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Happy birthday, Toni Morrison

February 18, 2011 | 10:14 am

Tonimorrison_nov2010
Today is Toni Morrison's 80th birthday. Born in Ohio, educated at Howard University and Cornell, Morrison's writing career started in earnest with her debut novel "The Bluest Eye," published in 1970. Her other works include "Sula," "Song of Solomon," and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Beloved," published in 1987.

In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; no American writer since has received the honor. In her acceptance speech, Morrison spoke about the importance and power of language.

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.

Morrison's most recent book is the 2008 novel "A Mercy," which was an LA Times bestseller. In our review, Judith Freeman wrote that the book is "a work of poetry and intelligence, and a continuation of what John Updike has called her 'noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African American.'"

When Morrison was named the Nobel Laureate in Literature in October 1993, she said, "Winning as an American is very special, but winning as a black American is a knockout." Here's wishing her a knockout 80th birthday.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Toni Morrison in November 2010 at the ceremony where she was awarded the French Legion of Honor. Credit: Thibault Camus / Associated Press

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