Right now I am listening to the audiobook of The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison and narrated by Bahni Turpin. Within the collection of essays and speeches is a piece she wrote when she won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1993. There is accompanying audio of her reading this speech on the night she accepted the award, but the version I heard was the one read by Turpin. I plan to listen to Morrison speak tomorrow for right now I want to write. The piece is an extended metaphor about the power of language and of humanizing language. In a way I feel like this piece came back to me at just the right time and the right place. I have listened to some of the audiobook a few years before, but I’m not quite sure if 1. I had heard this piece and, 2. Whether it would have resonated with me then as it does now.
Language is on my mind. It’s always on my mind. Part of the reason why I don’t write as much as I used to is because I care about the language I use. It takes a lot of time and effort to carefully write out my thoughts because a lot of my thoughts are a lot more complicated than they used to be. Because I use what I consider to be elevated language, a higher diction, and I’m now consciously aware of how my speech patterns differ from others. This is why I find it important to engage in political education — to create the shared vocabulary that is essential to understanding societal problems.
Within Morrison’s speech, she says, “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.” Nuanced. Complex. Delivering life, birth, happiness, love. Political education is giving name to the nuance of language that is so necessary for delivering life, birth, happiness, and love. It’s complex, so discussion and dialog is a must. Within the same paragraph, she says, “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.”
Encouraging the mutual exchange of ideas when framed with mid-wifery properties – i.e. political education – burgeons the desire to create life-giving institutions that abolitionists are striving for.
TONI MORRISON LOOK WHAT YOU HAVE UNLOCKED IN ME. Thank you.
Trying to engage in dialog where there is a lack of understanding of the nuance of language drives home the need for slowing down a conversation long enough to explain words for common meaning. We must have a shared vocabulary. A lot of abolitionist and anti-racist education requires a lot of unlearning of concepts. These concepts are taught to us through culture (family, media, music, socializing), and you can’t know a thing unless it’s pointed out to you.
James Baldwin said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” Moving through the world with a love ethic means pointing out the dehumanization of another that we learn through the subtle nuance of language as taught via culture. The unlearning of harmful language is wrought with discomfort because we have to wrestle with our moral selves as we try to understand how we came to absorb such lessons. There has never not been a time when problematic language or imagery is being pointed out by someone — often and most likely by the people who are being hurt the most — but we are not conscious of what we cannot see.
Silencing the opposition is the only way to avoid accountability. James Baldwin said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Accountability never feels good, because those of us with a good moral conscious feel guilt and shame. We have demonized guilt and shame so much that we avoid it at all costs. Or, that’s what the rich and powerful have done and have taught us.
But I digress…
Today I also took the time to listen to a podcast interview of Mariame Kaba. Both Morrison and Kaba galvanize me to take action. During the interview, Kaba shared the importance of accepting and taking lessons from failure. More words given at the right time at the right place.
My tiredness has set in, and so I will hopefully continue these thoughts tomorrow.