Hear Toni Morrison’s Poetic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on the Radical Power of Language (1993)

Since her first nov­el, 1970’s The Bluest Eye, Toni Mor­ri­son has daz­zled read­ers with her com­mand­ing language—colloquial, mag­i­cal, mag­is­te­r­i­al, even fan­ci­ful at times, but held firm to the earth by a com­mit­ment to his­to­ry and an unspar­ing explo­ration of racism, sex­u­al abuse, and vio­lence. Read­ing Mor­ri­son can be an exhil­a­rat­ing expe­ri­ence, and a har­row­ing one. We nev­er know where she is going to take us. But the jour­ney for Mor­ri­son has nev­er been one of escapism or art for art’s sake. In a 1981 inter­view, she once said, “the books I want­ed to write could not be only, even mere­ly, lit­er­ary or I would defeat my pur­pos­es, defeat my audi­ence.” As she put it then, “my work bears wit­ness and sug­gests who the out­laws were, who sur­vived under what cir­cum­stances and why.”

She has sus­tained such a weighty mis­sion not only with a love of lan­guage, but also with a crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of its power—to seduce, to manip­u­late, con­found, wound, twist, and kill. Which brings us to the record­ed speech above, deliv­ered in 1993 at her accep­tance of the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture. After briefly thank­ing the Swedish Acad­e­my and her audi­ence, she begins, “Fic­tion has nev­er been enter­tain­ment for me.” Wind­ing her speech around a para­ble of “an old woman, blind but wise,” Mor­ri­son illus­trates the ways in which “oppres­sive lan­guage does more than rep­re­sent vio­lence; it is vio­lence; does more than rep­re­sent the lim­its of knowl­edge; it lim­its knowl­edge.”

Anoth­er kind of lan­guage takes flight, “surges toward knowl­edge, not its destruc­tion.” In the folk­tale at the cen­ter of her speech, lan­guage is a bird, and the blind seer to whom it is pre­sent­ed gives us a choice: “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.”

Lan­guage, she sug­gests, is in fact our only human pow­er, and our respon­si­bil­i­ty. The con­se­quences of its mis­use we know all too well, and Mor­ri­son does not hes­i­tate to name them. But she ends with a chal­lenge for her audi­ence, and for all of us, to take our own mea­ger lit­er­ary resources and put them to use in heal­ing the dam­age done. You should lis­ten to, and read, her entire speech, with its maze-like turns and folds. Near its end, the dis­cur­sive­ness flow­ers into exhor­ta­tion, and—though she has said she dis­likes hav­ing her work described thus—poetry. “Make up a sto­ry,” she says, “Nar­ra­tive is rad­i­cal, cre­at­ing us at the very moment it is being cre­at­ed.”

We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and noth­ing is left but their scald. Or if, with the ret­i­cence of a sur­geon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can nev­er do it prop­er­ly — once and for all. Pas­sion is nev­er enough; nei­ther is skill. But try. For our sake and yours for­get your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unrav­els fear’s caul. You, old woman, blessed with blind­ness, can speak the lan­guage that tells us what only lan­guage can: how to see with­out pic­tures. Lan­guage alone pro­tects us from the scari­ness of things with no names. Lan­guage alone is med­i­ta­tion

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Toni Mor­ri­son Dis­pens­es Writ­ing Wis­dom in 1993 Paris Review Inter­view

7 Nobel Speech­es by 7 Great Writ­ers: Hem­ing­way, Faulkn­er, and More

Toni Mor­ri­son, Nora Ephron, and Dozens More Offer Advice in Free Cre­ative Writ­ing “Mas­ter Class”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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