Toni Morrison's Exquisite Nonfiction

I just finished Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (2019), and every few pages or so, I thought to myself: it’s rare I’m taking in prose this rhythmically perfect, this deeply intelligent.

From “Peril” (2008):

How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves….

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorry into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.

From Morrison’s 1998 Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address:

If I spend my life despising you because of your race, or class, or religion, I become your slave. If you spend yours hating me for similar reasons, it is because you are my slave. I own your energy, your fear, your intellect. I determine where you live, how you live, what your work is, your definition of excellence, and I set limits to your ability to love. I will have shaped your life. That is the gift of your hatred; you are mine….

We are already live-chosen by ourselves. Humans, and as far as we know there are no others. We are the moral inhabitants of the galaxy. Why trash that magnificent obligation after working so hard in the womb to assume it? You will be in positions that matter. Positions in which you can decide the nature and quality of other people’s lives. Your errors may be irrevocable. So when you enter those places of trust, or power, dream a little before you think, so your thoughts, your solutions, your directions, your choices about who lives and who doesn’t, about who flourishes and who doesn’t will be worth the very sacred life you have chosen to live. You are not helpless. You are not heartless. And you have time.

Lastly, here is the oft-quoted passage from Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature:

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

Stephen Schenkenberg @schenkenberg