Toni Morrison writes about race, religion, and her own fiction

Our language isn’t neutral. It has history embedded within it.

Toni Morrison’s collection of nonfiction makes a striking contribution to American letters and to an understanding of her own rich and complicated fiction. Gathering speeches and es­says from 1976 to 2011, the volume gives us several decades of her thought—and its evolution—to contemplate.

African Americans, Morrison ob­serves, have the peculiar circumstance of being considered foreign in their own country. From a very early moment in American history, identity and race became intertwined. Blackness became associated with a criminalized underclass while whiteness was counterposed as representing citizenship and freedom. These loose but deeply rooted structures are perpetuated in contemporary media in a way that creates linguistic problems for writers and social concerns for all of us.

For example, Morrison wants to give voice to racial identity that doesn’t perpetuate racial stereotypes or hierarchies. But this is much easier said than done, given that blackness and whiteness are labels invented for the very purpose of organizing stereotypes and hierarchies. “We hunger for a way to articulate who we are and what we mean,” she writes. But the language we’ve all inherited is not neutral. It has history embedded within it.