The Liberating Clarity Of Toni Morrison’s Words

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The author, who died Monday at age 88, knew language isn’t limitless. But she wrote like it was.

“We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison pronounced in her 1993 lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Morrison, a writer who measured life more precisely and profoundly than any other, died at age 88 on Monday night. She published her first book, “The Bluest Eye,” at 39, after years working as a book editor focused on publishing great, often underrecognized, black writers. In the decades that followed she produced masterpiece after masterpiece: “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Tar Baby,” “Beloved” ― eleven novels in all, along with numerous essays, books of history and criticism, a smattering of plays and poems, a handful of children’s books. In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved.” In 1993, when she was awarded her Nobel Prize, she became the first black woman to receive the award in any category. 

In Morrison’s oft-quoted Nobel lecture — as in much of her other work — mortality and language appeared as the great forces of human existence. Still, as profound as her respect for language was, that respect was predicated on an understanding of its limits. Language fails; language gestures toward that which it cannot embody.  

“Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so,” she said in her speech. “Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.”

Death, she reminded us, has no such limits. It comes implacably for us all.

But only an artist so convinced of her tool’s inherent constraints could persuade the rest of us to forget them, to read her writing and feel so free. In her fiction and in her nonfiction, Morrison wrote with the sort of rare, deeply felt precision that slips into a reader’s mind and becomes a voice in their head. She found the exact words to make a difficult truth unfurl in your brain as if you’d unknotted it yourself, as if you’d always known it at your bones.   

Even truths that are, in fact, utterly revelatory. Morrison’s novels are, for so many readers, an initiation into a new understanding of art’s possibilities, of black American experience, of motherhood and love, of slavery and hate, of death.  

For me, the first revelation was ”Beloved,” the story of a mother, Sethe, so desperate to keep her daughter from being captured and sent back to slavery that she kills her. I read it in college; it was the first novel I’d read that didn’t soft-peddle the horrors of slavery or preach about them in clinical or mildly condescending terms. It grabs you by the throat from the first, unforgettable sentences: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

When Paul D., Sethe’s partner, learns that she once killed her child, he is aghast:

“This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone,” he thought. “Your love is too thick,” he tells her, but Sethe doesn’t even know what “thin love” could be. Love is not a cross-stitched motto in Morrison’s work; it can have fangs. It can need those fangs in a way many of us are privileged never to even dream of.

In the foreword of my edition, Morrison writes of how she approached writing ”Beloved: “To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out out of the way.”

It’s an odd thing to write about a rendering created entirely of language, but this awareness of how words can obfuscate is what allowed Morrison to wield them with such rapier sharpness. She was allergic to pious platitudes and convenient archetypes. It was the experience, not the language, that came first; it was the sense of being, as she writes in the foreword, “kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment,” and the creeping feeling that “the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive,” that animated the book.  

Morrison often said that she wrote not to white people ― not to educate or explain to them ― but to people like those she wrote about. “When that happens, very strangely, or rather, very naturally, what also happens is that you speak to everybody,” she told an audience at Portland State University in 1975. “And even though it begins as inward and private, and gets its own juices from itself, the end result is it’s communication with the world at large.” 

By not expecting language to do more than it could, by not allowing it to shape her own view of the world, she constructed a language in service of herself and her subjects and readers. She created a language imbued with a greater force, a greater clarity, a greater persuasiveness than any rooted on less solid ground. Her words make sense to us, even when they’re describing something previously unimaginable, because she allowed the words to follow truth. 

Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.”Toni Morrison

 

Amid the election of Donald Trump as president, his “fake news” tirades and news that actually is fake, it became popular to revisit the writings of George Orwell and other (mostly white) dystopian writers, in hopes of comprehending how far a society without a useful language could fall. As my colleague Julia Craven pointed out recently, we should be turning to Toni Morrison. Her passion for keeping language specific, rooted in truth, interiority and experience rather than in a consensus-seeking lockstep, offered a sharp corrective to mealy-mouthed news reporting on the “dry kindling of race relations,” to the poisonous spread of white supremacy through irony, and to the sanctimonious rhetoric that disguises racist policy with an acceptably tolerant veneer. 

Her writings through the years have such clarity that they feel immediate, as if written yesterday; decades ago, she unerringly diagnosed societal illnesses that many Americans, especially many white Americans, only noticed symptoms of within the past three years. 

“Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago,” she said in her Nobel speech. “Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public.” 

Often, in these times, language feels like a prison, a distraction, or a broken implement. Morrison’s love for language allowed her to see that it has always been these things, and also that we have the power to turn it into something beautiful, free, and vital.

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Trump And RNC Sue California Over New Tax Return Law

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The law would require Trump to release his tax returns in order to appear on the state’s primary ballot next year.

President Donald Trump and his campaign and the Republican National Committee filed a pair of lawsuits on Tuesday challenging a new California law that requires all presidential and gubernatorial candidates to publicly release their tax returns in order to appear on the state’s primary ballot.

The action comes about a week after California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed that law aimed at Trump, who has famously refused to release his tax returns. Newsom, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra are named as defendants in the suits.

Both lawsuits assert that the California legislation violates the U.S. Constitution. 

“The Democratic Party is on a crusade to obtain the President’s federal tax returns in the hopes of finding something they can use to harm him politically,” the lawsuit from Trump’s camp argues. “In their rush to join this crusade, California Democrats have run afoul of these restrictions on State power over federal elections.”

The RNC lawsuit calls the California law “a naked political attack against the sitting President of the United States” that would disenfranchise voters.

