Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni & Sonia Sanchez on the Crisis in America & the Death of Toni Morrison
August 8th 2019
Legendary writers and activists Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez discuss the gun violence epidemic in the United States in the wake of the latest mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Giovanni, who teaches at Virginia Tech, talks about the massacre at her institution in 2007 that left 32 people dead and wounded another 17, and her efforts to warn administrators about the student who would carry out one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. The three women also continue their discussion from Part 1, reflecting on the life and legacy of their late friend Toni Morrison, who died Monday at age 88.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. President Trump is visiting Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, today, following the mass shootings over the weekend which killed at least 32 people, including the Dayton gunman. Resistance to Trump’s visit has been mounting among many residents and Democrats in both cities. This is Dayton’s Democratic Mayor Nan Whaley.
MAYOR NAN WHALEY: You know, he’s made this bed, and he’s got to lie in it, you know? He hasn’t — you know, his rhetoric has been painful for many in our community, and I think that people should stand up and say they’re not happy if they’re not happy that he’s coming.
AMY GOODMAN: In El Paso, Texas, Democrats and many community members are also protesting Trump’s visit today. Before the shooting rampage, which killed at least 22 people, the alleged El Paso gunman posted a manifesto saying he was, quote, “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” He was echoing the language used by President Trump to describe immigrants coming over the border.
Democratic Congressmember Veronica Escobar of El Paso turned down an invitation to join Trump in his motorcade when he visits today, saying he needed to call her first. She said, quote, “I refuse to join without a dialogue about the pain his racist and hateful words & actions have caused our community and country.”
We turn now to look at this crisis in America and to bring you Part 2 of our discussion about the death of Toni Morrison, the legendary writer, who passed away Monday at the age of 88, the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her iconic book Beloved.
We begin with Nikki Giovanni, poet, activist, educator, dear friend of Toni Morrison. She’s currently the university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, which was the scene of a mass shooting in 2007, when a gunman killed 32 people. Nikki Giovanni taught the gunman when he was a student in her class, before demanding he leave her poetry class over disruptive behavior.
Nikki Giovanni, if you can just talk about what has taken place in this last week and also your experience of Virginia Tech 12 years ago, April 16th, 2007?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, I think we at Virginia Tech and the Hokie family, we’re strong, and we are continuing to build. And I’m very proud. I’m proud to be a Hokie, and I’m proud to be here at Virginia Tech. I do look under my door when I go into my office. I look under the door because I keep saying that at some point there’s going to be a little pink slip that’s going to say, “Nikki, go home.” But so far, I haven’t been fired. So, I’m very pleased to continue teaching and to continue learning from — I learn from my students, as well as teaching them.
What’s going on here, at least to me, Trump needs to be impeached. But I said that two years ago. I’m extremely disappointed that the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has not begun impeachment proceedings. Of course, you know, Moscow Mitch is going to do everything he can to block. But that’s not the point. Martin Luther King did not walk over the Selma bridge — he did not walk over that bridge because he knew he was going to be welcomed. He walked over that bridge because he was right. Pelosi needs to start proceedings of impeachment, because Trump needs to be impeached. And the idea that, “Oh, well, she doesn’t want to do that because she wants the Democrats to win,” well, this is not about winning. The only thing that wins right now is the Constitution. And right now what’s being raped is the Constitution. Nobody’s fighting for the Constitution, and that’s what needs to fighting for. So, I’m very disappointed in Pelosi and McConnell.
AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if you could also comment on — it’s a conversation we’ve had before, but you were in the position of actually being the professor of the student who would open fire on his classmates. And you had very strong feelings at him at the time, before this happened.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, someone else said it: If you can’t see the face of the devil, it’s because you’re riding with him. I saw the face of evil. And I went to my department head, and I said, you know, “Take him out of my class. I think that this is an evil, crazy young man. I don’t want him in my class.” She says, “Oh, well, you know, maybe I can — maybe I can teach him.” I said, “I don’t care what you do with him, but either on” — I teach Tuesday, Thursday — “Either on Thursday he is out of my class, or Thursday afternoon my resignation is on your desk.” Didn’t matter to me.
