On May 30, 1975, the author and intellectual Toni Morrison visited Portland State University and gave a speech, followed by a Q+A with a panel of academics. That speech was recently uncovered by an archivist and posted by the Portland State Library, then tweeted and amplified by a blog called The Anti-Intellect Blog.
The excerpts below from Ms. Morrison’s speech were transcribed by AFFRM Founder Ava DuVernay.
TONI MORRISON ON BLACK ARTISTS | PORTLAND, 1975
"Free dedicated artists reveal a singularly important thing: that racism was and is not only a public mark of ignorance, it was and is a monumental fraud. Racism was never the issue. Profit and money always was. The threat was always jobs, land or money. When you really want to take away, to oppress and to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim. Racism was always a con game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It’s the red flag that is danced before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract. To keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy. Keep it focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence is to define black people as reaction to white presence.
Nobody really thought that black people were inferior. They only hoped that they would behave that way. They only hoped that black people would hear it all and weep or kill or resign or become one. They never thought black people were lazy - ever. Not only because they did all the work, but they certainly hoped they would never try to fulfill their ambitions. And they never thought we were inhuman. You don’t give your children over to the care of people you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can express. Racists were never afraid of sexual power or switchblade. They were only interested in the acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor. Everybody knows that if the price is high enough, the racists will give you whatever you want.
It’s important to know who the real enemy is and to know the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing YOUR WORK. It keeps you explaining over and over your reason for being.”
It may very well be left to artists to grapple with this fact (the distraction). For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar and the names of people shipped not only the number. And to the artist one can only say: not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever. You must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power.
And I urge you to be careful for there is a deadly prison. A prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me.
To avoid the prison of reacting to racism, is a problem of the very first order. Where the mind dwells on changing the minds of racists is a very dank place. Where the spirit hangs limp. Where the will that you allow to be eroded day by day by consistent assaults of racists, the will just settles into a tiny heap of sand.
Racial ignorance is a prison from which there is no escape because there are no doors. There are old men and old women running institutions and organizations all over the word who need to believe in their racism. And need to have the victims of racism concentrate all their creative abilities on them. They thrive on the failures of those unlike them. They are the ones who measure their wealth by the desperation of the poor. They are in prisons of their own construction and their ignorance and stunted emotional growth consistently boggles the mind. But the artist knows that we are human.
If you look at the world as one long brutal game between us and them, then you bump into another mystery. And that’s the mystery of the tree-shaped scar. There seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony. All of which are wholly free and available to us.
— After her speech, Ms. Morrison was asked the following question. Her answer follows:
Q: How can the black artist exercise any influence and control in spite of the fact that media is controlled of white people?
A: One has a tendency to have tremendous awe for “it.” As if it were some magic. The television or the book review. It really is of no consequence when it comes to doing important work. The media originates nothing. It simply digests what exists. It can enlighten and it can distort. But it does not initiate and it does not create.
The best analogy can be found in music. Black people’s music is in a class by itself and always has been. There’s nothing like it. The reason for that is because it was not tampered with by white people. It was not on the media. It was not anywhere except where black people were. And it is one of the artforms in which black people decided what is good in it. Nobody told them. What surfaced and what floated to the top, were the giants and the best. And it was done without the media. In spite of the control.
That is true of any artform that is A) not imitated. B) does not seek to justify or explain anything. The black artist must do what all the other artists do. Talk to each other. I love Russian literature. It never occurred to me that Doysteyvsky needs to explain something to me. He’s talking to other Russians about very specific things but it says something very important to me and was an enormous education for me. When black writers write, they should write for me. Richard Wright isn’t talking to me. He’s talking to some white people. Same with Leroi Jones and the Dutchman. He’s explaining something to them. It may have been very necessary and it is well done. But it wasn’t about me and wasn’t talking to me. And I know when they are talking just past my ear. When they are explaining something. Justifying something. Defining something.
But when that’s no longer necessary and you write for all those people in the book who don’t even pick up the book. Those are the people who justify it. Those are the people who make it authentic. Those are the people you have to please. All those non-readers. All those people in Sula who A) don’t exist and B) if they did wouldn’t buy it anyway. They are the ones to whom one speaks. Not to the NY Times. Not to the editors. Not to media. Not to anything. It is a very private thing. They are the ones who say “yea, uh huh that’s right.” And when THAT happens, very strangely or actually very naturally what also happens is that you speak to everybody. And even though it begins as very inward and private, the end result is its communication with the world at large.
I don’t really care about that control. Life is short. Freedom is in my mind. That’s where one is free. There’s always some other constriction. But the very important point is to do the work that one respects and do it well. And to make no compromises in its authenticity. And to do it better next time.
And the key - the artist’s role is to bear witness, to contribute to the record, the real record of life as he or she knows it. Perceptions that are one’s own… You exercise control only when you assert control.
To me, all art is political. And I don’t make a distinction between the artist and the real work a day world. I don’t subscribe to the idea of the artist as a separate aesthetic being sitting in an ivory tower just suffering and talking about beauty. It is work. It is hard work. There is a lot that needs to be done. It’s not about sitting under willow trees and being inspired. It has something to do with work… I approach my work the same I expect a chairmaker to make theirs. I find out about the wood. All about my craft. I have to look at the human body. Try to make it beautiful and comfortable and try to make it long lasting. And that’s what writers ought to do. Find out all they have to know about their craft. Find out all you have to do about that - then do your work. And as a human being you have responsibilities to the community, whether you make a chair or make a book.
In Africa, people would make beautiful sculpture and they wouldn’t sign it. It didn’t have anything to do with signing. They had to get the crops in and feed the family. The marketplace separates art from the people. Makes an artist separate and special. The artworld has been separated form the poor despite the fact that all art emanated from the poor. Dance. Theater. All of it. All started with poor people. Whether it’s through religious rites or what have you. And someone who makes a tapestry but cannot write a word is somehow made to feel that they can’t go to museums and understand anything. The separation of the artist from politics is artificial, wholly dependent on finances - when you have people making distinctions outside of the tradition of art.
When black artists speak to each other and to black people, what happens is that the message is received by people outside the group BETTER. Richard Wright made a significant statement. It didn’t do any good. It changed the language a little bit, the metaphor. Didn’t change anyone’s heart or mind at all. At all. Educating the conqueror is not our business. But if it WAS important, the best way to do it is NOT to explain anything to him. But to make ourselves strong. To keep ourselves strong.
You can’t consistently think of the power as a formidable power. It’s really nothing. It really isn’t anything at all.
Throwback - Celebrities Recreate Iconic Covers for Ebony Magazine’s 65th Anniversary (2010)
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