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6: Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

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    Toni Morrison

    Samuel Kontoes

    Toni Morrison is a unique poet when it comes to her literature on African American culture and its evolution. Her stories take place in the time period of American history, where racism was widespread. Morrison writes from the perspective of African Americans and focalizes heavily on the self-identity of her characters. The stories emphasize the struggles that minorities faced and their reactions of resistance towards this human brutality. Morrison’s accurate and interesting depiction of these perspectives have earned her the prestigious award of The Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In Morrison’s acceptance speech, she explains the importance of language. As everybody must die one day; we must remember that language will be edged into history forever (Morrison 1993). Morrison was the first ever African American female to win this award, which reiterates her ability as a poet. Morrison has developed interesting characters that contribute to the success of her story’s purpose. These novels have a common theme, which is the betrayal of whites against blacks. This theme reflects on the characters that Morrison introduces and guides the direction of her novels. In retrospect, Morrison showed the methods of how African Americans responded to this inhumane behavior and also their assimilation into American society.

    Toni Morrison’s style of literature is very interesting based on her ability to engage the reader. Her characterization in these novels are descriptive, but the mystery of these characters are unveiled throughout the entirety of her writings. She has separated herself from the typical poet and has influenced the public’s view on American history. In Morrison's Nobel Peace Prize speech, she emphasizes the importance of language in human nature. In Morrison's acceptance speech she states that “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge” (Morrison 1993). Violence can be physical or verbal and it has the ability to scar individuals. The hatred and violence against newly introduced cultures limits the capability of human evolution. Morrison’s speech delivers a message that exposes the dominant role that whites desired and held. It simply “block[s] access to cognition for both the excluder and the excluded” (Morrison, 1993). Oppressive behavior is a waste of time for the development of humans when we fail to mutually work together. Morrison’s writings that revolved around blacks have exposed the realities of their experiences in early America. She has brought attention and light to ethnic groups that have been unappreciated and unrepresented in literature.

    “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives” (Morrison 1993).

    Morrison’s characters are interesting and commonly have a past that is faced with hardship. The experiences she shares through her stories are a classic representation of slavery in early America. These harsh realities have heavily impacted these characters. Morrison’s stories have a common theme of self-identity in her novels. African Americans were forced to discover their own identity in society, which was difficult because of racist whites. This also made it hard for Africans to develop as a community due to their low population. Morrison directly challenges the opposing evils, who are blinded by power and control. Chia-yen Ku states that “Morrison’s books challenge these expected standards and address ‘inappropriate’ issues” (617). Morrison does not shy away from controversial topics and will challenge past societal norms. She has proudly represented the African American community thus exposing the setbacks blacks were faced with. Morrison’s novels have set a standard for every new generation of readers.

    The betrayal of whites against blacks in ethnic literature has highlighted important social conflicts. The other common theme of resistance displayed in Morrison’s writings is the reason for racial equality. African Americans took the stand against cultural assimilation and developed their own self-identity. Morrison displays this in Beloved, where the main characters escaped from the brutal torture of their slave plantation. For example, Morrison's character “Denver,” is faced with social isolation, but dynamic in nature throughout the story. Her experiences have forced her to move closer to her community and depend more on loving relationships. Morrison’s novels teaches its readers that you must always challenge evil and be your own self. This is achieved through her characters, who are motivated to be free from their community’s expectations and black identity (DLB 33). Lawrie Balfour stated, “freedom, for Morrison, is enacted through language, through the imagination of lives unrecorded by official history” (671). Thus, relating back to Morrison's Peace Prize speech, where she emphasizes the power of language. Our freedom is taken through the words of others and how they seek to control vulnerable groups. Morrison’s focus on resistance has promoted the lesson of standing up for your own true self-identity.

    The history of racism in America's past is haunting and through the stories written by Morrison we get a better understanding. This understanding is an awful reality of human nature from our ancestors. Morrison is consistent in her literature and thorough in her details. Her poetic style keeps the reader engaged and interested in the development of each character’s self-identity. Morrison does not shy away from sharing the extremities of racism. Morrison’s ability has earned her prestige as a poet and has influenced the perception of her audience. She encourages individuals to resist against wrong and to fight for love. New generations are left with the language of Toni Morrison, who will always be remembered for her attribution to ethnic literature.


    “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-wifely 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” (Morrison 1993).


    "Toni Morrison Lecture" by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

    Works Cited

    Balfour, Lawrie. “‘To Manipulate American English’: Toni Morrison's Word-Work as a Practice of Freedom.” American Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 3, 2021, pp. 671–691., doi:10.1353/aq.2021.0040.

    Blake, Susan. “Toni Morrison.” Dictionary of Literary Biography (Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955), Vol 33. Ed. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Detroit: Gale Research Co, 1984.187–99.

    Ku, Chia-yen. “Not Safe for the Nursery? Toni Morrison’s Storybooks for Children.” EurAmerica, vol. 36, no. 4, Dec. 2006, pp. 613–49.

    Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Classics, 2007.

    “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993.”,

    6: Toni Morrison (1931-2019) is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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