What he had said to me, when I said that to him — I said, “You’ve got to go. You cannot be in my class.” And he said to me, “Well, you can’t do anything about it” — Mr. Cho. And I said, “Well, yeah, I can get you out of my class, or I can resign.” “Oh, you won’t do that.” I said, “Mr. Cho, you don’t know me.” And I should have probably said, “But I do know you.” You have to know evil.
I’m a big fan of Jesus. And when Jesus was out in the desert, he didn’t say to — he did not say to Satan, “Let’s talk about it.” He didn’t say to Satan, “You have a mental illness.” He said, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Jesus didn’t love everybody. And Satan was one of the people that he didn’t love. And I think it’s time that we started to look at that.
I think it’s time that we started to think about: What are we saying all the time? Every white man that shoots somebody is mentally ill. And every white man that shoots black people, the black person has done something that frightened him. That’s tiresome. There must be another word, but I know that that’s not right.
You have to hate evil, and you have to fight against it. I only have words. And so, the words that I had was, “Either he goes or I resign.” He did. And you can see, we had a situation in Dayton. Within 30 seconds, nine people were killed. So, it’s way — it’s too crazy. And Trump needs to be impeached. Somebody said, “Well, they won’t” — whatever they won’t do is not the point. The point is, we, the people, need to impeach him.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Angela Davis into this discussion, professor Angela Davis, renowned activist, author, distinguished professor emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz. If you could talk about what’s taking place right now? And when you heard, one, about the El Paso mass shooting, the massacre, in this overwhelmingly — it’s the largest Latino city in America. Over 80% of the city is Latino. It is one of the safest cities in the United States of America. And then what happened in Dayton, where of the nine people who were killed — the gunman himself, killed by police, makes 10 — but of the nine people, two-thirds of them were African-American, and, in addition, he killed his sister.
ANGELA DAVIS: Yes. Well, first of all, I, like so many others, am completely heartbroken about these more recent mass shootings, which unfortunately have been occurring at a pace that appears to be dictated by the rise of white supremacist rhetoric and ideas, that, in turn, emanate from the White House. It seems to me that this period is one in which we are, on the one hand, witnessing the surge of movements against racism, for justice. Many ideas that had previously been relegated to the margins about how we might extricate our world from racism have been embraced by vast numbers of people. I can remember when only those of us who were activists talked about the importance of challenging white supremacy. Now there is a broad conversation about racism and white supremacy.
And then, of course, given the current occupant of the White House and his rhetoric, which attempts to counter the victories that have been won over decades, that rhetoric has once again justified white supremacy and has called up those who previously had been relegated to the shadows, who now see their ideas affirmed in the White House. And so, it seems to me that the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, and the use of the language that mirrors what the current occupant of the White House has used over the last years, since his election campaign, that this indicates that we have to do everything in our power to make sure that this man is not re-elected. Everyone in this country who has any feelings about justice and equality has to participate in an ongoing effort to guarantee that he is booted from the White House.
AMY GOODMAN: Sonia Sanchez, award-winning poet, one of the foremost leaders of the Black Studies and Black Arts movement, author of 20 books, including Shake Loose My Skin, as you sit in Philadelphia, not so long ago, you had a shooter who opened fire in the Pittsburgh church. You also taught at University of Pittsburgh. And again, repeating Trump’s words about the “invaders,” he opened fire on Jews who he believed were helping refugees, and killed 11 of them. And now you see, of course, these two situations in El Paso and Dayton, with the manifesto of the El Paso shooter repeating this word “invasion” and “Hispanic invasion,” with President Trump and his network, Fox TV, continuing to use these terms, “invasion.” Your thoughts?
SONIA SANCHEZ: Well, my dear sister, this will continue, unless the Democrats begin to make a move against the president. And I think impeachment is certainly — that is where we should go with this. I agree with Sister Nikki and Sister Angela that this is quite necessary right now.
