In February Toni Morrison turned 85. I did mean to post about it back then, and just yesterday realized that I had missed the date by something close to a year. Luckily she’s still out there writing things that need to be read. So for example, an essay about the election called Mourning for Whiteness. Toni Morrison has never shied away from difficult topics.
I would love to come and help out wherever Ms Morrison is having Thanksgiving, because I think it would be an education of a very rare and valuable kind to be able to listen to her talk to her nearest and dearest. To hear her tell stories would be the perfect compliment to reading her stories, the novels that have so moved me over the years. Toni Morrison speaks from a heart of gleaming ebony; she speaks the language of her community.
When the Oakland African American English controversy was washing over the country, Ms Morrison was one of the few prominent black academics and role models who did not give in to that full-blown moral panic; she did not reject the language she is most comfortable with or the children who speak it. Jesse Jackson said some harsh and destructive things about African American English, which was rather ironic as he is a main speaker of that language.
Toni Morrison has always talked about the power of African American English and its importance, as in this 1981 interview:
The language, only the language. The language must be careful and must appear effortless. It must not sweat. It must suggest and be provocative at the same time. It is the thing that black people love so much—the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher’s: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language. There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language. It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with those books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging. He may never know the etymology of Africanisms in his language, not even know that “hip” is a real word or that “the dozens” meant something. This is a really cruel fallout of racism. I know the standard English I want to use it to help restore the other language, the lingua franca.
Ms Morrison is someone I admire greatly, for her courage and power as a writer and a woman and a woman of color. I hope she glides along to ninety trailing essays and novels and stories behind her.
This quote from her is the truest thing I know about writing.
Passion is never enough.
Neither is skill.