There is a story about Christopher Columbus’s arrival to these shores that I was unable to wrap my head around when I first heard it. It is said that the native people recognised the presence of something strange approaching their shores, not because they had seen his ship, but because the water’s movement was different. They had not registered the presence of the ship although it was moving towards them because they had no concept of what a ship looked like. They did not see it because this thing which made those waters’ movement different was invisible to eyes that had neither a consciousness of that object nor the language to describe it. Language therefore comes as a consequence of awareness in this instance. But language also shapes awareness, creates our reality.
Last week the loss of the writer Toni Morrison cast a heavy shadow over a few of my days. Just the week before, thinking about women whom I would, without hesitation, identify as role models, I came up with only two. She was one of them. So, to be greeted the next week with news of her death, was not only shocking but deeply saddening.
Toni Morrison’s death is the death of a very powerful voice, a voice that has given us a body of work that shaped a reality for many individuals. And although we can say that her words live on in her work, nevertheless it is a resonance, a heart that we hope will forge ahead to keep opening this world a bit wider. As I thought about a tribute, because this death feels personal, my question was on her importance to us as Caribbean people, as a region where Naipaul says "history was never created", where, walking down the street last week I heard a young man saying loudly to a friend "daz why they say Trinidad is not a real place man. This not ah real place dread." I wondered whether that idea of the unreal, the fictional, was becoming common currency now. There it was, one average day in the week, being shouted out from one friend to the other as a way of commenting on some news event that the friend was reading off his phone. I wondered whether he had thought through that statement.
My interaction with Morrison comes mainly through her non-fiction work and if any piece should be read, the Nobel speech should be that one introduction to the mind of a titan. It is an insightful piece presenting us with the value of the argument. There may be many sides to the speech, many interpretations. This is just one angle. This is the story I wish to tell. And for me, one of the more striking points she makes is the concept of a dead language:
“For her (the old, blind woman, interpreted as a writer) a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language, content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, content to admire its own paralysis. Ruthless in its policing duties….Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences.”
The idea of interrogation is crucial to the life of language as we see when the story flips from the voice of the old, blind woman who is one of our main characters to that of the youths who accuse her of holding on selfishly to her knowledge. “Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear…Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place…”
It is only then that the old woman who reprimanded them in the beginning, declares her trust in them. In their bold questioning, they will take forward the legacy of knowledge turning this into wisdom. They do not accept words at face value. This is a hopeful place to be.
As Caribbean people, we are no strangers to the power of language to create alternate realities. Our calypsonians, our midnight robbers explore and push the boundaries of language. Our nation has been created by historians telling their own versions of stories. We have believed much of them but the story has stagnated now. We have run out of ideas. Morrison’s spirit lives on to tell us that it is now time to begin changing the narrative. To interrogate and interrogate with strength otherwise all that we really do have, is a dead language. We may very well cut off our own tongues.