Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature

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Toni Morrison passed away late last night, at the age of 88. May she rest in power, and may we treasure gratefully  all she has written. 

Here are her words from our Archives.

Toni Morrison’s speech “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” was given as the Turner Lecture on Human Values October 7th, 1988 at the University of Michigan, and appeared in print in  MQR’s Winter 1989 issue.
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I planned to call this paper “Canon Fodder,” because the terms put me in mind of a kind of trained muscular response that appears to be on display in some areas of the recent canon debate. But I changed my mind (so many have used the phrase) and hope to make clear the appropriateness of the title I settled on.

My purpose here is to observe the panoply of this most recent and most anxious series of questions concerning what should or does constitute a literary canon in order to suggest ways of addressing the Afro-American presence in American Literature that require neither slaughter nor reification – views that may spring the whole literature of an entire nation from the solitude into which it has been locked. There is something called American literature that, according to conventional wisdom, is certainly not Chicano literature, or Afro-American literature, or Asian-American, or Native American, or… It is somehow separate from them and they from it, and in spite of the efforts of recent literary histories, restructured curricula and anthologies, this separate confinement, be it breached or endorsed, is the subject of a large part of these debates. Although the terms used, like the vocabulary of earlier canon debates, refer to literary and/or humanistic value, aesthetic criteria, value-free or socially anchored readings, the contemporary battle plain is most often understood to be the claims of others against the whitemale origins and definitions of those values; whether those definitions reflect an eternal, universal and transcending paradigm or whether they constitute a disguise for a temporal, political and culturally specific program.

Part of the history of this particular debate is located in the successful assault that the feminist scholarship of men and women (black and white) made and continues to make on traditional literary discourse. The male part of the whitemale equation is already deeply engaged, and no one believes the body of literature and its criticism will ever again be what it was in 1965: the protected preserve of the thoughts and works and analytical strategies of whitemen.

It is, however, the “white” part of the question that this paper focuses on, and it is to my great relief that such terms as “white” and “race” can enter serious discussion of literature. Although still a swift and swiftly obeyed call to arms, their use is no longer forbidden.’ It may appear churlish to doubt the sincerity, or question the proclaimed well-intentioned self-lessness of a 900-year-old academy struggling through decades of chaos to “maintain standards.” Yet of what use is it to go on about “quality” being the only criterion for greatness knowing that the definition of quality is itself the subject of much rage and is seldom universally agreed upon by everyone at all times? Is it to appropriate the term for reasons of state; to be in the position to distribute greatness or withhold it? Or to actively pursue the ways and places in which quality surfaces and stuns us into silence or into language worthy enough to describe it? What is possible is to try to recognize, identify and applaud the fight for and triumph of quality when it is revealed to us and to let go the notion that only the dominant culture or gender can make those judgments, identify that quality or produce it.

Those who claim the superiority of Western culture are entitled to that claim only when Western civilization is measured thoroughly against other civilizations and not found wanting, and when Western civilization owns up to its own sources in the cultures that preceded it.

A large part of the satisfaction I have always received from reading Greek tragedy, for example, is in its similarity to Afro-American communal structures (the function of song and chorus, the heroic struggle between the claims of community and individual hubris) and African religion and philosophy. In other words, that is part of the reason it has quality for me – I feel intellectually at home there. But that could hardly be so for those unfamiliar with my “home,” and hardly a requisite for the pleasure they take. The point is, the form (Greek tragedy) makes available these varieties of provocative love because it is masterly-not because the civilization that is its referent was flawless or superior to all others.

One has the feeling that nights are becoming sleepless in some quarters, and it seems to me obvious that the recoil of traditional “humanists” and some post-modern theorists to this particular aspect of the debate, the “race” aspect, is as severe as it is because the claims for attention come from that segment of scholarly and artistic labor in which the mention of “race” is either inevitable or elaborately, painstakingly masked; and if all of the ramifications that the term demands are taken seriously, the bases of Western civilization will require re-thinking. Thus, in spite of its implicit and explicit acknowledgement, “race” is still a virtually unspeakable thing, as can be seen in the apologies, notes of “special use” and circumscribed definitions that accompany it – not least of which is my own deference in surrounding it with quotation marks. Suddenly (for our purposes, suddenly) “race” does not exist. For three hundred years black Americans insisted that “race” was no usefully distinguishing factor in human relationships. During those same three centuries every academic discipline, including theology, history, and natural science, insisted “race” was the determining factor in human development. When blacks discovered they had shaped or become a culturally formed race, and that it had specific and revered difference, suddenly they were told there is no such thing as “race,” biological or cultural, that matters and that genuinely intellectual exchange cannot accommodate it.  In trying to come to some terms about “race” and writing, I am tempted to throw my hands up. It always seemed to me that the people who invented the hierarchy of “race” when it was convenient for them ought not to be the ones to explain it away, now that it does not suit their purposes for it to exist. But there is culture and both gender and “race” inform and are informed by it. Afro-American culture exists and though it is clear (and becoming clearer) how it has responded to Western culture, the instances where and means by which it has shaped Western culture are poorly recognized or understood.

I want to address ways in which the presence of Afro-American literature and the awareness of its culture both resuscitate the study of literature in the United States and raise that study’s standards. In pursuit of that goal, it will suit my purposes to contextualize the route canon debates have taken in Western literary criticism.

