by Bill Batson
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” These words, uttered by Toni Morrison when she received the Nobel Prize for Literature have gone viral since her death on August 5, 2019. Not only do they capture the blunt style of her prose, they boldly invite us to judge her by her own high standard. In a verdict delivered by countless voices, as an editor, educator, novelist, scholar and public historian, Toni Morrison gave her full measure.
On May 18, 2015, Morrison traveled only minutes from her home to Memorial Park in Nyack to dedicate a monument in the form of a bench to abolitionist heroine Cynthia Hesdra.
Nyack is one of 25 locations around the globe that host a Bench by Road, a project that the Nobel Laureate inspired that commemorates significant sites of the African diaspora. With our Bench by the Road, and our proximity to where she lived and worked for almost five decades, Nyack is a place where people might one day visit to honor Morrison.
Special Guest Essay
Lori Latrice Martin, PhD
We have a Toni Morrison Bench by the Road monument in Nyack because of the scholarship of Dr. Martin. In addition to salvaging the story of Cynthia Hesdra from obscurity, she was responsible for a second Bench by the Road in Baton Rogue Louisiana, where she is Professor, Department of Sociology and African & African American Studies Program
Louisiana State University.
TONI MORRISON, BATON ROUGE’S BENCH AND ‘SEEING MYSELF’
Posted by Jozef Syndicate on August 12, 2019
Toni Morrison’s work impacted the lives of many people, including my own. As a Black student at predominately White university, it was hard for me to see myself on the required texts by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. It wasn’t until I took a course called, “Toni Morrison and Others,” that I saw myself.
The Black women, Black men, and Black children were complex. The ways in which Black people, both as individuals and as a community, responded to the restrictions placed upon them by the dominant white society were dynamic.
For Morrison, whiteness was neither normalized nor virtuous. White theories, White concepts, and White methodologies were not the only, nor the preferred way, for understanding the social world. The White imagination was not the only lens through which Blackness was seen.
One of the many important gifts Toni Morrison leaves us with is an appreciation for memory: who and what is remembered, and in what ways. Morrison often addresses the issue of memory in her works, particularly in the book, Beloved. Memory can take us places intentionally and unwillingly when summoned and when avoided.
Morrison’s remarks about Beloved led a group of dedicated scholars to create an outdoor memorial to the Black experience–A Bench By The Road. While the stories of Black people are often told from the perspective of White historians drawing largely from the artifacts of wealthy White elites, the Bench project provides Black communities with opportunities to tell and share their stories from their own experiences and their own perspectives. The celebrations surrounding the bench dedications are designed as celebrations of community, which is another theme commonly found in Morrison’s works.
Through the living memorials, Morrison gives new life to forgotten moments in Black history and to Black scholars whose work is often discredited and discounted by predominately White reviewers, White presses, and a White public who think race no longer matters and that there is nothing to be gained from reliving a painful Black past.
Morrison consistently showed how a painful past informs the painful present. She also showed how Black people have resisted in passive and aggressive ways. She revealed ways Black people tried to create spaces where they could imagine a time and place where they controlled their own images and determined their own destinies and destinations, destinations which could be found within and/or beyond the material world.
We owe, I owe, Toni Morrison a debt of gratitude.
I thank Morrison for helping me find myself and for helping me to help others find themselves in the stories of people like Cynthia Hesdra and the people of South Baton Rouge. Hesdra, an ex-slave, became a wealthy woman and owner of property used on the Underground Railroad in Nyack, New York. In the early 1950s, the South Baton Rouge community set the stage for the modern-day civil rights movement with the city’s 1953 bus boycott, which provided guidance for the organizers of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
Nyack and Baton Rouge are home to two of the 25 benches placed by The Toni Morrison Society worldwide.
Lest we forget.
At an event at the Nyack Center on August 7, 2019, where residents read passages of Morrison’s work in the author’s honor, Village of Nyack Trustee Donna Lightfoot-Cooper recalled the affection the author had for the Nyack Library. Trustee Cooper, who is the Head of Circulation at the Nyack Library, described ways that Morrison found to support the institution during the completion of their annex in 2011.
Maybe the place were we do language in Nyack, our public library, could one day take Ms. Morrison’s name. Maybe a second Morrison-inspired monument could be erected, this one in front of the Toni Morrison Library with a sculptural representation of the late author, eternally seated in repose on a bench.
Here are some of the passages selected by those who gathered to honor Toni Morrison’s memory by reading her words to each other. Hopefully, there will be a permanent place in Nyack one day, full of books, dedicated to language, where people can contemplate her legacy, taking guidance from her words on race and gender in the tough times ahead for our country.
From her 10th novel, Home, published in 2012
Whose home is this?
Whose night keeps out the light
Say, who owns this house?
It’s not mine.
I dreamed another, sweeter, brighter
With a view of lakes crossed in painted boats;
Of fields wide as arms open for me.
This house is strange.
Its shadows lie.
Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?
Excerpt from her 1992 Nobel Lecture:
“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.
Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed.
It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. 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.”
From Making America White Again, New Yorker, November 14, 2016
All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of “Americanness” is color.
Under slave laws, the necessity for color rankings was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are “people of color” everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.
In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.
To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that. Right?
These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.
It may be hard to feel pity for the men who are making these bizarre sacrifices in the name of white power and supremacy. Personal debasement is not easy for white people (especially for white men), but to retain the conviction of their superiority to others—especially to black people—they are willing to risk contempt, and to be reviled by the mature, the sophisticated, and the strong. If it weren’t so ignorant and pitiful, one could mourn this collapse of dignity in service to an evil cause.
From conversations with Oprah Winfrey
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’
“This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn’t matter to me what your position is. You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain. This is no time for anything else than the best that you’ve got.”
Special thanks to Dr. Lori Martin for her scholarship, Dustin Hausner, Judy Whidbee and Jeff Rubin for their photography and Josh Wolfe for his great renaming idea.