Toni Morrison On The Lethal and Freeing Nature of Knowledge

In memory of Toni Morrison, February 18, 1931 — August 5, 2019

On October 27, 2010, the New York Public Library hosted an evening talk entitled Angela Davis and Toni Morrison: Literacy, Libraries and Liberation that invited audiences to witness an intimate conversation about freedom, global citizenship, and civil rights between two world-renowned activists.

“I think that as we talk about the democratic impulse of libraries and the accessibility of libraries,” Davis began, “it’s also important to talk about those places where books have a hard time penetrating,” she went on, responding to Morrison’s comment about her book, Paradise, being banned at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“It seemed like an extraordinary compliment that Paradise could actually blow up into a riot in a prison,” Morrison remarked, amused. Just minutes before, Morrison described “the explosive perception of reading, particularly certain kinds of novels, as not just explosive in a dangerous sense, but explosive in a way that could be lethal.”

The word “lethal” is defined by Lexico as sufficient to cause death; harmful or destructive and when it’s used to describe books, the long history of state sanctioned barriers to literacy education comes to mind. Particularly with respect to people who belong to marginalized communities.

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After sharing a story about finding an archived collection of periodicals published by people who were incarcerated at Rikers Island from the late 1930s to early 1940s, Davis shared some of her own literary experiences as a former inmate at the notorious jail.

“We had these clandestine reading groups with books that were smuggled out of that box in the library,” she explained, “and it kind of reminded me of Frederick Douglass’ effort to get an education, to learn how to read, and his idea that education really was liberation.”

Given the relationship between knowledge and power, and the ways in which systemic inequity and institutional racism impact access to educational resources, the emancipatory nature of literacy has yet to be actualized in the minds and lives of billions of people around the world.

“[The United States] is unique in the world in terms of the distribution of libraries throughout the country,” Morrison explained. “You cannot go in rural areas in Europe or in Africa or in Asia and find libraries the way you can here. Every little town. Not to speak of the huge university libraries that just jump up out of nowhere in Indiana, or someplace. In Pennsylvania you go for a hundred miles and there it is, you know, this enormous university, with more books than Cambridge or the libraries in Rome, so it’s really an extraordinary thing,” Morrison continued.

She then went on to explain the importance of visual literacy, the power that comes with being able to read and fully comprehend what one is reading. “What do people who are literally illiterate do to negotiate around the world?” She asked, before describing the sensual experiences that accompany reading.

“You have this third dimension, an artist’s true dimension of how to read your world as well as how to read texts,” she mused, noting how colors, shapes, sounds, and smells inform our perceptions.

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Throughout the talk, Morrison and Davis continued to remind audiences that the multi-dimensional relationships that people have with books, with language, are directly impacted by overarching power structures. When recalling her experiences in the “clandestine reading groups” at Rikers Island, Davis said that she requested that people send her books to make up for the lack of books at the jail.

“I had just finished my studies in philosophy,” Davis explained, “and I went to the library expecting something very different, so what I did was I had people send books to me when I was there, and I wanted to share those books with all of the other women, there was something like a thousand women there. I was not allowed to do that. I could read the books myself. It was okay for me read them, but don’t share them. And one of them was George Jackson’s book Soledad Brothers,” she continued.

When comparing Davis’ smuggled box of books at Rikers Island to Fredrick Douglass’ efforts to learn to read and write, Morrison mentioned Douglass’ use of the phrase “irresponsible power” to describe the actions, or lack thereof, of his master’s mistress.

In his autobiography, he explained that the mistress wanted to teach him but the master told her not to. Responding to the irresponsible power of the mistress Morrison said that it’s about more than just having power, it’s also “the irresponsibility of how you manage it. And [Douglass’] hunger was overwhelming, cause he knew, as we all know, that that was freedom, and the people who did not want Blacks to read knew that.”

In the afterlife of slavery, state and local racial segregation laws still kept Black people from having access to libraries. The public libraries that Black people did have access to were underfunded and lacked the collections offered to whites. Aside from religious education, Black people were denied access to literacy education well into the late nineteenth century. In states like Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia, for instance, white people who were caught teaching Black people to read or write could be punished by fines, flogging, or whippings up until the late 1800s according to research done by the team at Fight Municipal Court Abuse.

“The things people suffered in order to read,” Morrison lamented.

Minutes later, after Davis described “the deeply historical character of our own imaginings of what it means to be free”, Morrison talked about the “powerfully imaginative” quality of freedom, highlighting the unwavering commitment that Black people have had to obtaining the tools and skills necessary to read, to learn. To educate ourselves and free ourselves via the transformative world of knowledge. A journey to literacy perceive as dangerous by the powers-that-be.

“I think of freedom as knowledge,” Morrison said, “maybe wisdom if you get there, but certainly knowledge, and then I’m reminded that the first sin, Genesis, the sin, is knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge,” she continued, then she went on to add that “there’s something so powerful, so attractive, so liberating about what we call science, knowledge.”

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Before stating that knowledge will set you free, she explained that the irresponsible power of the mistress in Douglass’ autobiography mirrors the irresponsible power held by the staff at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who banned her book. It’s about “the necessity of reading of all kinds under constrained circumstances,” she said.

In memory of Morrison’s wisdom, think about the global barriers to literacy before making claims about others’ ignorance. In some cases, one’s illiteracy is a result of systemic and institutional inequity. Be that as it may, inspire others to look for freedom in the pages of books, in the power of the mighty pen.

Written by

NYC-based philosophy graduate student whose work covers Genocide Studies, Repro + Enviro Justice, and Critical Race Theory. @moontwerk

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