Toni Morrison: Nobel Prize
In the early morning hours of 7 October 1993, Morrison received a call that she had been named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first American to receive the prize since John Steinbeck in 1962; the eighth woman to win in all the prize's history, and the first black woman to accept the award. At first Morrison was in shock - she later joked that her first reaction was, "'Why don't you send me a fax?' Somehow, I felt that if I saw a fax, I'd know it wasn't a dream or somebody's hallucination."10
Surprise soon turned to joy. "This is a palpable tremor of delight for me," Morrison told a reporter who reached her immediately after the announcement. "It was wholly unexpected and so satisfying. Regardless of what we all say and truly believe about the irrelevance of prizes and their relationship to the real work, nevertheless this is a signal honor for me."11
Morrison's fans were overjoyed at her recognition, particularly in light of earlier snubs of her work. "This is a great day for African-Americans, and for Americans in general," the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. said. "Just two centuries ago, the African-American literary tradition was born in slave narratives. Now our greatest writer has won the Nobel Prize."12
In her Nobel lecture, Morrison decried the debasement of language, of words that could be used to oppress people, to obscure the horror of terrible things, to deny people their truth. Language, she said, was too essential to humanity to abuse it in that way. "Word-work . . . makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference - the way in which we are like no other life," Morrison said. "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."13
Famous Speech Friday: Toni Morrison's Nobel lecture on language
That's because she begins with a simple fable about an old blind woman who is a clairvoyant: Two young people tell her they have a bird in their hands and demand that she tell them whether the bird is alive or dead, intent on proving her a fraud. She tells them, after a long wait, that she doesn't know whether the bird is dead or alive, but that she knows "it is in your hands."
Morrison then explains what the fable, heard in many cultures around the world in various versions, means to her:
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.Then she lets her speech soar further, to share the deeper meaning she sees. Morrison's concern, befitting a global award and speech, is how language is misused around the world:
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. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language - all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.What can you learn from this famous speech?
- Use a fable to make your point: A master storyteller, Morrison reached for a fable to carry this speech from beginning to end. It's a tactic I wish more speakers would try. After all, fables are durable, time-tested ways to convey information, suspense, and all the elements of the dramatic arc. In this speech, Morrison is describing a complex, detailed, and intellectual view of language and the impact of abuses of language, so a simple fable gives all listeners something with which to connect. At the same time, the fable is easy to remember, making it easier for listeners to repeat.
- Active verbs enliven your speech: This line is loaded with active verbs that bring it (and language) alive: "It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind." It's all the more powerful as a result.
- Speak truth to power: If you are lucky enough to have this kind of platform, use it for all it is worth. Morrison does not mince words here, and addresses important and weighty issues. A speech this important gets saved and recorded and will outlast the speaker, all the more reason to make it count.
Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both.