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The lessons of Toni Morrison: Words matter, now more than ever

Trump may be missing what America needs, but late author’s writings light a path forward

With the death of Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison, the world lost a giant when so many of our leaders are so small, Curtis writes. (Brad Barket/Getty Images file photo)
With the death of Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison, the world lost a giant when so many of our leaders are so small, Curtis writes. (Brad Barket/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names.”

Of course, that language from Toni Morrison perfectly suits this time, when the names we give the things that scare us hardly seem enough.

It is fitting that in a week when America has been exposed to the words of a white nationalist screed shared before a man filled with hate murdered 22 human beings in El Paso, Texas, we can find some comfort in Morrison’s life and legacy, and in the power of words used masterfully by the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Morrison gave hope and encouragement to so many writers who saw her center black life and history — the pain and love and everything in between — in literature, and forced everyone to pay attention.

Her words were, and are, an inspiration, especially to those, like me, who saw the possibilities of a life of writing that validated experiences many Americans viewed as an afterthought or beside the point. We try to match her example of expression without compromise, though we might never come close to her genius. With her death at 88, announced this week, the world lost a giant when so many of our leaders are so small.

It came during a week spent pushing back at the reluctance to name a president’s racism — revealed in words, spoken on Twitter and at rallies, which so closely resemble the “manifesto” of the man who announced his intentions to slaughter Mexican Americans before he traveled with the intention of causing havoc in an American city known for its peacefulness and tolerance.

It’s been a week of a grudging realization by some of the importance of speaking precisely and strongly, naming domestic terrorism for what it is, for what our country’s intelligence services have been saying it has been for years. White supremacists have not been timid about excreting their twisted ideology as they bond over conspiracy theories on the internet and, increasingly, in the open. They pose a dangerous threat to what America is supposed to be, more serious in our time than the foreign intruders Americans have been taught to fear.

In her words, Morrison asked those who cling to these myths of superiority to look to themselves: “What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Still smart? Do you still like yourself? … If you can only be tall because someone’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”

The woman who said she has always refused to be a victim called out racism for what it is: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”

“There will always be one more thing.”

When I had my Morrison moment years ago, asked to introduce her when she gave a speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, no amount of preparation and practice could keep my knees from knocking when the evening came, when I quoted lines from “Beloved,” the novel I return to. She was gracious, lovely, thoughtful — and generous, not only to me but to the throng of students who sat at her feet during a reception at the home of the president of the university that sponsored her visit.

Morrison’s death was a shock, not just because it was so sudden but also because you had thought she would live forever. Her words and wisdom will, as will her example of speaking the truth out loud and without apology.

I’m not surprised that the current president has yet to weigh in on Morrison’s passing. After Donald Trump was elected, she wrote in The New Yorker: “So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

Trump has chosen instead to again return to criticizing his White House predecessor, as well as those who would question the sincerity of his reaction to a week of carnage in our America, in El Paso, Dayton, Ohio, Gilroy, California, and cities whose names don’t make the headlines.

That predecessor, President Barack Obama — who in 2015 traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, to comfort the family, the city and the nation at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of those murdered by a white racist at Mother Emanuel AME Church — awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At the 2012 ceremony, Obama said: “Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt. From ‘Song of Solomon’ to ‘Beloved,’ Toni reaches us deeply, using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct, and inclusive. She believes that language ‘arcs toward the place where meaning might lie.’ The rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride.”

This week, Obama mourned her as a “national treasure.” He said in a statement: “Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful — a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy.”

Empathy is an emotion Trump must try to conjure as he struggles to provide moral leadership to a nation that is hurting, where some citizens hang on his every word and others ignore the scripted teleprompter statements and see in his tweets and off-the-cuff rally rants an emptiness at the core of a very angry man.

But even though he is at this moment missing what America needs, there is Toni Morrison lighting a path forward: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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