Statement on the Passing of Toni Morrison
“Lovers of language and storytelling the world over mourn the passing of Toni Morrison,” said Spencer Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Hers was a voice that spoke to our hearts, our minds and our souls with that rare thing called truth.”
At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, we celebrate Toni Morrison in our Cultural Expressions gallery and in our national collection. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, reminds us she wrote the stories that she wanted to read and the stories no one else was writing in the 1960s—the stories of little black girls. Through our Power of Words media display, we immortalize Morrison’s 1981 discourse about black people’s use of creative language: “It’s the thing that black people love so much—the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them…”
Morrison wrote books that opened up worlds to the past while pointing the way to the future of literature—both African American literature and the broader canons of American and global literature. As a master of language, she wielded power and shaped reality in unparalleled fashion. Reading Morrison out loud is like speaking a chant, like humming a sacred song.
A quote by Morrison about the power of language sets the tone for the introduction to the Language Usage Manual at the museum. We could think of no living writer of national or global stature who best exemplified an enriched and nuanced understanding of language and its liberating as well as oppressive power in the lives of African peoples. She stated in her eloquent and thought-provoking manner, “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence….It must be rejected, altered, and exposed. It does not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.” This quote from her 1993 Nobel Lecture in Sweden reveals Morrison as the scholar and literary activist that she had so profoundly become. Her writings and speeches enlightened our intellect and showed us how to tell our story using our own language, our own voices, as if we did not have a “little white man sitting on our shoulder” as she so aptly put it.
Morrison found it absurd when critics suggested she move “beyond” writing about her people. She was passionate about writing for and about black people and was proud of being an African American writer. She wrote consciously, consistently and lyrically through that expansive gaze, and in doing so, she captured the ways in which people of African descent saw and sustained each other.
Through the sheer power of her language and her storytelling, she made people look at all things—history, community, violence, oppression and resilience—in new ways. She helped people draw strength simply by looking.”
About the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 6 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.