This is very dangerous right now. This is a dangerous time for all of us. We are looking at something called white supremacy. I remember, as Sister Angela remembers, that only a select few people could give a speech and mention the word, two words, “white supremacy,” because no one believed such an animal existed. But you and I understand what we’ve seen with this president, this president who says what he wants to say, this president who stirs up old memories, what I call memories of the South, memories of the West, memories of the North, memories of all over the world right now, that let us get rid of these people, let us return America and the world to what it was before, whatever that was.
But you and I understand at some point that we must organize, that we must get our young people out to vote. They’ve got to vote. They cannot say to us again, “I did not vote the last time, because I didn’t like Hillary, or I didn’t like that person.” You know, we want intelligent responses right now, that it is necessary for us to save this country, this world, this Earth, period. To get down to the real business of saving this Earth right now, we’ve got to remove, get this man removed, and also get elected, you know, in the next election, someone who will move us all to sanity again. This is really important for our children.
And, you know, the thing that — I guess, coming full circle, you know, to Sister Toni, you know, that she looked at the world with a very cold and warm eye at the same time, a loving eye, right? And she made us understand and see exactly who we were, who black folks were, who we are on this planet Earth, and how we must move also, too, how we must never have anyone say, “Please, God, make me disappear,” as little Sister Pecola did, right? But certainly, she has helped us to appear and reappear and assert ourselves. These women, these unimaginably beautiful women, these women who are strong, these women, you know, and men, you know, who insist that this Earth depends on all the people, all the people here in this country, all the so-called immigrants, all the so-called former slaves, all of the people, we can come together as human beings. We must walk upright as human beings to save not only this country, but to save the world also, too.
And I think we’ve got to impress upon ourselves that we must all get out, you know, and go and knock on doors, you know, register people, make sure the elderly get to the polls, make sure that the young people get to the polls. During this next year, we must go on the road and talk about: What does it really mean to be human? You know, what does it mean? What are these writers telling us? What are they making us see, finally, in the literature?
And, you know, I think with Toni responding to that woman in Australia, you know, that people always want us to assume the role of savior of white folks, you know, that we cannot write, if we continue to write always about black themes and about black people, there’s something wrong with us, that perhaps we are racist also, too. But you and I know that our dear Sister Toni gave us the language of the average person, the poor African American — right? — the Africans who were discredited always, who were laughed at, who were pointed at, who were called that they were stupid. She gave us this incredible, incredible merging of a new language and street language. And she said, “Look at this. Read this. I want you to come up with me on this roof and just look at the world from this roof. Better still, look at this roof as we go up into the universe, right? And you’ll see some other people out there, too. Come on with me.” And you follow her with her language. And then, all of a sudden, you say, “But, Sister Toni, can you get me back home safely?” And she said, “Yes, I will, my dear sister. I will bring you all back home safely, so we can begin the work of being human, answering the question of what does it mean to be human.” And she did that with her literature. And I am indebted to her for having done this, for having loved us all. She loved us that much, my dear sisters, that she gave us the language, she gave us the love, she gave us a way of looking at ourselves, so we could walk upright as human beings.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, Sonia—
SONIA SANCHEZ: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You did an event with Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem.
SONIA SANCHEZ: Oh, yes. Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: It was right around the time of the Trump election. What were Toni’s thoughts at that time, in this conversation that you had?
SONIA SANCHEZ: Right, yeah. It was — I was the poet laureate at the Stella Adler School of Acting. And I thought, “Wouldn’t be nice to bring together Sister Toni and Brother Ta-Nehisi Coates, and just talk about, you know, what is going on in the world today, how we must look at the world today, how we must navigate the world?” And so, the conversation, Sister Toni, you know, talked about what she did with her writing, just what I just said, actually, before, you know, how she dealt with the language of the average folk, of how America always has discredited us as African Americans, our speech, you know, our walk, our look, our talk, our hair, our lips, our eyes, whatever, that we were always presented as, indeed, either these stupid people or these violent people. And she did this incredible discussion about what it means, you know, to be an artist in this time, our role as artists, that we are creators of a social justice — right? — that we are indeed, on many levels, you know, leaders.
