Posts Tagged ‘Toni Morrison’

What Hasn’t Changed

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Last month, in a post on gun violence and the growing understanding of Robert Kennedy, I mentioned the 1963 meeting between Kennedy, James Baldwin, and other civil rights leaders that went disastrously awry. The consequences of that gathering proved varied and contradictory. Then Attorney General Kennedy quickly instructed FBI Director J Edgar Hoover to increase surveillance on Baldwin to uncover information of “a derogatory nature.” On the other hand, it marked a turn in Kennedy’s evolving attitude regarding racial justice. Within a month, President John F Kennedy – at his brother’s urging – delivered his landmark Civil Right Address, from which the 1964 Civil Rights Act took form.

Another product of that evening, at once more immediate and less procedural, was a video recording of an interview Kenneth Clark conducted with Baldwin. In an attempt to ease Baldwin’s palpable post-meeting tension, Clark started by asking the writer about his childhood memories. What followed was an emotionally powerful and stunningly eloquent exploration of the American soul that only someone with Baldwin’s experience and verbal gifts could pull off. Clothing his indictment in his characteristic – if undeserved – compassion toward white Americans, he says, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive,” and ties the future of America to whether or not its people can “face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they’ve maligned so long.” He then challenges White America “to find in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n—-r in the first place, because I’m not a n—-r. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a n—-r, it means you need it…And if you invented him, you have to find out why.” (more…)

Caring for Words, XIII: Words Cannot Contain…

Saturday, January 6th, 2018


Epiphany, Theophany, Three Kings Day. Gifts, carried by the wise, in oddly-fashioned coffers. After twelve days spent pondering the health of words in a sickened language, we end where we began: marveling at the power and fragility of these vessels of meaning. I hope the journey better prepares us to defend them from the cynics, the forgers, the looters.

Care for the words you receive. Honor the words you share. Rejoice at their abilities. Stay mindful of their limits. Attend carefully to those passages in a life when words can do no more than gesture beyond themselves. Rather than mourning what seems like failure, imagine their exhilaration, poised at the edges of signification like climbers on a volcanic rim, dangling their aching legs over the abyss. Return there often. Feel the rising heat, the alpine wind. If words cannot contain our lives, they can show others the way. (more…)

Caring for Words, IV: Politics

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

The power of language can be directed toward many ends. One of these ends is yet another form of power: political control. In egregious cases, language is openly manipulated, degraded, and deformed. Politically-motivated language distortion, however, is rarely so transparent. More often, ugly realities are carefully obscured through strategic abstraction, while the indefensible is excused with distracting rhetorical flourishes. Many who’ve seen combat know all too well what the mind must do to rationalize killing another person. How often do we read or hear of lifelong racists who maintain cordial relations with one or two individuals of color? Political operatives can tell you how a well-chosen label frames an issue to their advantage. These sicken language in indirect and subtle ways, less likely to provoke resistance. Here’s the rub: the critical skills necessary for the “informed citizen” to tell rhetoric from reality depend on the language’s robust health. (more…)