Angela Davis & Toni Morrison / How do we become whole ... after traumas that threaten to splinter our souls?: On literacy, libraries, & liberation

“Write it down, girl. Tell everyone how much it hurts. Sharing will make it easier to bear.”
-Terri L. Jewell

How do we become whole -- again, or perhaps for the first time -- after experiencing traumas that threaten to splinter our souls? How do we collect the shards of our broken selves that have been flung far and wide by the impact of life’s blows? How do we process individual and collective pains that have ripped apart our cores? Where do we find wellness, and to whom, or to what, do we turn when relief seems illusory?

The road to recovery is meandering. It is even more twisted for those among us who are incarcerated, and who, often times, have landed behind bars because of behaviors triggered by our deep wounds and ugly scars. How, then, do the jailed build a sense of self within a structure that is designed to systematically demolish the remnants of dignity? This question provided the framework for a transformative workshop that I attended about a year ago, one of seemingly hundreds featured at the five-day US Social Forum in Detroit, MI. Organized by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), the event, “Community, Art and Transformative Justice: Healing and Resistance with Women and Transgender Prisoners,” served as a opportunity for former prisoners to communicate with the broader public about their struggle to attain mental and emotional health while confined, both literally and figuratively. CCWP staffers distributed the quarterly publication, The Fire Inside, featuring the art and writings of incarcerated women. The stories, sketches, and paintings contained in the magazine ran the gamut from heart-wrenching to heart-warming. I realized, as I absorbed the words and images shared, just how narrow the bottomless pit between sanity and madness is, how dependent on each other we are -- and need to be -- in order to shed the avoirdupois that threatens to submerge us in that finite space, and how reading and writing are floatation devices, imbued with the power to prevent us from drowning in that abyss.

The connective tissue here is the idea that each of us is, in varying degrees, caged by the wreckage of our past, and sometimes, our present. Literacy skills serve as invaluable tools as we clear away the rubble in order to make room for a future peppered with the possibility of rebirth. Angela Davis and Toni Morrison explore this notion in a conversation that is essentially a celebration of reading and writing. The dialogue, excerpted below, is one that occurs between old friends -- they bonded when Morrison edited Davis’ autobiography, which was published in 1974 -- therefore, it lumbers along, sometimes taking scenic detours away from the main point. This fact, I suppose, is forgivable, given the heft of both the speakers and the content. Stick with the duo and you will find yourself glowing in the warmth generated by the sharing of ideas between intellectual allies, and privy to a fascinating exploration of literacy as a match capable of igniting recovery and redemption, and sparking resistance.

LIVE from the NYPL: Angela Davis and Toni Morrison: Literacy, Libraries, and Liberation

Toni Morrison: We’re just talking, ooh.

Angela Davis: We’re talking about [Frederick] Douglass, libraries --

Toni Morrison: Literacy --

Angela Davis: Literacy and liberation.

Toni Morrison: Yes, absolutely. Let me start with literacy. Because I have this document here which I want, you know, other people to know about it. We’ll read it. I’m interested, obviously, in literacy. I am impressed with what I’ve only recently discovered, which was that this country is unique in the world in terms of the distribution of libraries throughout the country. You cannot go in rural areas in Europe or in Africa or in Asia, rural areas and find libraries the way you can here, every little town, not to speak of the huge university libraries that just jump up out of nowhere in Indiana, or someplace. In Pennsylvania you go for a hundred miles and there it is, you know, this enormous university, with more books actually than Cambridge or the libraries in Rome, so it’s really an extraordinary thing.

The other thing is about literacy which I’m sort of interested in which is on one hand the power of reading and of course understanding the meaning of what one reads and what I like to think of as visual literacy, visual literacy, which in addition to print or maybe without print, what do people who are literally illiterate do to negotiate around the world, minus people who they depend on? And I don’t mean just uneducated people, I mean people like myself, say, in Beijing, and I don’t read the language, I don’t understand it. How do you negotiate and what are the visual signs that you need to travel? What are the colors, the shapes, the sounds, smells, all the other senses, and it makes for -- if you have that plus the ability to read -- you have this third dimension, an artist’s true dimension of how to read your world as well as how to read texts, and I wanted to begin, because I wanted to describe -- I don’t know -- the explosive, the perception of reading, particularly certain kinds of novels, as not just explosive in a dangerous sense, but explosive in a way that could be lethal.

