The title of this article is a quote from the poem “The Burning of Papers Instead of Children” by Adrienne Rich, which appeared in the collection “The will to change”. In this work the poet feels the history of pain, erasure and oppression enclosed in the English Language. When her neighbour is appalled by the burning of a book and says it reminds him of Hitler, the poet knows that true oppression is contained in those same books, in the words they use and the way they use them. The burning of books does not appall her because “I know it hurts to burn”. Rich knows what fire feels like when it is directed at people, instead of papers, she knows that the same people who are horrified by the sight of a burned book have ignored the burning of people. The pain, that accompanies language in whichever context it is used in, leads her to dream of a world in which this violence and this perpetual incapacity to express herself and her experiences is gone, a return to smoke signals, to a communication that is not inherently harmful.
Rich, however, is also conscious of the fact that language is oppressive because it is powerful, it is the means through which we can change reality. That is why she accepts to use it in her poems, even though it hurts her: “Knowledge of the oppressor/ This is the oppressor’s language/ Yet I need it to talk to you”. Even though language carries the weight of centuries of oppression, it also has the power to express the opposition, the resistance. Silence can never bring freedom, silence is the language of the oppressed, language is necessary for our new world.
Throughout history, the instance in which the importance and the power of language is best seen is during the first century of the British colonization of America. When Black People arrived in America as slaves, they were forced to abandon and forget their culture to be thrust into the Western one. In this situation of forced and violent uprooting, a new and different language was born, and around it a whole culture, which sees its origin in bloodshed, but is able to contain the hope and the fight for freedom carried through centuries. To this day, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is not recognised as a language and is treated as “incorrect English”. Among the many who, in recent times, defended this language’s position and importance is Toni Morrison.
The common line among all this author’s works is her desire to transmit her community’s history, to express the beauty of Afro-American culture. Toni Morrison has had an astounding impact on the way black culture is regarded in literary contexts, her points of view come from a unique perspective that has been continuously ignored. In her books AAVE became what it had never been before, a literary language, a language capable of expressing just as much, if not more, than Standard American English. She believed that art must be both political and beautiful, it must attempt to contain the uncontainable and to embrace human experience. All her art finds its roots in her community, its history, its culture and its traditions, art is not a detachment from the world, but its most powerful expression. She challenges our assumptions and our beliefs in her refusal to adapt to western literary standards.
Her challenge to the status quo is best expressed in “Beloved”. This novel, set after the American Civil War, was inspired by a true-life story about a slave mother who killed her own child to spare her from a life as a slave. These events so strongly connected to violence could not be narrated using the same language that perpetrated that violence, a story of oppression cannot be written in the oppressor’s language. Beloved is a book of pain, transmitted through generation, result of a violence that no words were, are or will be able to fully narrate.
In accepting the Nobel Prize of Literature, Toni Morrison exposed the double-edged power of language, to both clarify and confuse, free and confine, describe and cloud human experience. When a language is used to oppress, as it did in history towards the minority, it is not just the expression of violence, it is violence in itself. As the author said: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge”. This language is dead, it does not allow new knowledge or the mutual exchange of ideas, it is crystallised, and it crystallises society as a whole.
Both Rich and Morrison have been victims of discrimination, both of them know what it feels like to burn. One in poetry and one in prose, they both are connected by their desire to express what has never been expressed before, to challenge the power of white patriarchal hetero-normative culture and find a way to communicate that isn’t rooted in violence and oppression. It is impossible to change society with the same language it uses now because that language has died, we need to speak of peace and equality in new ways, able to express new ideas and encourage new discussions. We need “the fracture of order/ the repair of speech/ to overcome this suffering”