Please welcome longtime community member and author Elizabeth A. Havey to Writer Unboxed today. Elizabeth reached out to us shortly after Toni Morrison’s passing this week, to share an article she had written about the iconic and Nobel Prize winning author, poet, and thought-leader. It’s our privilege to share Elizabeth’s words here, in honor of Ms. Morrison and her incredible life. From Elizabeth’s bio:

Graduating with a BA in English, I taught literature at the secondary level and later worked as a freelancer for McDougal Littell Publishing and Meredith Books. I earned my RN in my forties and worked as an L&D nurse and health educator. I dedicated my summers to studying at the University of Iowa’s Writing Workshops. My stories have appeared in little magazines including The Nebraska Review and Zinkzine. I have published CEU’s for nursing and with James Wagenvoord, co-wrote and published Miami Ink. Born, raised and educated in Chicago, I now live in Southern California, but the spirit of the Midwest remains fresh in my fiction. I am a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and I blog weekly at http://boomerhighway.org.

Learn more about Elizabeth and her book A Mother’s Time Capsule–“a collection of stories about motherhood, reflecting my love of literature and medicine”–on her website, and by following her on Twitter.

Remembering Toni Morrison

For me, reading has always been nourishment—the first stack of easy-reading books from our local Chicago library; then the heft of assigned books from high school and college teachers and professors. And always, the answer to the eternal question: What would you like for your birthday? Books.

Reading is beauty, reality, other worlds; reading increases widespread understanding, stimulates questioning, learning. And in 2018, because I read widely, I was alerted to an attack against reading itself.

The attack came in the form of letters to the editor in our local newspaper. Week after week, people in my community were complaining about assigned fiction and non-fiction works at our local high school. The books were: David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Toni Morrison’s Sula.

These letter writers really went after Sula, as if this beautiful, honest book would change or damage the sexuality of every young person who read it. During this barrage of letter writing, I even considered the possibility that someone was prompting these writers, even funding them.

I wrote my own letter to the editor, supporting all three books, stressing that I had taught high school English and asking: didn’t these people realize that guiding students through difficult subject matter was how they would grow to become responsible adults? Tested and approved high school curriculum is always far better than reading “stuff” on the internet, where students can find articles on any sexual topic—and when they did, they most likely would not reveal what they had read, possibly becoming confused with no one to guide them or provide thoughtful understanding. The letter writers didn’t understand the very purpose of high school literature classes. They communicated narrow mindedness and prejudice.

I discussed the situation with the group of progressive women I belong to. We decided, that like Tip O’Neill believed, politics is local. We would fight this. We researched and got the names of the candidates for the school board who supported the current reading program. We interviewed each of them, held a garage sale, raised money and gave our proceeds to these candidates.

I thought of our efforts this past week when Toni Morrison died at the age of eighty-eight. Toni Morrison, the author of Sula, Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, A Mercy and many others. Toni Morrison, who in 1993 became the first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature and was lauded for being a writer “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” Yes, a reality high school students need to know! Being a woman of color, Morrison focused on language—how it can affect and deepen our American reality. If we do not have the freedom to express ourselves in language and to reveal the truths of our history, we are lost.

Morrison’s Fable of Children

In her Nobel Acceptance speech, Morrison told this story:

Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise. …the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away…

One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them…her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”

She does not answer, and the question is repeated. Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.

Finally, the old woman speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.

What the blind woman has done is shift the power that these seeing people might have over her, and instead is reprimanding them for mocking her, but also for the life they might have sacrificed to do so.

Morrison then extrapolated on the purpose of her story.

  • I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer.
  • She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes.
  • Being a writer, she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency — as an act with consequences.
  • So, the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will.
  • She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse.

Morrison’s Assignment

 As writers, we have been left with a task, one Morrison wants us to aspire to. She writes:

Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life.

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn (paint) the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers.

An amazing and worthwhile task.

And also: all the candidates that we supported for the school board won. The high school students in my school district are now reading Toni Morrison. I believe we all should.

Thanks to Brain Pickings’ article Toni Morrison and the Power of Language, which was a resource for this post.

Readers, do you have a favorite Toni Morrison story or quote you’d like to share? How did her words intersect with your life in a way that made a difference? The floor is yours.

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