And my documentation for this, Angela. Well, what it is it was sent to me by an editor from Knopf. The title is the “Publication Denial Notification.” The title of the publication is Paradise by me. “The above publication has been reviewed and denied in accordance with section 3.9 of the TDC rules and regulations for the reasons checked below.” Now, there are five reasons why a book would be banned from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The third one…that’s the one that Paradise is accused of. “Publication contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve a breakdown.” Not just your average breakdown, but a breakdown of prisons through inmate disruption, such as strikes or riots. This is February 20, right after my birthday, 1998. I was amused to get this but I was also thrilled. It seemed like an extraordinary compliment that Paradise could actually blow up into a riot in a prison. So I thought that in addition to my inquiry about expanding literacy to visual literacy as well as print I wanted to make some connection between prisons, their organization, their prohibition, and what they understand to be lethal or dangerous, like reading, like literacy, like understanding.

Angela Davis: I actually wanted to begin on that theme by talking a bit about the inaccessibility of libraries, and I’m thinking about my own childhood, when I saw this incredible building in Birmingham, Alabama, made out of Indiana limestone. It was the Birmingham Public Library, but of course it was only for white peoples. The one black library that existed was run-down, very few books, and I tell this story because I first entered the doors of this library in 1959, and I can remember how it felt to actually walk into a real library, because although I had used the library in Birmingham, it was very lacking in resources. It was broken down. Finally they built a new one.

Toni Morrison: Years later.

Angela Davis: Yeah, many, many years later. So I think that as we talk about the democratic impulse of libraries and the accessibility of libraries it’s also important to talk about those places where books have a hard time penetrating. And your example of the Texas State Correctional System is one. Just before the event, I had an opportunity to look at some of the items from the archival collections here, and I saw -- I saw a wonderful collection of a periodical that was actually published by prisoners at Rikers Island from I think 1939 to 1940-something, and I was thinking about, you know, what was required in order to be able to do that. This is, for those of you who don’t remember, a period when we didn’t have Xeroxing or, I looked at it and I said, “This was mimeographed,” I think -- is that the word, mimeograph? And the prisoners who put this together, and the books that they had to read in order to put this literary publication together was quite astounding, so I really like to thank the librarians for allowing me to see these documents.

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.

Toni Morrison: You could receive the books.

Angela Davis: 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, 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.

Toni Morrison: Absolutely. That scene, I’m sure people who have read the autobiography, of the master saying, “don’t teach him,” and the mistress wanting to, but being afraid to, but he uses an interesting phrase of describing her, which was “irresponsible power,” and I thought that’s, it’s just not having the power, it’s the irresponsibility of how you manage it. And his hunger was overwhelming, cause he knew, as we all know, that that was freedom, and the people who did not want blacks to read knew that. I mean, that’s why, you know. If it had been simple fairy stories, it would have been quite different. Not even that, there is power, if you can’t read in a place like that they can teach you and beat you and the other route is extraordinary. The things people suffered in order to read.

Angela Davis: I was thinking about you know Frederick Douglass’s another passage in the narrative where he kept hearing this word abolition, and he didn’t know what it meant, and he heard about the abolitionists, but he had no idea what it meant and he said that at some point he realized that it was connected to something that he really oughtta be interested in. And then eventually -- he describes this painstaking process of learning, you know, learning how to write -- learning how to read and learning how to write by looking at the markings that were placed on the boards to be used to build ships, so one would say something is forward, starboard, “f,” “s,” and then he learned those letters, “f,” “s,” as a result.

Toni Morrison: Right, it’s amazing.

