We Do Language

Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our human difference— the way in which we are like no other life.

We die. That may be the meaning of our life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

At the beginning of the semester, I selected the above epigraph by Toni Morrison to ground myself in the course texts for African-American Literature. I was drawn to this epigraph because it seemed to connect many of the earliest sources we encountered, including Call and Response, Big Machine, The Songs are Free, and “The danger of a single story.” Considering these sources in my first blog post, “Occupation of Space,” I indicated that my goal for the semester was to understand the use of space with relation to the course texts in order to better understand how language is a measure of life. I quickly found that if I were to focus exclusively on this goal, I would be missing the depth and breadth of African-American literature. That’s not to say that space was absent or less relevant in certain texts, but rather that observing space could not satisfy my need to examine the many facets of the literature. However, I was able to hold onto my selected course epigraph throughout the semester, and with the accumulation of texts I have developed a greater understanding of and appreciation for Morrison’s words.

At the beginning of the reflective process I decided to seek out Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture, the source of the epigraph. This was important to me because, as we learned through our class discussion of the Momo Challenge hoax, humans often misinterpret and misrepresent that which is taken out of context. In her Nobel Lecture, Morrison explores the fable of a blind, wise old woman who is visited by two boys. They ask her to say whether the bird in their hands is alive or dead, to which she responds, “‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands.’” The woman believes that the boys are there to taunt her for her blindness, and directs their attention back onto themselves, their own responsibility. Morrison states that she interprets the woman as a writer and the bird as language, explaining, “She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes.” After exploring the ways that people mishandle language, using it for political, capital, or social gain under the guise of respectability, Morrison pivots the perspective of the Lecture from the woman to the boys. Perhaps they did not come with a bird at all, but only with the earnest desire to have their questions heard and answered by a wise older woman. What is life, what is death? From their perspective, the woman’s words transferred the responsibility of meaning-making to those who were not equipped for it. They sought her out for answers and she gave none. They say, “‘Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.’” Once the boys have finished, the woman tells them that she now trusts them. “‘Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done— together.’”

Through this fable, Morrison is exploring the relationship of writer and reader, who are equally responsible for doing language. The writer, coming from one set of experiences, strings together words that are of meaning to them and then sends those words out into the world to be received by a reader. The reader comes from a separate set of experiences, and therefore may take different meaning from those words. As long as the reader and writer share language, there will be the potential, perhaps the inevitability, that the meaning they take from language is particularized to them. This human difference may be one way that language allows us to measure the sum of our experiences relative to others, but difference is not the only way that language measures life. By the end of the fable, the woman acknowledges that what they have done together is lovely. As much as she conferred unto them, they conferred unto her, and through that process the three of them established shared terms for how to do language. The boys would not kill the language through any act of violence, and she would be generous with sharing her wisdom. Through those terms, they could trust one another to handle the bird responsibly. I believe that the way we handle language within the context of the reader/writer relationship is another way to measure our lives. Do we trust and seek to understand, to establish shared terms and mutual consent? Or do we, as Morrison says, “forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation?”

To return to the journey of my semester, I first noticed this tension when we read “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker. In the short story, the character Dee is visiting her Mama and sister Maggie at home after having gone away to college. Throughout her visit, Dee takes a picture of Mama in the front of the house, states that she’s changed her name to Wangero, and asks whether she may keep certain artifacts of her family’s heritage. As a reader, I have had the experience of going away to college and gaining new appreciation of myself and my background, which has been largely positive and led me to read Dee’s actions as positive. In Wangero’s name change, I read someone who had explored her identity and made the conscious decision that the name “Dee” no longer suited her. When Wangero asked to take ownership of items at home, I read someone who wanted to connect with her family heritage. Though I noticed that she was often rude to her family, I was surprised during our class discussion at how strongly other students reacted to Wangero’s character. Class discussion raised the questions, “Can you appropriate your own culture? Oppress your own family?” I found that the other readers in the class had experiences and perspectives that were different from my own, causing them to interpret the same text quite differently than I had. The language helped me recognize a human difference of mine— that I have not needed to grapple with my racial identity as I travel between college and home. Based on Morrison’s Nobel Lecture, the way that this difference impacted how I did language could be used to measure my life relative to others. Life could also be measured by how I handle language within the reader/writer relationship. I initially went into the text expecting that my own experiences along with Walker’s guidance would lead me to a correct interpretation of the text. After finding that my interpretation was not shared, I decided to revisit the text. New passages stood out to me, including, “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting there trapped and ignorant underneath her voice.” These words had always been there, expressing Dee’s appropriation and oppression, but it took a reminder from my classmates for me to take in what Walker was telling me. “Everyday Use” made me more aware that I have a responsibility as a reader to the writer and compelled me to consider the terms of that relationship.

