What We Can Learn From Toni Morrison’s Legacy

Dr. Toni Morrison was a literary and cultural giant. In her transition she leaves much to be missed. She is the author of many of my favorite tomes and essays including “The Bluest Eye,” “Beloved,” “Paradise,” and most recently, “The Source of Self-Regard.”  Each of her writings detail the depth and complexity of the black American experience and the boundless richness and ingenuity of unapologetically sourcing narratives from places otherwise cast to the far shadows of American social and literary canons. Through her collections, Dr. Morrison repeatedly demonstrated her unique appreciation for and understanding of use of language, especially the distortion of language by the powerful. In her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Morrison expounded on this concept:

“[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; it does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge…it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”

To address her concerns about the nefarious use of language, Dr. Morrison challenged her readers to use words as a creative and liberative tool to protect our individual and collective humanness. She cautioned against using our words to create divisions based on our differences and the dangerous myth of the “other.”

Fast forward to the present and Dr. Morrison’s words are nothing short of prescient. Each day we face an ascendant onslaught of racism, xenophobia, and oppressive rhetoric from the highest echelons of systemic power in this country. The language used by the powerful is vicious and it is often aimed squarely at the margins of our communities and at the most vulnerable populations within our society. Our differences are being weaponized by a demagogue with nativist and nationalist aspirations.

As we together try to confront the calculated bigotry and emboldened white supremacist movement in the United States which is responsible for the rise in anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-black sentiment and violence; our government’s family separation and internment policy; the attacks on women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights; and so many other shameful acts, I echo one of Dr. Morrison’s final writings in which she challenged her readers to meet these types of collapses in dignity with our language and “with more humanity.”

The nature of our work with older survivors and the complexities of aging inherently cultivate the kinds of knowledge building and moral imagination that are required to address the cruelty being championed by our current political leadership. However, history dictates that our success as a movement for justice and healing is pre-conditioned on our willingness to expressly identify and unequivocally define our aims as a part of the larger battle for social justice and humanity that is raging on in public discourse.

As a movement, we must move beyond the notion that using well-intended, or ambiguous, or euphemistic language to describe current oppressions is work well done. We must do the “word-work” to aptly name the bigotry and hatred that is to blame for so much human trauma and suffering. We must also use our language to reckon with our full history as movement, including the limiting stories we have told ourselves about the “others” among us. We must use our language to reaffirm our complications, our passions, and our ideals. In doing these things, we can recapture our power to define ourselves, to nurture our collective survival and actualization, and to proffer a clear counter-plot to the harrowing moral threat we now face as a nation.

Juanita Davis, J.D., is the Associate Director for the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life

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