Angela Davis: And then of course he talks about bribing the white boys to teach him how to read and write. He says at one point he dares a white boy who was around to prove that he could write better than Frederick Douglass himself could. Now, Frederick Douglass really didn’t know how to write that much, so the white boy could write a lot more, so in the process he learns what the white boy was writing. So but the point that I was making about hearing this word and knowing there was something about this word that was so important, but he had no idea what it meant.

Toni Morrison: But he was attracted to it. He knew it was important.

Angela Davis: Abolition. Abolitionists.

Toni Morrison: Sounds like -- sounds important.

Angela Davis: And then of course he becomes the most powerful abolitionist of the era. But that kind of curiosity that really is only possible through a process of education. You know, where, which is not to say that people who don’t know how to read and write don’t have that curiosity but learning how to read and write opens up a whole new universe, opens up a whole new dimension, and this is why these Texas people did not want the prisoners to read. Yes, exactly.

And then you know when you consider that there are now 2.5 million people behind bars, and what can they really do, what can they do that’s significant? You know, reading and writing really allows for the possibility of inhabiting a very different world.

Toni Morrison: But the control of those 2.5 million people -- I don’t know about all -- but it’s such a profit-making thing now. I mean, you have whole cities, I know in Upstate New York, that are living off the benefits of a brand-new prison, employment of the guards, the cooks, you know, all the paraphernalia that goes with imprisonment. I don’t know how they -- Oh, I read about somebody in one of those prisons in Texas, privately owned prisons where the prisoners get out and owe money.

Angela Davis: When the prisoners get out they get no --

Toni Morrison: They owe.

Angela Davis: They owe money, yeah, because they have to pay for their own room and board.

Toni Morrison: Right. They’re in college.

Angela Davis: Yeah, it’s just like the students, right?

Toni Morrison: Room and board, you get out and have this bill, if your family can’t pay, not only have you paid in time for whatever, and then of course the kinds of laws that are, you know, heavily weighted in certain communities for minor offenses and so on, not to speak of. But I was interested in your book because I’m not sure I understand fully that separation -- well, that’s not, well, the implication is that there’s a difference, well, there is a difference between vengeance and justice. But justice itself has some unpleasant consequences. We have to assume that if we want justice for some bad activity by a bad person we want punishment, we want restraint, we don’t want rehabilitation, and that assumes that there is something called “the other,” there is a stranger, that your neighbor or the criminal, the so-called criminal, is some other thing, is an other.

Now, I was thinking along those lines when I was trying to figure out another area that is of great interest to me and has always been, but I have never had the patience or maybe the intelligence or maybe the research to kind of follow it through, which is what the impact of torture, enslavement, and violence has on the birth rate. Therapists don’t seem to be terribly interested in that, but when I mention the other possibility, it seems to me that when you destroy somebody through vengeance and/or severe forms of justice that the real object of the pain really is the self.

So I’m thinking about these slave owners. I’m thinking about say, women in slave quarters, who were pregnant, lying on the ground, and they’d make a hole for her stomach, or any other, you know, sort of savage response that even the one that Frederick Douglass speaks of. It’s very clear in his case when he finally confronts that Covey. Who is Covey fighting? He’s destroying something that is in himself. It’s not that that person is animal or soulless or inferior. If you’re strong enough, you know, it’s the fragile personality, the fragile personality, not the strong one, but the fragile, almost erasable personality that can do that. Because there’s already the self-contempt and the self-loathing, and it’s in that area that I, well -- well, I couldn’t say I’m working -- but I’m just looking at these various forms, it’s so easy -- racism obviously is the easiest thing you can do. It’s so easy to block off those so-called criminals, and they’re away from us, they’re not with us. We don’t even have to be tolerant, because they’re over there, but if they’re us. If we’re doing that in order to corral a certain kind of behavior whether it’s scaled as high or low in order to redeem something in ourselves, that’s a whole different operation, entirely different.

Angela Davis: So do we want to take any questions from the audience? A few? Okay,

Question: If we’re talking about prisons and talking about how inhuman it is and how we are being deprived of so many brilliant minds that are in prison that should be helping to lead the country, can we talk about Mumia and all the political prisoners that are in prison who should be amongst us, please?

