Toni Morrison and the Flexibility of Language

The Nobel Prize in Literature happens every year in early October. As it nears this year’s announcement, reflect on Toni Morrison and her monumental win.

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Beloved is a story about a formerly enslaved family haunted by an unseeable force. Morrison wrote the novel based on Margaret Garner’s life events where she desperately tried to spare her family from slavery. Published in 1987, Beloved is recognized as Toni Morrison’s most widely celebrated novel. Despite the high praise, it failed to win the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Forty-eight black writers spoke up in Morrison’s defense, including Maya Angelou, against those agreeing with its shortcomings. Beloved then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And further in 1993, Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature. To this day, her acceptance speech stands out as words to be remembered for years and years to come.

The Nobel Prize in Literature

VIA THE WASHINGTON POST

The Nobel Prize covers five different award fields: Peace, Literature, Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry. Founder Alfred Nobel declared they are awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” The Prize ceremonies happen every year. For the Literature award, specific works are usually commended and noted, but the author’s comprehensive work is considered thoroughly.

In 1993, on October 7th, Toni Morrison became the first African American woman awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. To this day, she is the only African American woman awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and one of four black women to receive a Nobel Prize. Her groundbreaking work speaks for itself.

“Who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”

The Nobel Prize’s motivation for awarding Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s Speech

toni Morrison
VIA GETTY IMAGES

Morrison’s Nobel Award speech was a 33-minute lecture. In this speech, she compellingly tells a story that outlines the influence and multifaceted importance of language.

It is the deference that moves her, that recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.”

The Nobel prize applauded her ability to capture the American reality through language. Even if it is harsh and heartbreaking, as it is in Beloved, Morrison wields this tool to paint the gravity of life. Language guides us toward understanding experiences. Language is specific. Language is knowledge. Morrison brilliantly acknowledges all of this and more in her lecture.

I remember where I was when I read Beloved. I remember what the text looked like as I read about what a tormented mother would do for her children. Years have passed, but the imagery and emotions stay with me after all of this time. Toni Morrison herself has passed, yet still, her works are taught to the youth nationwide.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Toni Morrison’s lecture on language is the perfect proof of compelling language. I highly recommend everyone read or listen to it at least once. Meditate on the meaning and measure of life, and after you’ve come to your own conclusions, be sure to read up on other Toni Morrison articles here.

FEATURED IMAGE VIA WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS