In the 1997 essay “Home,” Toni Morrison explores her attempt to create “race-specific, race-free language,” asking “How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?” I propose that Morrison's conception of language that encodes race without racism represents a new way of talking about race in the political and public sphere. Morrison's letter endorsing Barack Obama's presidential candidacy stands as a critical example of how such prose can effectively operate, and it models an increasingly ubiquitous form of communication between black intellectuals and politicians—the shared private epistle. Although Morrison states that her support for Obama was not derived from racial preference, because of her vexed history with the term “black president,” the letter has deep racial significance. As an example of the shared private epistle, it illustrates the fundamental friction of “race-specific, race-free language” while also demonstrating the utility of such language to reach out to audiences of all races. Such prose creates a new division between insider and outsider, a split that Morrison capitalizes on by positioning her readers as spectators to a private correspondence. By acknowledging that those who read the letter, regardless of their race, are outside this direct exchange, Morrison creates a space in which the language of race can be disregarded because it is already known. Her audience is thus left to read race not as a series of identity categories but as an intimacy that renders its specific reference obsolete.
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Research Article| April 01 2010
Stephanie Li; Performing Intimacy Using “Race-Specific, Race-Free Language”: Black Private Letters in the Public Sphere. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 April 2010; 109 (2): 339–356. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2009-037
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