But I just wanted to say to you that, you know, a system — the sisters have talked about the genius. She was a genius. One of the things that we’ve begun to say within the last 10 years is that, you know, these women who are writing, these people who are writing this literature, are geniuses, you know. And we must understand that they are indeed geniuses.
And they’re friends also, too. I don’t know if anyone mentioned the fact that Sister Toni, when Toni Cade Bambara died, they couldn’t find some of the pages of her book. In fact, they could not find the introduction. And Sister Toni called around all of us, and it was finally found in her papers. But what did this sister do, this writer, who has so much to give us? What did she do? She took a year, a year out of her writing, out of her life, you know, giving us words, to construct, reconstruct, edit Toni Cade Bambara’s book, so therefore it could get out into the world, because, she said, “This is an important book.” That is what that sister did, this seer, this woman, you know, who loved us with a passion, that sometimes, you know, as I watched her on stage, I would lower my eyes, so she could not see, you know, the tears that were flowing down, because I said this woman, you know, is a genius. This woman is a holy woman. This woman has taught us how to love ourselves. But, above all, she’s taught the world, you know, the importance of black folks, you know, as cultural leaders, you know, on this Earth.
And one of the things she said, you know, there, at her speech in the Nobel Prize, about the children coming in, trying to trick her, but she turned to them, finally, and she said — this blind woman — she said, “But one of the things I know, that your future, it is in your hands. Your hands.” And I say to all the young people, to all the people who are frightened, scared of what’s going on, it is in your hands to change this, not someone else’s hands. It is in our hands. We can change what is going on in this country. We can change, by talking, discussing, teaching, you know, registering people, voting, always, and, above all, looking at people as sisters and brothers. That’s what’s going on in the world and saving this Earth, finally, you know, from these imperialists.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Giovanni, let me ask you something back to the discussion we started, which was you being on the site of the campus. You weren’t there that day. You were racing back when you learned about what happened. But when you talked about teaching the student, saying you wanted him out of your class, you were scared of him, what did the school do?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Oh, no, I wasn’t scared of him. He was evil. There’s a big difference.
AMY GOODMAN: What did that mean?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: He was evil, and I didn’t want evil in my class. I wasn’t scared of him.
AMY GOODMAN: But what did the school do? I mean, you —
NIKKI GIOVANNI: If I had been scared of him, I could have resigned.
AMY GOODMAN: But your —
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I was not scared of Mr. Cho. He was evil. And I recognized that he was evil. And I brought it to the attention of the people that should know, as far as I could see, that Mr. Cho was evil. People disagreed with me. And they thought, “Well, you don’t understand him.” It’s quite true. I didn’t understand him. But what nobody seemed to understand at that particular time was that I didn’t want to understand him. I do not want to understand evil. It was that simple. And I was willing to, and remain willing to — I tease about, you know, one day they’re going to fire me, but I would rather not be here than to be afraid of anybody. That’s just basic.
And I guess — you remember in Sula, when Sula is dying, she said, “Oh, wait 'til I tell Nel, it doesn't hurt.” I think, boy, I wish I could to — I hope I can talk to Toni and say, “Did you really just die on the day that you could take the news away from Trump? Is that why you did it?” So, I would be delighted to hear what she has to say. So, we’ll have a good glass of — she drank vodka, as you know. We’ll have a glass of vodka, and I’ll have a glass of champagne, because when I make that transition, I think I deserve champagne. And we’ll talk about: “Did you really choose that day to take the take the news away from him?” I think that would be fun, because she probably did.
