Even when the world is burning around you

Toni Morrison passed away last week. With the Administration’s hateful rhetoric, and three mass shootings in the span of a week and a half,  I found hope in re-visiting her 1993 Nobel Prize speech.

She begins her speech with a story about a wise, blind woman, who is asked by a group of children if a bird that they are holding in their hands is dead or alive. Dead or alive —  the blind woman thinks this is a trick, a cruelty, the fate of this poor creature in the hands of the children. As a part of this story, Morrison uses the bird to illustrate her fear of how language can enable oppression and violence, which feels so timely in our political climate: “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.”

But alas! The children are ultimately not cruel. They wish to tap into the women’s wisdom and experience to understand life — all of it — and death. I love that Morrison uses the vulnerability of language to build up our own sense of vulnerability for the bird and the power of the children. I can viscerally feel the cruelty, or the anticipation of it, from the children. I imagine the myriad times when I, as I get older, with all my rhyme or reason, look into the eyes of children and feel sheer terror for not knowing what’s behind them.

And then Morrison quickly reverses our expectations of how the story should go.

Reading this was a reminder of how vulnerability and fear can make it easy to build up walls and false narratives, and I need to fight the desire to judge and close down. Especially during times like this, and even when the world can be so, so ugly. And it was a reminder to have faith that we will have a path toward shared prosperity if we approach these difficult moments without judgement and with openness.

“Finally”, she says, “I trust you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done – together.”

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