In Memoriam – Dr. Toni Morrison
To imagine a world no longer subject to the critical, penetrating gaze of Toni Morrison, is to imagine a world more dimly lit, more hidden, perhaps, to those who were guided by her unspeakable genius. Many grieve the loss of the gift her life was to the world this week. But some solace should come in the seemingly boundless gifts she so generously shared with all who will miss her so. Below are Morrison’s closing words from a speech delivered fifty-four years ago. The entire speech is available here. The words startle me inasmuch as progress toward her prophesy is slow. But I rest easier in some small measure alongside the hope she offers so many who have journeyed so far for so long.
From “A Humanist View,” May 30, 1975 at Portland State University
Racial ignorance is a prison from which there is no escape because there’re no doors. And there are old, old men, and old, old women running institutions, governments, homes all over the world who need to believe in their racism and need to have the victims of racism concentrate all their creative abilities on them. And they are very easily identified.
They are the petulant ones who call themselves proud, and they are the disdainful ones who call themselves fastidious, and they are the mean-spirited ones who call themselves just. They thrive on the failures of those unlike them; they are the ones who measure their wealth by the desperation of the poor. They are the ones who know personal success only when they can identify deficiencies in other racial and ethnic groups. They are in prisons of their own construction: and their ignorance and their stunted emotional growth consistently boggle the mind.
But the artist knows that we are human, and the artist knows, if he is free, exactly what every three-year-old child knows: that the whole business of reproducing and dying by the billions is unsatisfactory and clumsy. He also knows that we have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as one Black man who flicks a beetle over on the street. There’s not a race in the world that behaves as badly as praying mantises.
We are the moral inhabitants of the globe. And to deny it is to lie in prison. Oh yes, there’s cruelty, and cruelty, because it destroys the perpetuator as well as the victim, is a very mysterious thing. But if you look at the world as one long brutal game between “us” and “them,” then you bump into another mystery. And that’s the mystery of the tree-shaped scar, and the canary that might sing on the crown of a scar.
And unless all races and all ages of man have been totally deluded, there seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony—all of which are wholly free, and available to us.
Thank you very much.