AMY GOODMAN: Sula was your favorite book of Toni Morrison?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: It’s hard to say favorite. I love Sula, because we used to laugh — that, we came close to it. I always thought that Sula went to Fisk, even when she’s going down the road and she throws her hat. I always think she went to Fisk. Toni said, “No, she went to Howard.” I said, “No, you know, she didn’t go to Howard. Fisk would have been glad to have had her.” So we had that discussion. I did love Sula. How could you not love Sula? And Sula knew that — whatever it was. And she loved Nel. They were friends. But Nel couldn’t see that next step. That’s the truth. Nel couldn’t see it. And so, like any grown woman, I hope that I have seen the next step.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a conversation between Cornel West and Toni Morrison and end with Angela Davis. This was an event that was sponsored by The Nation in 2004.
CORNEL WEST: You’ve got to be one of the first writers in the American literary canon who just takes for granted the fundamental humanity of black people.
TONI MORRISON: The first?
CORNEL WEST: One of the firsts. Because that’s a revolutionary notion in a civilization deeply shaped by white supremacy.
TONI MORRISON: Yeah, that’s true.
CORNEL WEST: And the lingering effects of trying to stay in contact. And that’s true for black people.
TONI MORRISON: Yeah.
CORNEL WEST: The white supremacy in black people —
TONI MORRISON: Right, right. It’s an interior thing.
CORNEL WEST: — makes it difficult for black people —
TONI MORRISON: Right.
CORNEL WEST: — to just accept their humanity. They’ve got to prove this, deal with the achievement gap, make sure their promotion is really meritorious, and all this other kind of mess. And this is true for white brothers and sisters, too, because they know, if they look in the mirror, they’ll see lies about themselves. That’s not really comforting in the end, because [inaudible] any armor to make it from womb to tomb. They have to live a lie. And so they come to your texts, and they say, “Oh my god!” You know, with Amy and Sethe and so forth in Beloved, there’s a humanity that’s flowing. And I’m not saying this to put other writers down. I mean, Melville is one of the great figures who wrestled with this issue.
TONI MORRISON: Sure.
CORNEL WEST: That’s true.
TONI MORRISON: Oh, yeah.
CORNEL WEST: When you talk about gaining access to rights and liberties as a result of the civil rights movement — and that’s so important; the breakthrough is never to be downplayed — but then you still got black humanity to deal with —
TONI MORRISON: Sure.
CORNEL WEST: — in all of these new spaces.
TONI MORRISON: Sure, sure. Well, that’s what makes it exciting. I think the point was — I was making it to someone today — that every African-American writer I knew about, loved and admired, of the Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, etc., Richard Wright, and further back, had to, at some point, write about what it means to be a black writer —
CORNEL WEST: Exactly.
TONI MORRISON: — what it means to be a Negro this, how is that different from anything else, or they needed a white person in order to — like the slave narratives, to say this was actually written by etc., etc. Whether that was necessary or not, or whether it was an important question or not, they had to confront it. But it meant for me that somebody else was being addressed in the text.
CORNEL WEST: The point of reference, you see.
TONI MORRISON: Yeah.
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.
TONI MORRISON: And as much as I admired, still admire —
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.
TONI MORRISON: — Invisible Man, that title says it all, because it’s — the question for me is, “Invisible to whom?”
CORNEL WEST: Exactly.
TONI MORRISON: Not me.
CORNEL WEST: That’s exactly right.
TONI MORRISON: So that when I would write, I would, just as you say, assume the — not just the humanity, but the richness and the interests. And I thought —
CORNEL WEST: The richness, the good and the bad, the blindnesses and the insights and everything.
TONI MORRISON: That’s right, all of it. And no editorializing, no footnotes.
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely, absolutely.
TONI MORRISON: No explanations, no dictionary.
AMY GOODMAN: There was Toni Morrison in 2004 at a Nation Institute event, speaking at the Ethical Culture Society with professor Cornel West. Still on the line with us, Angela Davis. Your thoughts as you listen to this? Angela, you wrote, about Toni, “She was one of the first black writers I had ever encountered who did not eschew the label of 'black writer.'” Talk more about this.
