This Black History Month, we remember Toni Morrison, the first African American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Morrison was born to working-class parents in Ohio, and when she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye, she was a single, working mother of two. Her subsequent novels garnered more and more praise and attention; her novel Beloved, inspired by the true story of a runaway slave, was made into a feature film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Her Nobel Lecture from December 7, 1993, which is more of an allegory about the importance of language and storytelling than a speech, is available for free download here. Some excerpts:

…a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than to maintain the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However, moribund, it is not without effect, for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.

Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.

 

Read about the commencement speeches given by Toni Morrison and others here.

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The Georgia Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, Lasting Laurels, Enduring Words: A Salute to the Nobel Laureates of Literature (Spring 1995), pp. 318-323
Georgia Review