I do not believe this current anxiety can be attributed solely to the routine, even cyclical arguments within literary communities reflecting unpredictable yet inevitable shifts in taste, relevance or perception. Shifts in which an enthusiasm for and official endorsement of William Dean Howells, for example, withered; or in which the legalization of Mark Twain in critical court rose and fell like the fathoming of a sounding line (for which he may or may not have named himself); or even the slow, delayed but steady swell of attention and devotion on which Emily Dickinson soared to what is now, surely, a permanent crest of respect. No. Those were discoveries, reappraisals of individual artists. Serious but not destabilizing. Such accommodations were simple because the questions they posed were simple: Are there one hundred sterling examples of high literary art in American literature and no more? One hundred and six? If one or two fall into disrepute, is there space, then, for one or two others in the vestibule, waiting like girls for bells chimed by future husbands who alone can promise them security, legitimacy-and in whose hands alone rests the gift of critical longevity? Interesting questions, but, as I say, not endangering.

Nor is this detectable academic sleeplessness the consequence of a much more radical shift, such as the mid-nineteenth century one heralding the authenticity of American literature itself. Or an even earlier upheaval – receding now into the distant past – in which theology and thereby Latin, was displaced for the equally rigorous study of the classics and Greek to be followed by what was considered a strangely arrogant and upstart proposal: that English literature was a suitable course of study for an aristocratic education, and not simply morally instructive fodder designed for the working classes. (The Chaucer Society was founded in 1848, four hundred years after Chaucer died.) No. This exchange seems unusual somehow, keener. It has a more strenuously argued (and felt) defense and a more vigorously insistent attack. And both defenses and attacks have spilled out of the academy into the popular press. Why? Resistance to displacement within or expansion of a canon is not, after all, surprising or unwarranted. That’s what canonization is for. (And the question of whether there should be a canon or not seems disingenuous to me -there always is one whether there should be ornot – for it is in the interests of the professional critical community to have one.) Certainly a sharp alertness as to why a work is or is not worthy of study is the legitimate occupation of the critic, the pedagogue and the artist. What is astonishing in the contemporary debate is not the resistance to displacement of works or to the expansion of genre within it, but the virulent passion that accompanies this resistance and, more importantly, the quality of its defense weaponry. The guns are very big; the trigger-fingers quick. But I am convinced the mechanism of the defenders of the flame is faulty. Not only may the hands of the gun-slinging cowboy-scholars be blown off, not only may the target be missed, but the subject of the conflagration (the sacred texts) is sacrificed, disfigured in the battle. This canon fodder may kill the canon. And I, at least, do not intend to live without Aeschylus or William Shakespeare, or James or Twain or Hawthorne, or Melville, etc., etc., etc. There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them.

When Milan Kundera, in The Art of the Novel, identified the historical territory of the novel by saying “The novel is Europe’s creation” and that “The only context for grasping a novel’s worth is the history of the European novel,” the New Yorker reviewer stiffened. Kundera’s “personal ‘idea of the novel,'” he wrote, “is so profoundly Eurocentric that it’s likely to seem exotic, even perverse, to American readers….. The Art of the Novel gives off the occasional (but pungent) whiff of cultural arrogance, and we may feel that Kundera’s discourse… reveals an aspect of his character that we’d rather not have known about…. In order to become the artist he now is, the Czech novelist had to discover himself a second time, as a European. But what if that second, grander possibility hadn’t been there to be discovered? What if Broch, Kafka, Musil – all that reading-had never been a part of his education, or had entered it only as exotic, alien presence? Kundera’s polemical fervor in The Art of the Novel annoys us, as American readers, because we feel defensive, excluded from the transcendent ‘idea of the novel’ that for him seems simply to have been there for the taking. (If only he had cited, in his redeeming version of the novel’s history, a few more heroes from the New World’s culture.) Our novelists don’t discover cultural values within themselves; they invent them.”

Kundera’s views, obliterating American writers (with the exception of William Faulkner) from his own canon, are relegated to a “smugness” that Terrence Rafferty disassociates from Kundera’s imaginative work and applies to the “sublime confidence” of his critical prose. The confidence of an exile who has the sentimental education of, and the choice to become, a European.

I was refreshed by Rafferty’s comments. With the substitution of certain phrases, his observations and the justifiable umbrage he takes can be appropriated entirely by Afro-American writers regarding their own exclusion from the “transcendent ‘idea of the novel.’ ”

For the present turbulence seems not to be about the flexibility of a canon, its range among and between Western countries, but about its miscegenation. The word is informative here and I do mean its use. A powerful ingredient in this debate concerns the incursion of third-world or so-called minority literature into a Eurocentric stronghold. When the topic of third world culture is raised, unlike the topic of Scandinavian culture, for example, a possible threat to and implicit criticism of the reigning equilibrium is seen to be raised as well. From the seventeenth century to the twentieth, the arguments resisting that incursion have marched in predictable sequence: 1) there is no Afro-American (or third world) art. 2) it exists but is inferior. 3) it exists and is superior when it measures up to the “universal” criteria of Western art. 4) it is not so much “art” as ore-rich ore-that requires a Western or Eurocentric smith to refine it from its “natural” state into an aesthetically complex form.

A few comments on a larger, older, but no less telling academic struggle -an extremely successful one -may be helpful here. It is telling because it sheds light on certain aspects of this current debate and may locate its sources. I made reference above to the radical upheaval in canon-building that took place at the inauguration of classical studies and Greek. This canonical re-routing from scholasticism to humanism, was not merely radical, it must have been (may I say it?) savage. And it took some seventy years to accomplish. Seventy years to eliminate Egypt as the cradle of civilization and its model and replace it with Greece. The triumph of that process was that Greece lost its own origins and became itself original….

Read the rest of Toni Morrison’s speech, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” in our Archives.  

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