What Would Toni Morrison Say? Censorship in the 2020s (for MLA 2024)

I'm giving a talk at this year's MLA Conference on a roundtable on "Banned Books." Below is the text of my presentation. 

 Title: "What Would Toni Morrison Say? Censorship in the 2020s" 

The most commonly censored speakers and writers in the U.S. are people from marginalized groups whose voices and arguments threaten state authority or the status quo.  Books by Toni Morrison, especially The Bluest Eye and Beloved, regularly appear on the American Library Association’s annual “10 Most Challenged” Lists, with The Bluest Eye in particular catching the attention of ban-oriented groups over the past few years. (The Bluest Eye, a book published in 1970, was on the 13 most challenged books of 2022, alongside very contemporary recent books like Gender Queer and All Boys Aren't Blue.)

As I have been teaching courses on Toni Morrison's fiction to undergraduates at Lehigh, I've wanted to bring the ban campaigns to their attention, and possibly construct assignments inviting students to investigate the claims against Morrison's novels. It's a pretty familiar English paper assignment structure: what is the argument against Morrison in these complaints, and how would you respond? This has proved to be difficult, as the complainants don't actually present arguments as such. One of the people who filed a complaint against The Bluest Eye, Amber Crawford of the St. Charles Parents’ Association in Wentzville, Missouri, simply listed “pediphilia [sic], incest, rape” as a sufficient reason. Not an argument -- just some bullet points. Crawford’s objection, like many others that have appeared around the U.S. in recent years often following cookie-cutter formulas pasted from the same lists online, reduces Morrison's complex narrative to these three words as evidence of its "obscenity." Since none of the complainants in the thousands of school board censorship events have actually read any of the books they’re censoring, their complaints don't really constitute teachable moments.

If they did read the novel, they might after all be troubled: what’s troubling in The Bluest Eye is actually its portrayal of young Black girls coming of age in a midwestern town at a time of total mass media and institutional erasure of Black bodies and experiences. What’s really unsettling about the book is the way it tells the story of a child desperate to be loved, to be cared for – and who never finds that love. What is the impact of these painful messages on young people? What is the right age to read The Bluest Eye? That might be an interesting conversation to have; too bad we can't have it.

Dana A. Williams historicized the present wave of censorship as part of a backlash against African American progress: “After the Black Lives Matter movement, after the 1619 Project, after the election of Barack Obama, any major moment in history where you see progress of people of color—Black people in particular—backlash will follow…” Morrison herself thought there was a connection. As she put it in her 2009 essay, “Peril,” “Efforts to censor, starve, regulate and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place.” 

As we see a flood of right-wing censorious legislation, it is hard not to think that any indications that “something important has taken place” in recent years have been overwhelmed by that backlash. Arguably, the wave of local school districts banning particular Toni Morrison books has been superseded by a massive wave of state-level laws banning any potentially sensitive topics related to race, gender, or sexuality at all. Ten states have passed such laws, and there have been more than 100 separate bills introduced across 33 different states. The language of state laws like the one passed in Oklahoma remains vague (“not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex”), but they are interpreted by local school districts in very specific ways that lead to the banning of books by Black authors or that deal with race or racism from the curriculum.  

Morrison was consistent throughout her career in supporting the rights of writers to be controversial, and to leave the reader troubled and unsettled. In her essay “Peril” from 2009, from the collection Burn This Book, she talked about the way censorship aims to impose statist language on the population:

Writers—journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights—can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace; and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to. (Toni Morrison, "Peril")

It is hard to read this and not wonder what Morrison would say about the “blood flow of war” of our own era, of the vast curtain of censorship that has been descending on college campuses over the use of certain words or phrases related to Palestinians. Here’s more from Morrison:  

The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink. (Toni Morrison, "Peril")

Back in 1996, Morrison also wrote a powerful defense of a novel she clearly felt ambivalent about, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. As is well-known, that novel has sometimes been banned or pulled from curricula on account of Twain’s language. For Morrison, the use of the n-word in the book was never the problem, and she clearly condemned the efforts to have the book banned for that reason:

It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution. A serious comprehensive discussion of the term by an intelligent teacher certainly would have benefited my eighth-grade class and would have spared all of us (a few blacks, many whites — mostly second-generation immigrant children) some grief. ("This Amusing, Troubling Book")

All of this sounds like an incredibly apt description of what state legislatures are doing in their own ham-fisted censorship efforts. (One does wonder, again, what Morrison would think about the idea of new editions of Twain where racial slurs have been swapped out – where the word “slave” is used instead of the word Twain himself used?) 

Morrison's most profound discussion of the perils of censorship was perhaps her moving, challenging Nobel Prize speech from 1993. Here she tells a parable of a blind woman and young people who come to her to test her – is the bird in our hands living or dead? Her response, as many of you will remember, is: “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” Morrison goes on to interpret the bird in the inquisitors’ as language – what will we do with it? Will we let it live? Will we kill it just to win the rhetorical point? 

Some of Morrison’s most thoughtful and moving arguments against censorship from her entire career follow. For reasons of time, here are just a few of the best lines: 

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. . . . Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas. (Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, 1993)

I’ve often wondered what prompted this ferocious critique of censorious language at the moment when Morrison was at the pinnacle of her career. I haven’t found that point of inspiration – but perhaps Morrison was speaking to us, 30 years in the future? Today’s school board book banners and state legislators banning discussions of race as “divisive” are doing exactly what Morrison describes. They are enacting, through erasure, the violence of a statist narrative in which racism and slavery were minor historical incidents, not a defining story. What would Toni Morrison say? Well, in this case, we know – because she said it all too plainly in 1993.