In this file photo taken on Oct. 7, 1993, author Toni Morrison smiles in her office at Princeton University while being interviewed by reporters. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

STOCKHOLM, DEC. 7 — Novelist Toni Morrison, the first African American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, spoke today of the ability of language to oppress and empower as she delivered her Nobel lecture to a packed house in the ornate Grand Hall of the Swedish Academy.

"Oppressive language does more than represent violence, it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge, it limits knowledge," Morrison said. "Whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek — it must be rejected, altered and exposed."

Morrison equated language with existence itself. "We die. That may be the meaning of our lives," she said. "But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."

The lecture, held in a soaring 18th-century room with gilt-covered walls and glittering chandeliers, is one of the highlights of a week of events for the 62-year-old novelist and Princeton University professor. On Friday she and this year's other Nobel winners will receive their prizes and then be honored at a formal banquet at Stockholm's city hall.

Before then, she and the others will be shuttled around the city. With its islands and stone bridges and garlands of tiny white Christmas lights, Stockholm looks and feels like the perfect setting for a fairy tale.

And Morrison, suddenly, is the princess. She was given a standing ovation before she began her lecture this evening and another when she finished, and in between she spoke metaphorically, and at times more directly, about the power she finds in the written and spoken word.

"Fiction has never been entertainment for me," she said. "It is the work I have done for most of my adult life."

The choice of Morrison for the Nobel generally won warm praise, but a few writers groused that it had less to do with merit than political correctness. Today, Morrison offered what could be read as a spirited defense of the view that words are weapons, often used by the strong against the weak.

The lecture took the form of a meditation on a folk tale: An old, blind woman lives on the outskirts of town. Some children decide to play a trick on her. One of them says he has a bird in his hand and asks her to tell him if it is living or dead. The woman is silent for a long time, then finally says: "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."

The bird, Morrison said, can be read as a metaphor for language itself. And a dead language is not only one no longer in use, but also one unreceptive to new speakers, new ways of speaking and new ideas — "statist language, censored and censoring."

Words can be used to "sanction ignorance and preserve privilege," she said, to provide "shelter for despots," to create "menace and subjugation." There is "diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination" and "seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like pate-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words."

“Underneath the eloquence, the glamour, the scholarly associations, however stirring or seductive, the heart of such language is languishing, or perhaps not beating at all — if the bird is already dead.”

But despite its power, she said, language is not a substitute for experience but rather "arcs toward the place where meaning might lie."

At the end of Morrison's folk tale, the children who have come to taunt the blind woman react to her gnomic answer by telling a story of their own. The point is that they have approached the encounter speaking different languages and ended up telling a narrative together.

The author of six novels, Morrison is best known for two books, “Song of Solomon” and “Beloved.” In awarding the prize, the Swedish Academy praised her work as being “characterized by visionary force and poetic impact [that] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

The prize, first given in 1901, is worth $825,000 this year. Morrison is the eighth woman to win, and the first African American, coming after such celebrated writers as James Baldwin and Richard Wright were passed over.

The daughter of sharecroppers, Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford. She attended Howard University and Cornell University, where she received an MA in American literature. She married, had two sons and divorced, and began writing fiction when she was working as a book editor in New York.

When "Beloved" failed to win a National Book Award, four dozen black writers wrote a statement of protest. The book was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Morrison’s work has drawn some criticism for what some call excessively negative portrayals of black men. But today there was no controversy. Morrison paused and smiled broadly as she surveyed her rapt audience. The fairy tale was hers.