Today – this weekend when we celebrate the lives and deaths of our nation’s defenders, I have no words of my own. I find myself remembering the Declaration of Independence which began our journey and by whose strength of stated purpose we are here today. When I thought of Toni Morrison’s words commemorating the September 11 dead and wounded I wanted to share them with you. Of particular importance to me are her words to herself, “I would freshen my tongue…” It says to me, prepare yourself before you go off to speak your mind about anything. Do not let your preconceived belief systems speak for you. Be of the mind that makes comprehension be second to compassion. Let Peace begin.
The Dead of September 11 (2001)
Some have God’s words; others have songs of comfort
for the bereaved. If I can pluck courage here, I would
like to speak directly to the dead–the September dead.
Those children of ancestors born in every continent
on the planet: Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas…;
born of ancestors who wore kilts, obis, saris, geles,
wide straw hats, yarmulkes, goatskin, wooden shoes,
feathers and cloths to cover their hair. But I would not say
a word until I could set aside all I know or believe about
nations, wars, leaders, the governed and ungovernable;
all I suspect about armor and entrails. First I would freshen
my tongue, abandon sentences crafted to know evil—wanton
or studied; explosive or quietly sinister; whether born of
a sated appetite or hunger; of vengeance or the simple
compulsion to stand up before falling down. I would purge
my language of hypberbole; of its eagerness to analyze
the levels of wickedness; ranking them; calculating their
higher or lower status among others of its kind.
Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for
a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts.
Because the dead are free, absolute; they cannot be
seduced by blitz.
To speak to you, the dead of September 11, I must not claim
false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed
just in time for a camera. I must be steady and I must be clear,
knowing all the time that I have nothing to say–no words
stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture
older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you
And I have nothing to give either–except this gesture,
this thread thrown between your humanity and mine:
I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you have done, the wit
of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through
the darkness of its knell.
Credit: First printed in Vanity Fair magazine. Reprint courtesy of the author.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison displayed an early interest in literature. Morrison, the second of four children, immersed herself in the close-knit community spirit and the folklore, myth, and supernatural beliefs of her culture. Storytelling was a common practice in her family; after the adults had shared their stories, the children told their own. The importance of listening to stories and of creating them complemented Morrison’s profound love of reading. She subsequently attended Howard and Cornell universities and then worked as an editor at Random house, a critic and delivered several public lectures about African American literature. Her academic career has taken her to Texas Southern University, Howard University, Yale and Princeton, where she has been the chair of Creative Writing since 1989. Morrison began her novelistic career in 1970, and was admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Letter in 1981. In 1988, she won a Pulitzer prize and in 1993, she received the Nobel prize for literature.