ANGELA DAVIS: Toni Morrison was a black writer, and she offered portraits of — complicated portraits of black life to us. And she did it in a way that achieved what others had argued was not possible if you confine your writing to black people. That is to say, there could be no universality in simply addressing the lives and the culture of black people. Universality was raced white. And what she showed us was that if we want to understand humanity, it is so important to understand those who have struggled for their humanity, for their freedom, for justice. And I think that Toni offered us a very different vision of the world.
And in that sense, I think she creates the terrain for a movement like Black Lives Matter. And, of course, many of the debates and arguments that had previously taken place around, you know, black writers writing about black subjects reappear in the discussion of the movement and the slogan, Black Lives Matter. There are those who have said, “Well, why can’t you say all lives matter?” But, of course, the whole point of offering that notion, black lives matter, is to remind us that it is only when black lives matter that all lives will matter. And so, that dialectic was something that I think Toni attended to so beautifully, so powerfully.
And she changed — she changed the way we think about literature. She changed the way we think about the place of art. You know, what I think that Toni offered to us was a sense of the absolute necessity of the work of the writer, of the work of the artist.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you had this experience of her. You were one of the early readers of The Bluest Eye. She was writing that when she was an editor at Random House. She reached out to you and said she wanted your autobiography. And we talked about this in the first segment of the show, where you said, “What are you talking about? I’m in my twenties. How am I writing an autobiography?” But then she traveled with you on your book tour. Is that right? What was that like?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, I had no idea that agreeing to write an autobiography would mean that I would develop this closeness with Toni and become familiar with her work. She had actually already written The Bluest Eye. She had finished — she had finished Sula, and she was at work on Song of Solomon. And at the same time, she was editing Toni Cade Bambara. She was editing Gayl Jones. These are people I got to meet through Toni. She also edited Rosalyn Baxandall, America’s Working Women.
But in her capacity as editor, she traveled with me to —during the launch of the book. We traveled within the country, and we also went to Scandinavia. I remember we were in Sweden and Denmark and Finland with the book. And, of course, later, after Toni Morrison became Toni Morrison, I used to joke with her, “Now, Toni, I get to do security for you when we’re out.” Yeah, she was — she was a remarkable person who devoted herself entirely to all of her projects. I was there to witness the putting together of The Black Book and, you know, how she crafted this document of black history out of all of the artifacts that had been given by the person who was originally supposed to do the book, but who died. She was one of the most dedicated persons I’ve ever known. And I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to just spend time in her presence and to learn from her and laugh with her, and also, you know, talk about politics with her.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think her books teach us, she teaches us, about how to — and your own thoughts on how this country moves forward with a president who now even the mainstream media regularly refers to as a racist? We see this terrible increase in white supremacist attacks. Even the FBI director says the problem in this country is pervasive and persistent, the increase in these vicious, violent, lethal attacks. And then, most recently, the attacks on the women of color, congresswomen of color, saying they should “go back” to where they came from, and then on the esteemed Democratic Congressmember Cummings, who he said — he responded, when Cummings had an intruder in his house, “Too bad!” Aww, “Too bad!”
ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah. Who would have ever imagined that we would discover ourselves in this current predicament? You know, I wake up some mornings, and I feel as if we’re living a nightmare. How is it possible that a person like Donald Trump can occupy the highest office of the land? And I’m concerned not only for all of the horrendous reverberations of that presence that we have witnessed in the attacks on the most progressive members of Congress, the attacks on — the xenophobic attacks, continued xenophobic attacks on immigrants, the attacks on Muslims, the Islamophobia that he continues to perpetuate. And I think it’s also important to recognize that this is not only happening inside the United States of America, but we have seen the election of a similar politician in Brazil, Bolsonaro, and the efforts to turn the clock back on all of the progress that has been made in Brazil.
