Toni Morrison once told Hilton Als that being a black woman writer is “…richer than being a white male writer because I know more and have more experience.” (The New Yorker, October 27, 2003).
Immediately upon reading that phrase, I recalled my grad school professor, Jack Myer, who had a penchant for expanding the contours of architectural education to encompass, well, everything. Jack once said, “The extent of any person’s experience is determined by only one thing: how long they have lived on this earth. The person who’s traveled wide has a certain kind of experience. The person who has lived quiet and constant has another. Each individual’s experience is different; there is no way to quantify or compare.”
Scott Fitzgerald’s antics informed a particular type of writing; Marcel Proust’s ruminations quite another. Can we say that F. Scott Fitzgerald had more experience? I don’t think so.
Most of us lead lives that ebb and flow between activity and contemplation. Marlene Dietrich was the world’s highest paid movie star, then a World War II heroine, then a Vegas chanteuse before spending the final twelve years of her life in isolation. Fading glamour may have been a factor in her decision to trade the experience of action for solitude, and her withdrawal from life was extreme; yet for many the trajectory of active youth and adulthood gives way to a natural slowing down and corresponding reflection.
When we experience periods of life lived intensely, our senses are more acute, time expands, we remember more specific detail. Fighting in war, demonstrating for peace, bearing a child, engaging in a foreign culture. Certain experiences etch deeper in our psyche. Four years have passed since I completed my year-long bicycle journey through the United States, yet I can still recall every day: who I met; where I slept; what I saw. But I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the specifics of three weeks ago Wednesday. That does mean I had ‘more’ experience then compared to now. The character of my days is completely different. Actually, the quietude of my present state allows me to continue to review and analyze that previous period of heightened sensation. Prior activity informs the passive state; the passive period graces the active with perspective.
At this moment, we are living through a collective time of diminished activity and interaction. The COVID-19 pandemic has lulled us into a pattern where every day seems the same. Many—most—of us are itching to get more active, more connected. Yet the experience of so much down time has intrinsic worth. For contemplation. For consideration. For every plant, animal, and ecosystem on our planet to breathe easier because we humans have slowed down.
It is presumptive of me to say that Toni Morrison chose a wrong word, but she did. Her writing is not richer than a white male’s because she knows more and has more experience. To proclaim to know more than another is elitist in its own peculiar way. Toni Morrison’s knowledge and experience is important because it’s singular, fresh. She delivers a voice not enough heard. A voice unencumbered by the assumptions and blinders of the dominant culture. Equivalent in experience and knowledge. Neither more than nor less than. Welcome and important. On par with every other human that carries the memory of how many years it’s inhabited this earth.