“Nobody really thought that Black people were inferior.” -Toni Morrison
In 1975 at Portland State, author and professor Toni Morrison made a presentation during a public lecture series on the theme of the American Dream.
The entire audio clip is a little over two hours long but it’s worth listening to. Morrison takes the stage at the seven-minute mark and from that point on, I was stuck in a trance listening to her explain a passage from the book Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957: A Statistical Abstract Supplement.
In the passage, she reads off shipping records, she mentions descriptions of rice, turpentine, tar, and Black slaves. Morrison peeled back the inhumanity of American slavery while showcasing the ignorance of some of America’s most respected men in American history.
She quotes the racist thoughts and ideas of past United States Presidents and Senators. Both President Andrew Jackson and President Ulysses S. Grant shared sentiments on how Black people should be treated and handled.
It’s our American forefathers who shaped the racist ideas and moral codes on which this country prides itself on. The most heartbreaking part of this audio is when Morrison gets to the diaries of William Byrd II (he’s considered the founder of Richmond, Virginia). The editor of Byrd’s diary described him as, “Virginia’s most polished and ornamental gentlemen, a kindly master.”
Morrison reads through a typical day in Byrd’s life and you see how much violence was encountered by one of his slaves named Jenny. All-day long she was being beaten by either Bryd or his wife–and he was supposed to be the slave owner that other slave owners modeled themselves after.
She used history as a reference to take the audience and listeners on a journey that explains how America ended up where it was (and still is today) in 1975 as it pertains to race and the relationship Black people have with this country.
Morrison’s advice to the Black Scholars and Artists
There is a portion of the talk where Morrison speaks directly to the black artist, (at the 30-minute mark) she makes it clear that Black scholars and artists must stay focused.
“And the first job for the scholar, and particularly for the artist, is to destroy the source of that mindlessness, to focus on the hysteria and greed of those whose business it is to manipulate us and to keep us anonymous or peripheral to the events of this country.
The second responsibility of artists and scholars is to bear down hard on those generalities: the statistics and the charts, and make them give up the life they’re hiding.
Racial apologists would have us believe that Black children have to sit in a room with White children to learn anything; that Blacks have to go to Harvard Business School before they can open up a grocery store; that Blacks have to read Descartes to be literate, in spite of the fact that the New York Times is written and has always been written on a 6th-grade level; and that the ego of Black people is a thread of jelly needing constant cement.
More important, accurate scholarship and free, dedicated artists would reveal a singularly important thing: that racism was and is not only a mark, a public mark, of ignorance; it was and is a monumental fraud. Racism was never, ever the issue. Profit and money always was. And all of those quotations from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune, the threat was always jobs, land, or money.
And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim. Where racism exists as an idea, it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim.
It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. Its purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. Its hoped-for consequence was to define Black people as reactions to White presence.” -Toni Morrison