A Different Tower of Babel

My media, literacy, and culture class was recently asked to listen to Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel acceptance lecture. [If you have 33 minutes to spare, I highly recommend you listen. Both the audio & transcript are available here: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-lecture.html.]
This was my first experience with Toni Morrison, and it was an emotional one. I used to read more poetry, and hearing Morrison’s poetic storytelling reminded me of what I have been missing. I hurt a little. Overall, it reminded me of the many joyful and oppressive personas language can embody. I found myself nearly transcribing the entire lecture while listening for the first time – so many brilliant images and word choices – as well as so much relative to the teaching and learning of language for those in the criminal justice system.
Morrison’s story begins with an old blind woman being approached and asked by some children: “Is the bird we have in our hands living or dead?” The old woman replies, “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. It is in your hands.” Morrison goes on to use the bird as a metaphor for the dying and living language that surrounds us.
Those who are incarcerated seem, more often than not, to experience the dying language…
Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. 
Morrison even uses language of oppression and criminal justice in this description of dominant language. This is the “official language” many who participate in under-funded schools, as well as, prison education systems deal with. They deal with language purposefully used against them. The word “felon” is attached to their being – it literally can define a range of actions, but to those who are ignorant it only means “unemployable”, “dangerous”, “stupid”, “not worthy of our democracy”. The way Morrison discusses the violent use of language as a way to uphold singular view of people and ideas was amazing.
 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. 
Yet, there is hope to revive this dead language, for there is agency and there is a living language found in those who demand change, and those who tell stories. If we peel back the dead layer of language, we see there are thriving languages waiting to breath and be heard. This is the beauty of language if we as educators and as speakers and listeners let it happen. For when you listen or see the language of someone who’s first identity is “felon” or “inmate”, you are changed, they are changed. Identities shift from felon to writer to teacher. Your ignorance is diminished and their voice is placed as equal to yours. Morrison reminds us that there is yearning to learn in everyone, no matter their youthfulness, their supposed naïveté or hardness. I think of the children, after hearing the old woman’s words, demanding that their curious voices be heard, that they be given an education suitable to their lives and needs.
Is there no speech,” they ask her, “no words you can give us that helps us break through your dossier of failures? Through the education you have just given us that is no education at all because we are paying close attention to what you have done as well as to what you have said? To the barrier you have erected between generosity and wisdom? 
(The children ask for warmth and understanding and actions to live by, not distant adult lectures and riddles.)
I think of Morrison’s wonderful recasting of the story of Babel:
Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.
Whose language is being upheld as “heaven” and how can we change language learning so that multiple voices – including those who are incarcerated – are valued and thus make “heaven as life” possible?
Most importantly, that hope does not lie only with the student, but with the teacher and student dialogue. Morrison’s wise old woman masterfully incites agency, curiosity, and humility from the children. The children demand knowledge, respect, and shared responsibility – they demand a teacher to fight for the students’ right to language, their right to learn and to dialogue as equals. This is what I hope can be implemented in schools and classrooms found in areas where language is being employed violently – the criminal justice system, as well as, urban and rural schools that focus on the test, not the brilliance of the living language found everywhere but in the test prep. Through a dialogue of mutual respect, storytelling, curiosity, language, and the learning of language, can thrive.

Finally, she says, I trust you now. I trust you…because you have truly caught it. How lovely it is this thing we have done together.

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