Angela Davis: Well, first, I would say that, you know, speaking of literacy and libraries and liberation, Mumia Abu-Jamal has made such an amazing contribution to all three of those categories. This is something that we have to -- we have to save Mumia’s life. We have to save Mumia’s life and it’s also about the relationship between learning and freedom. It’s about the uses to which we put our literacy and because of the fact that there’s been this mobilization against Mumia by law enforcement all over the country it has not been possible to build the kind of campaign that we see in other parts of the world. As a matter of fact, Mumia is an honorary citizen of Paris and there are streets named after him all over Europe. In Germany everyone knows his name. That’s a good question, what can we do? And also I think we have to do the work that needs to be done to build movements, that is to use all of your contacts to encourage people to think about this case, tell people about Mumia. If you have kids who are in school ask the teachers to talk to the children about the meaning of living in a so-called democratic society and using capital punishment as a routine mode of addressing a whole range of issues. This is the only industrialized democracy in the entire world that puts people to death in this way, and Mumia more than anyone has been the face of the campaign to expand democracy in this country, to abolish capital punishment and the death penalty.

Question: I’d like to ask you if you think which is worse: being internally imprisoned or being imprisoned by society? And do you think it is possible to be internally free while being imprisoned by society? I’m referring to slavery and just being in prisons recently.

Toni Morrison: You’re really asking about freedom, internal, external. I have a very small short answer about internal freedom. I’m from Ohio, near Lake Erie, it is a working-class town that had steel mills, shipyards, and so on, so a lot of people came there, African Americans from the South and Mexicans, and Europeans and so on, I mean, a real diverse, as they say in the world, community. The only common thread we had was poverty. But, again we were citizens.

You know, the Polish lady next door would bring us those little cabbage things with meat in them, you know, if we didn’t have any, and if we had something, we’d bring her and everyone had gardens. I’m not trying to make it sound like it was thrilling, because but although we were too young to know, we were miserable. So at any rate, my experiences about race are very different from many other black people. One is because I grew up in a mixed neighborhood. Didn’t mean people didn’t call me name, but you know, they were calling each other names, so what? I remember coming home and some little boy called me a wicked name, he said “You Ethiopian, you.” I said, “Ma, what’s an Ethiopian?” and she said, “Well, Ethiopia’s a country in Africa and this and that and I think the original human beings were born there or something and we all came,” so I thought, “What is he talking about?”

So, but, here’s the thing. There were little minor things like that and sometimes from adults, but I never felt, and this is curious, and I think I know why, but I never felt it the way it was meant, and I think the reason is because I always thought those people were deficient in some way. Always, even as a little, I thought they were deficient, like they had a big sort of racial moment when I was working for some white family just before I got my job as a page, I was working after school just doing housework for two dollars a week, one of which went to my mother and the other I could keep but she had some complicated -- for me, complicated equipment like vacuum cleaners, I never saw one, and a stove that had other things, and I didn’t know how to work it, so she would curse me out, “what’s the matter with you?” Told my mother, “I gotta quit, she’s too mean,” and my mother said, “Quit,” I only get that one dollar, right, so I told my father, and he said -- “I said, Daddy, she’s so mean,” and he said, “Go to work, get your money, and come on home, you don’t live there.” So I didn’t have an employment problem since. It was not -- my life was not there and also I didn’t have to disdain or be afraid of or neglect any person who had an advantage, a skin advantage, over me, whoever they were. I never felt that.

And when I wrote the first book I wrote, The Bluest Eye, I really wanted to know why that girl felt so bad, a real-life girl who said she wanted blue eyes. We were talking about whether God exists, I, of course, was persuaded that he did and she was persuaded that he did not, and her proof was that she had prayed for blue eyes for two years, and she didn’t get them, so obviously he wasn’t up there. But when I looked at her and thought about how awful she would look if she got them, and then I thought the second thing was how beautiful she was at that moment, you know, she was just incredible -- but I didn’t even know whether she was beautiful or not until I thought I about what she might think and then the third thing of course is why does she want that, you know, what makes her think that’s an improvement, and that kind of self-loathing which is real when you don’t have any support, made me think of that as a real subject for a book, not some “oh victim,” but really how it works. How you can -- but I lost your question.

Angela Davis: It was about freedom, too.

Toni Morrison: So that internal thing. I had trouble when I first went, traveled south. Not with white people, yeah, maybe, but my inability to perceive how Southern blacks who were, you know, their whole lives were oppressed, like not feeling comfortable, not being able to go into the library, I mean just anything like that, not knowing, you know, is this place safe or is that place safe, or knowing where the safe places are, and what that might do. How to escape from that, how does one internalize that, or does one, you see, and if you do, you know, how do you get rid of it? So all of those questions, but I never -- But I always thought that those people whether they were adults or children, like he called me Ethiopian, that was, like, so stupid. He had sort of complimented me in a way, that I could not, you know, feel that degradation I was supposed to feel or the self-loathing, and I always felt that inside, which I suppose is called arrogance, uppity, but I think it was the way in which my family responded to it. They were both from the South, Deep South, Alabama and Georgia, but they instilled in us some other thing.

Angela Davis: And it’s actually on a different kind of register about freedom, internal freedom, external freedom, what do we mean by freedom, and we’ve been talking about Frederick Douglass, and freedom had a certain historical meaning then. It was about abolishing slavery, and as I thought about this new edition of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I thought it would be important to point out that in a sense as incredible and as brilliant as Frederick Douglass was, his imagination of freedom was historically constricted so that in a lot of ways it was about manhood. And that fight with Covey proves his manhood, and in the process it provides a path towards freedom, and so the question is, well, what about women, and what about little girls, how could they imagine freedom?

And so I want to say, I want to say this in response to one of the earlier questions that I didn’t get to answer about homophobia and the suicides of young gay people today and it’s about how we think about freedom and the historical -- the deeply historical character of our own imaginings of what it means to be free and what did it mean to be free in Frederick Douglass’s time? What did it mean to struggle for freedom during the civil rights era? You know, what does it mean to expand our notion of freedom today? We’ve talked a lot about immigrants, you know, Toni, you were talking about the wall in Mexico, you talked about Palestinians, so how do we bring Palestinian freedom into our frame, how do we bring the freedom of immigrants into the way we imagine freedom today? How do we think about transgendered people? How do we think about gays, lesbians, bisexuals, within the frame of freedom? And what does that tell us about the extent to which our own framework of freedom is quite restricted? So I ask myself sometimes a hundred years from now how are people going to be talking about the struggle for freedom? Because I don’t think we’re ever going to get there. I don’t think we’re ever going to reach a point where “we are free, right, we can rest, we can stop now. We’ve won.” And so it seems that in the very process of struggling for freedom, of reflecting on freedom, of writing about freedom, we constantly challenge the framework within which we develop that imaginary of freedom, so --

Toni Morrison: I think it is. It’s powerfully imaginative. In a certain period it’s this, in another period, it’s something else. I think of freedom as -- a major part of it for me is knowledge, maybe wisdom if you get there, but certainly knowledge, and then I’m reminded that the first sin, Genesis, the sin, is knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge. That’s why they get thrown out of that little kindergarten they were in, that little playpen, nah nah nah, you know something, and the literal words at least in one of the translations, the King James, it’s “they may become wise,” so stop that. They knew and in many other religious forms, that’s why faith and belief are so important, and not knowledge, faith, belief, just instant, which is, you know, I’m not complaining, I’m just suggesting that there’s something so powerful, so attractive, so liberating about what we call science, knowledge, that you can’t have any, which is the same sort of thing that we were talking about with this document from the Texas Corrections Bureau and what Angela is talking about when she talks about the necessity of reading, literacy of all kinds under constrained circumstances. And what Frederick Douglass did, having an intellect like Mumia in prison, all of this works into the same thing. The big horror, they have led us to believe, is knowledge, because that will set you free. (source/full text)

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