A bird in the hand

Toni Morrison and the question of responsibility

Banding rock wrens in Fiordland. Tiny bird, uncertain future / Kennedy Warne

The novelist Toni Morrison passed away last week, and great has been the outpouring of tribute to a woman of literary power and political force. “Her gift was to make black people feel seen,” wrote one fellow novelist.

Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. I few days ago I listened to her acceptance speech—a thrilling exemplar of the storyteller’s art. She began, appropriately, with a story—a story with what she called “the first sentence of our childhood: ‘Once upon a time . . .’”

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.”

In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”
She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.

The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know”, she 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.”

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.

In the lecture, Morrison imagines the bird to be language, and the old woman a writer, like her. She says that language, like a bird, is “susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperilled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. . . . [The old woman] is convinced that when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem, or killed by fiat, not only she herself, but all users and makers are accountable for its demise.”

What struck me when listening to Morrison read the lecture was that the bird could stand for something else, too: the ecological future of the Earth. With growing certainty, we see catastrophe coming for our planetary home. The biodiversity crisis, the climate crisis, critical shortages of freshwater, a dying ocean. This bird, too, is in our hands.

And the young people of the story—the young people of today—are demanding to know: is this bird alive or dead? They may not be asking in mockery, but in anger and desperation. Maybe they think the bird is already as good as dead. Their parents, who brought them into the world, have handed them a bird without a future. And yet they come and ask. Perhaps they think of the old woman as an oracle, or perhaps as a healer.

In Morrison’s lecture, the young people confront her artful opacity and demand: “Did you so despise our trick, our modus operandi you could not see that we were baffled about how to get your attention? We are young. Unripe. We have heard all our short lives that we have to be responsible. What could that possibly mean in the catastrophe this world has become?”

These are hard questions. The lecture is worth listening to both for its plea for preservation of truth in language (deeply threatened in our fractured media landscape) and for preservation of Earth itself.

Both birds are in our hands.

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