Newsom responded to the suits with this statement: “There’s an easy fix for the President. He should release his tax returns as he promised during the campaign and follow the precedent of every president since 1973.”

When reached for comment, Padilla said the California law is important for maintaining transparency: “Voters deserve to know if candidates for the highest office in the United States — who will make economic and military decisions with global repercussions — have any possible financial conflicts of interest.”

Becerra’s office said it will be representing the state in the matter and is ready to “defend California’s laws and statutes.”

Trump, the first president in four decades to not release his tax returns, is also suing New York state officials and the House Ways and Means Committee over their efforts to force the release of his tax returns.

On Monday, the conservative activist group Judicial Watch announced that it filed a similar action against California on behalf of four voters.

In addition to contending that the state statute illegally creates new qualifications for those running for president, the Judicial Watch suit argues that the law could lead to a dangerous domino effect, in which states demand access to candidates’ “medical records, mental health records, sealed juvenile records, driving records, results of intelligence, aptitude, or personality tests, college applications, Amazon purchases, Google search histories, browsing histories, or Facebook friends.”

Newsom’s predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown (D), raised that same concern when he vetoed similar legislation in 2017.

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Texas Mounted Officers Apologize For ‘Poor Judgment’ After Leading Man Behind Horse By Leash

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The Galveston Police Department issued an official apology for any “unnecessary embarrassment” caused by the incident.

The Galveston Police Department issued an apology on Monday evening after an image was circulated on social media showing two mounted officers, both white, leading a handcuffed black man behind their horses, attached by what looked like a rope or leash.

Adrienne Bell, a Democratic candidate running for Congress in Texas’ 14th District, posted the image to Facebook, saying the scene had invoked “anger, disgust and questions from the community.”

In a press release posted on Facebook Monday, the police department identified the suspect as Donald Neely. He was arrested for trespassing on Saturday, and a transportation unit was not immediately available at the time of the arrest so the officers escorted him to the Mounted Patrol Unit staging area in this manner.

The department acknowledged that the incident may have been “unnecessarily” embarrassing for Neely and apologized for the poor judgment of mounted officers P. Brosch and A. Smith. 

“We understand the negative perception of this action and believe it is most appropriate to cease the use of this technique. The Police Chief has taken immediate action to suspend this technique of transportation during arrests,” the release stated.

The release also sought to clarify that Neely was not detained by a rope tied to his hands, but a “line clipped to the handcuffs.”

People on social media expressed disgust at the incident, calling it dehumanizing, unacceptable and reprehensible.

Ex-GOP Lawmaker To Voters: ‘Beat Republicans. Beat Every Single One Of Them’

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Former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) says it’s time to toss the GOP for failing to act on gun control.

A former Republican congressman is calling on voters who want gun control to boot all of his old GOP colleagues from office.

“If this is the issue that informs your ideology as a voter, the strength to draw in this moment is to commit to beating Republicans,” former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) said on MSNBC on Monday.“Beat ’em. Beat every single one of them,” he said. “Even the safe ones in the House, beat ’em. Beat ’em in the Senate. Take back the Senate.”

Jolly urged Democratic presidential candidates who could defeat a Republican senator to drop out and run in those races instead to help flip the chamber. He also encouraged Democrats to unite and beat President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

Jolly, who was in Congress from 2014-2017, took some of the blame for the party’s failure to act on gun control.

“I tried to move the needle within the party and I failed,” he said. “And it’s important in this moment to acknowledge it.”

But, he said that the problem was ingrained in the party, which had failed to act after some of the nation’s worse mass shootings: 

“I find myself today offering the same insight I did the night of the Parkland shooting a few hours from our home in Florida, which is this: Republicans will never do anything on gun control. Nothing. Ever. They won’t.”

Then, Jolly warned his former fellow lawmakers that the tide was turning against them. 

“Your time is coming,” he said. “My mom likes to say the wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind increasingly and exceedingly fine. That is what has happened to a lot of Republican political careers in moments like this.”

An ardent Trump critic, Jolly quit the Republican Party last year over its support of the president.  

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Obama calls for gun control: 'We are not helpless' to stop attacks

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Former President Barack Obama called for stricter gun control laws in a Monday statement after two mass shootings over the weekend left more than 30 people dead in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

“We are not helpless here,” Obama said in a statement posted on Twitter. “And until all of us stand up and insist on holding public officials accountable for changing our gun laws, these tragedies will keep happening.”

Obama said the El Paso shooting followed a “dangerous trend” of violence motivated by racist ideologies. He compared white supremacist websites to terrorist groups like ISIS and called on law enforcement and internet platforms to reduce the influence of hate groups.

The El Paso shooting is being investigated as a possible hate crime after an anti-immigrant “manifesto” posted online was connected to the alleged gunman. Posts on 8chan, an online messaging board used by right-wing extremists, have also been connected to the alleged gunman. Law enforcement officials said on Saturday that the suspect told them he wanted to shoot as many Mexicans as possible.

Obama also called on Americans to “soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments.” He didn’t specify which leaders he was talking about. President Trump is known for anti-immigrant rhetoric, repeatedly referring to a migrant caravan at the U.S.-Mexico border as an “invasion.”

Obama noted that hateful rhetoric and language that demonizes others isn’t new but has been at the “root of most human tragedy.”

“It has no place in our politics and our public life,” he wrote. “And it’s time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much — clearly and unequivocally.”

Obama has said that his inability to strengthen gun laws was the “biggest frustration” of his presidency. He was often moved to tears when he addressed the country after a mass shooting. In 2017, he said the “toughest day” of his tenure was when he met with the families of the victims of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012.

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