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Black History, Uncensored: Toni Morrison knew of ‘unspeakable things’

The late Toni Morrison’s works have been banned by conservatives across the U.S. for decades. Her famed speech “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” explains why.


The late Toni Morrison knew and professed the value of Black stories — and not just their value to Black people. She was an admirer of all kinds of literature written by all kinds of people and, as such, knew that excluding or obscuring Black writers from the canon delegitimized the canon altogether. 

Or, put another way: The party don’t start ’til we walk in. 

For today’s edition of our ongoing series “Black History, Uncensored,” which focuses on artists targeted by right-wing bans, I want to share some relevant passages from Morrison’s lecture/essay on that very subject, 1988’s “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.”

Morrison gave the speech at the University of Michigan, and I need to find out who I need to talk to to shake a video version loose. Some of these excerpts read like rhetorical haymakers. They’re blows to the psyches of Morrison’s oppressive and overconfident colleagues in the literary world, those who pride themselves on rigorous study but can’t bear grappling with Black work. 

She said: 

Looking at the scope of American literature, I can’t help thinking that the question should never have been “Why am I, an Afro-American, absent from it?” It is not a particularly interesting query anyway. The spectacularly interesting question is “What intellectual feats had to be performed by the author or his critic to erase me from a society seething with my presence, and what effect has that performance had on the work?” What are the strategies of escape from knowledge? Of willful oblivion?

I share Morrison’s perspective here. I don’t have any confusion about why there is a conservative push to hide stories by and about marginalized — particularly, Black — people. I’m far more fascinated observing the lengths people will travel, and the energy they’re willing to exert, trying to bury these perspectives and avoid having to reckon with them. 

It’s like watching people afraid of their own shadow.

That’s why I love Morrison’s framing of ignorance as a form of self-harm. Often, race-conscious learning plans are portrayed as a boon for Black people. Morrison’s speech invites us to see that whitewashing perverts white people’s sense of self, too.

Later in her speech, she spoke metaphorically of the “weapons” formed against inclusion:

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 gunslinging 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, and so on. There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them.

Toni Morrison spoke bravely and boldly of the pseudo-intellectualism undergirding attempts to hide Black artists’ work. No wonder conservatives are so eager to ban her from bookshelves.

Read previous “Black History, Uncensored” posts on Alice Walker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks.