President Obama talks with Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Toni Morrison in the Blue Room of the White House (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Today, in 1972, Angela Davis was acquitted of charges for conspiracy, murder and kidnapping after being accused of supplying weapons to Jonathan Jackson. While in jail, fellow civil rights activists and Black Panther Party members rallied for her release:
Davis came to LIVE in October of 2010 for one of our biggest landmark events to talk with Toni Morrison about the importance of libraries.
ANGELA DAVIS: I was in jail in New York—I don’t know, did you mention that I was in jail? Some people don’t know. And one of the first places I went, I was able to go, in the jail was the library, and I didn’t see very many interesting books there, all right? I mean, I had just finished my studies in philosophy, 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. As a matter of fact, in the library there was a big cardboard box.
I could receive the books and 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, that was not allowed at all, although we did—you know, one of the things I learned when I was in jail there was how to secrete certain kinds of things, so we were able to—so we had these clandestine reading groups with books that were smuggled out of that box in the library, and it kind of reminded me of Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass’s effort to get an education, to learn how to read, and his idea that education really was liberation.
“I want to feel what I feel. Even if it’s not happiness” - Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison Takes White Supremacy To Task
Few intellectuals have waged a public battle against white supremacy and patriarchy like Toni Morrison. Morrison has both examined and challenged systems of domination throughout her intellectual life. With her novels, essays, and interviews she has taken critical looks at the interlocking systems of race and gender oppression. In this interview she is asked by PBS’s Charlie Rose what it is like for her to encounter racism. In true Morrison fashion she turns the question on its head, and places the onus for explaining racism back into the hands of White people. She asks Rose what he thinks of racism, why do Whites hold onto, and what are they going to do about it ending it. She rejects the notion that racism is simply something that Black people must grapple with, insisting, demanding, that White people also grapple with it. Fearless. Brilliant. Powerful.
Toni Morrison: I never use anyone I know. In The Bluest Eye I think I used some gestures and dialogue of my mother in certain places, and a little geography. I’ve never done that since. I really am very conscientious about that. It’s never based on anyone. I don’t do what many writers do.
Interviewer: Why is that?
Toni Morrison: There is this feeling that artists have—photographers, more than other people, and writers—that they are acting like a succubus … this process of taking from something that’s alive and using it for one’s own purposes. You can do it with trees, butterflies, or human beings. Making a little life for oneself by scavenging other people’s lives is a big question, and it does have moral and ethical implications.
In fiction, I feel the most intelligent, and the most free, and the most excited, when my characters are fully invented people. That’s part of the excitement. If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction.
The difference between white and black females seemed to me an eminently satisfactory one. White females were ladies, said the sign maker, worthy of respect. And the quality that made ladyhood worthy? Softness, helplessness and modesty—-which I interpreted as a willingness to let others do their labor and their thinking. Colored females, on the other hand were women—unworthy of respect because they were tough, capable, Independent and immodest. Now, it appears, there is a consensus that those anonymous sign makers were right all along, for there is no such thing as Ladies’ Liberation. Even the word “lady” is anathema to feminists. They insist upon the “womans” label as a declaration of their rejection of all that softness, helplessness and modesty, for they see them as characteristics which served to secure their bondage to men.
Toni Morrison, What the Black Woman Thinks About Women’s Lib. New York Times Magazine (23 August 1971): 4+ Reprinted by permission of International Creative Management, Inc. Copyright 1971 by Toni Morrison. from the book What Moves at the Margin.
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.”
Happy 81st Birthday, Toni Morrison!