of life in the underclass in the US, we have a collection of familiar themes - the absent males, the poverty, the despair, and the struggle to keep a family together.  In Sula, however, the gap between the "sophisticated" world of Sula and the conservative world of Nel is marked, and the questions of life and death, strength of will and compassion revolve around a question of identity.

    Quote from Sula:  After five years of a sad and disgruntled marriage Boy-Boy took off. During the time they were together he was very much preoccupied with other women and not home much. He did whatever he could that he liked, and he liked womanizing best, drinking second, and abusing Eva third. When he left in November, Eva had $1.65, five eggs, three beets and no idea of what or how to feel. The children needed her; she needed money, and needed to get on with her life. But the demands of feeding her three children were so acute she had to postpone her anger for two years until she had both the time and the energy for it. 

Salon Interview with Toni Morrison

I think I merged those two words, black and feminist, growing up, because I was surrounded
by black women who were very tough and very aggressive and who always assumed they had to
work and rear children and manage homes. They had enormously high expectations of their
daughters, and cut no quarter with us; it never occurred to me that that was feminist activity.
You know, my mother would walk down to a theater in that little town that had just opened, to
make sure that they were not segregating the population -- black on this side, white on that.
And as soon as it opened up, she would go in there first, and see where the usher put her, and
look around and complain to someone. That was just daily activity for her, and the men as well. So it never occurred to me that she should withdraw from that kind of confrontation with the world at large. And the fact that she was a woman wouldn't deter her. She was interested in what was going to happen to the children who went to the movies -- the black children -- and her daughters, as well as her sons. So I was surrounded by people who took both of those
roles seriously. Later, it was called "feminist" behavior. I had a lot of trouble with those
definitions, early on. And I wrote some articles about that, and I wrote "Sula," really, based on this theoretically brand new idea, which was:  Women should be friends with one another. And in the community in which I grew up, there were women who would choose the company of a female friend over a man, anytime. They were really "sisters," in that sense. 

When I look back at those years, when I was going into an office every day, when my children
were small, I don't really understand how all that came about. Why was I doing all these things at once? Partly, it was because I felt I was the breadwinner, so I had to do everything that would put me in a position of independence to take care of my family. But the writing was mine, so that I stole. I stole away from the world. 

So when did you write? 

Very, very early in the morning, before they got up. I'm not very good at night. I don't generate
much. But I'm a very early riser, so I did that, and I did it on weekends. In the summers, the
kids would go to my parents in Ohio, where my sister lives -- my whole family lives out there --
so the whole summer was devoted to writing.  And that's how I got it done. It seems a little
frenetic now, but when I think about the lives normal women live -- of doing several things --
it's the same. They do anything that they can.  They organize it. And you learn how to use time.
You don't have to learn how to wash the dishes every time you do that. You already know how
to do that. So, while you're doing that, you're thinking. You know, it doesn't take up your
whole mind. Or just on the subway. I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about
a character in that packed train, where you can't do anything anyway. Well, you can read the
paper, but you're sort of in there. And then I would think about, well, would she do this? And
then sometimes I'd really get something good. By the time I'd arrived at work, I would jot it down so I wouldn't forget. It was a very strong interior life that I developed for the characters, and for myself, because something was always churning.  There was no blank time. I don't have to do that anymore. But still, I'm involved in a lot of things, I mean, I don't go out very much. 

Continue with Lecture XIII.


Literature 45  - Women in Literature :  

Marjorie C. Luesebrink, MFA


Announcements // Discussion Page // About Your Class // Class Syllabus // Lecture Notes // Discussion Group // Reading List // Recommended Reading // Assignments // Resources and Web Sites // Grading Policies // Contact Your Instructor

Irvine Valley College