This is reaction. This is — this is reaction. And, of course, reactionaries always want to return to an earlier moment in history. But I don’t think that this — that he is going to be successful. I think it’s important for us to take a step back and to think about, you know, all of the amazing victories that have been won over the last four or five decades, since, you know, what we might call the mid-20th century civil rights movement. And in doing that, we have to make a collective commitment to guarantee that we move them out of the White House, whether by impeachment, but certainly also by looking forward towards the next electoral period and guaranteeing that we can reach consensus, if not consensus about a particular candidate, consensus about the absolute necessity of removing him from office.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to end with Sonia Sanchez, but first I wanted to go back to more of Toni Morrison’s Nobel lecture. It was December 1993, when she became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
TONI MORRISON: There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness. …
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who doesn’t know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?
Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it’s generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Toni Morrison, an excerpt of her Nobel address from December 7th, 1993. This is Democracy Now! We end today with Sonia Sanchez, a dear friend of Toni Morrison, who died this week at Montefiore Hospital as a result of complications of pneumonia in the Bronx. Sonia Sanchez, I believe you were the person who broke the news to Toni Morrison that she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as you described earlier. Your final thoughts?
SONIA SANCHEZ: Oh, my dear sister, I was listening to her language. You know, she said “unmolested language.” My god! You know? I used to say, when I introduced her, my dear sister — I used to say, “And I now introduce you to Sister Toni Morrison, a poet, you know, in disguise as a novelist.” And she would shoot me a terrible look when I said that, right? But there she is. There she was, you know.
You know, I just want to say that we have not — we are not going to be able to talk to her again the way we did as her friend. But we will — she will always be in our bloodstream. She will always be in our bodies. You know, we will wake up to her touch, to her language, you know, to her love.
When I did a peace mural here in Philadelphia, I asked her for a haiku. She said one on peace. She said, “We will be judged by how well we have loved.” And I thought, “How to the point! How right that is, how well we have loved.” We will be judged by how well we have loved, my dear sisters, you know, and the brothers who are listening to this program.
So, yes, that was an amazing, amazing speech. That was Sister Toni Morrison, as Sisters Angela and Sisters Nikki have told us in this conversation. And I think you will learn, and I hope the audience will learn, just why we loved her so, you know, how she brought us into this arena of life and beauty and loving, you know, and also justice. You know, she made us — she helped — what Robert Hayden said, she taught us the lessons of our blood, right? And what Carlos Fuentes said also, too: “We only hurt others when we are incapable of imagining them.” Cruelty is caused by a failure of the imagination, the inability to assign the same feelings and values to another person that you harbor in yourself. That’s what we see with some of the people in Congress. You know, they cannot imagine, you know, us as they are.
But our dear Sister Toni Morrison, you know, gave us the words and the life and the love and the ability to read her and then to translate it to other people. And I am so blessed. And I know Sister Angela and Sister Nikki, they feel the same way, and you, too, my dear sister, that we were on this Earth walking, you know, in her footsteps, right, listening to her, learning from her, understanding that we had someone who loved us in such a way that she would challenge the world to make sure that they understood what she was writing, but also what it means, finally, what it means, finally, to be human, to be human on this Earth, on this planet. And I thank you, my dear Sister Toni, for that kind of love.
AMY GOODMAN: Sonia Sanchez, I want to say thank you so much to you and to all of your brilliance and sharing with us today, award-winning poet, one of the foremost leaders of the Black Studies and Black Arts movement, author of 20 books, including Morning Haiku and Shake Loose My Skin, dear friend of Toni Morrison.
SONIA SANCHEZ: Sister Amy, could I also say? We want to thank you for what you do, you know, all right? For bringing us on this air, but also to continue to bring viable, most important things to help keep us human here in America and the world. I’m sorry for interrupting you, but I just wanted to say that.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. Thank you, Sonia. Thank you also to Angela Davis, renowned activist and author, distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, also dear friend of Toni Morrison for over 40 years. It was Toni Morrison who called her after her trial to say, “Please write your autobiography.” In 1974, Angela Davis published Angela Davis: An Autobiography. It was edited by Toni Morrison. She joined us on the phone from California. And I want to thank Nikki Giovanni, who joined us from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, professor Giovanni, poet, activist, educator, currently the university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech. She’s the author of over two dozen books. Her most recent book, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter.
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