Octavia Butler’s Afterword for her short story “Bloodchild” directly addresses the process of meaning-making, of mutual trust that must occur between reader and writer. I was drawn to the topic and decided to explore it within a blog post titled “Authors’ Consent.” After defining consent, I write, “The very presence of an afterword is Butler’s clear consent for readers to interpret the text one way and not another.” Generally, I felt inclined to respect Butler’s authorial and human rights to consent. She was the writer sending her language, her little bird, into the world and hoping that it would not be mishandled. It was in my hands, and what right did I have to go against her wishes? Yet there were others in the class who felt that Butler was wrong to write that “Bloodchild” was, “a love story between two very different beings.” Their apprehension comes not from issues of consent in the paratext, but rather the consent that occurs within the story itself. Gan is expected to carry T’Gatoi’s young, parasites that will drink from his veins and flesh until he is cut open in a procedure that he describes as “wrong, alien.” And yet he verbally agrees in order to save his sister from that fate, a consent that may be considered coerced. From this interaction, we gain insight from Gan who says, “‘There is risk, Gatoi, in dealing with a partner.’” He reminds us that even with every effort to avoid harm, including seeking clear consent, it will never be possible to eliminate the risk involved in relationship. This extends beyond the text to the Afterword, in which Butler sets certain terms for the reader/writer relationship. While I once felt compelled to respect those terms, I now wonder whether she was refusing to accept the inevitable risk involved in sharing her language. This is all to illustrate that the reader/writer relationship is complex and can challenge both parties, but when we do language we must accept that and continue on in good faith.

Faith and, of course, doubt burst off the pages of Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, which has earned significant attention towards the end of this semester. In my blog post “Ricky, Our Narrator” I explore the ways in which Ricky may have adapted his story in order to fit its intended purpose— to tell his future child their story. For example, I consider the story of the Washerwomen, which takes place well before the future child is part of Ricky’s life. The story is an illustration of how institutions can take advantage of the vulnerable, the “despised” in order to suit their own purposes. This is echoed by the stories of the Washburn Library and Church of Solomon, and together they contrast the Voice’s directive, “Invite them back in.” As I analyze the parts of the story that Ricky has chosen to record for his child, I am careful not to refer to him as an unreliable narrator. To do so would seemingly set up the possibility of a reliable narrator, which I do not believe exists. All narrators, and by extension all authors, are using language with purpose and perspective. The reader must recognize and accept this risk. At this point in the semester I have come to recognize that, in addition to faith, doubt is an essential part of the reader/writer relationship.

As a reader, I must have faith that a writer is using language in earnest, in order to communicate that which they consider worth communicating. If that faith were for some reason called into question, I would echo the sentiment of the boys in Morrison’s Nobel Lecture. “‘You trivialize us and trivialize the bird that is not in our hands.’” The writer must in turn have faith that I will handle the work with care, be willing to write earnestly and trust that I will treat the language well. I started the year with faith in this partnership, but I’ve learned that we must also have doubt. On both sides, one must wonder whether the other is handling the language with care and must do so in order to protect the language. On page ix of Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard, she describes language as “sharpening the moral imagination.” Though language often falls short of the experiences it seeks to convey, the process of engaging in language is mankind’s necessity, generating meaning within our lives and defining that which is moral, human. That’s why we can measure our lives by how we do language, how honestly we approach the words, how much doubt and faith we put into the attempt.

Through this course I found greater depth to literature by considering not just the words on the page, but the actions and discourse that surround language. By considering the terms of the reader/writer relationship, I have become more conscious of the terms of other human relationships. Within this semester and this final reflection I have explored only some of these terms, meaning that I will need to continue thinkING long after the end of our final period.

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