The Sacred Language of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison makes a good point when, in her acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, she says, “Narrative . . . is . . . one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge” (7). The words we use and the way in which we use them is how we, as humans, communicate to each other our thoughts, feelings, and actions and therefore our knowledge of the world and its peoples. Knowledge is power. In this way, our language, too, is powerful.
In her acceptance speech, Morrison tries to communicate the idea that we must be careful with how we use our words. She analogizes the use of language to the life of a metaphoric bird in a tale of a wise, old, blind woman. Toni Morrison opens her speech by referring to a tale of two young people who, in trying to disprove the credibility of this wise woman, ask the question, “ ‘Is the bird I am holding [in my hand] living or dead?’” (11). Of course, being blind, the woman does not know and must say so. However, she adds that, “ ‘What I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands’” (11). In saying this, she tells the youngsters that the fate of the bird’s life is their responsibility. The bird, in this case, represents language. Morrison explains, “So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer” (12). The bird has either been found dead, been killed, or has the ability (if it is alive) to be killed, much as language, being looked at as a living thing, can live or die; be saved or destroyed. Language is “susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will” (Morrison 13). That will is the responsibility of those who use it. We have the option to make language something beautiful, useful, and a source of that power of knowledge, or as degrading, offensive, and oppressive. Throughout her speech, Toni Morrison works towards defining and supporting this thesis of responsibility. It is our responsibility, as users of words, to make language thrive. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has a similar goal, but takes a different approach in her essay “The Claims of a Common Culture: Gender, Race, Class and the Canon.” She speaks on the use and composition of the canon taught in humanities classes. Her idea is that the canon of today is much too one-sided and does not include the influence of the several different cultures, peoples, and ideas that make up our society. She says that “with respect to representativeness, the canon fails woefully. It represent[s] a small, sometimes minute, portion of the elite, which itself constitute[s] a statistical minority of the population” (Fox-Genovese 19). In this abstract way, Fox-Genovese is reiterating Morrison’s words that what we say, and how we say it (or teach it), or what we fail to say (as in the canon taught today) is monumentally influencing and impactful upon others.
If we are not aware...