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Toni Morrison’s transcendent Nobel Prize speech is key to understanding what made Morrison so great

Toni Morrison understood how powerful language was and the human privilege to wield it.

Toni Morrison in Milan, Italy, on January 30, 2017.
Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Toni Morrison died on Monday, August, 5, at the age of 88. Morrison’s books changed lives, capturing American life and its history in a peerless way — her works are so loved and resonant that they often (rightfully) eclipse the awards and recognition we bestow upon them.

But it was in 1993 that Morrison was awarded the most prestigious one on the planet. Morrison was the first African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, for “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

In accepting that award, Morrison, keenly and so eloquently, described the importance of language in our lives. The lecturean audio recording of which is available on the Nobel Prize website — is a fable about the power of language to elucidate and cloud, to oppress and liberate, to honor and sully, and to both quantify and be incapable of capturing a human experience.

It’s the way humans wield this powerful tool of language that makes any form of expression so magical, Morrison explains:

It is the deference that moves her, that recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

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.

Morrison quotes Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as an example, specifically this simple sentence: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Morrison explains that trying to sum up the destruction and pain of the Civil War would be fruitless. Instead, Lincoln’s focus on the impossibility of capturing the human life lost moves us toward deeper mourning and lasting respect for those lives.

“We die,” Morrison says. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Perhaps there’s no better way to remember Morrison than how clearly and beautifully she understood the power of language, and how she was able to harness that knowledge to capture American life and reality like no one else.

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