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Toni Morrison: Nobel Prize

In the early morning hours of 7 October 1993, Morrison received a call that she had been named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first American to receive the prize since John Steinbeck in 1962; the eighth woman to win in all the prize's history, and the first black woman to accept the award. At first Morrison was in shock - she later joked that her first reaction was, "'Why don't you send me a fax?' Somehow, I felt that if I saw a fax, I'd know it wasn't a dream or somebody's hallucination."10

Surprise soon turned to joy. "This is a palpable tremor of delight for me," Morrison told a reporter who reached her immediately after the announcement. "It was wholly unexpected and so satisfying. Regardless of what we all say and truly believe about the irrelevance of prizes and their relationship to the real work, nevertheless this is a signal honor for me."11

Morrison's fans were overjoyed at her recognition, particularly in light of earlier snubs of her work. "This is a great day for African-Americans, and for Americans in general," the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. said. "Just two centuries ago, the African-American literary tradition was born in slave narratives. Now our greatest writer has won the Nobel Prize."12

In her Nobel lecture, Morrison decried the debasement of language, of words that could be used to oppress people, to obscure the horror of terrible things, to deny people their truth. Language, she said, was too essential to humanity to abuse it in that way. "Word-work . . . makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference - the way in which we are like no other life," Morrison said. "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."13

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