On this date in 1931 a baby girl was born in Lorain, Ohio, who would grow up to become a writer who changed not only how we think about black history and people but how we think about language in the service of fiction and reality. Yes, I mean Toni Morrison. We lost her physical being last year and people like me still have days when that loss is overwhelming. But all her words exist–the amazing novels, the raft of seeing essays on life in this country, her opera about an enslaved woman who chose to kill her children before she’d let them be enslaved, and a fragment of what was to be her next book that I keep hoping Knopf will choose to publish in its unfinished form.
I just listened to an interview from 2015 with a British woman journalist in which Morrison reminded me all over again how monumental her thinking is. She spoke about not wanting to “temporize” her writing, comparing that to what has happened to black music as it has become something played by anyone. When the interviewer asked a completely flat-footed question–“Would you ever consider expanding your subject matter to focus more on white people since they are not really very present in your work so far?”–Morrison paused, smiled wryly, and said “Do you have any idea how incredibly racist that question is? Would you ever even consider asking a white writer if s/he might begin writing more about black people? Or asking a Russian writer if s/he was going to start writing about non-Russian characters?” To her credit, the white interviewer heard the question and might even change her behavior should she find herself interviewing another writer who content reflects their own culture. And Morrison was wise enough not to yell her response, so the white woman couldn’t avoid it by becoming defensive.
What Toni Morrison managed to do in book after book was to make me see that her position from what a white supremacist world labels the “edge” or “margin” IS the center. So I am invited to move over into that new center and try to learn what life is like there. She ignored or conquered or just brushed aside the white gaze–surely an heroic feat for any artist–or human being. And I fancy I have some level of comprehension of how strenuous that exercise can be because I keep trying to free myself from the male gaze.
So “happy birthday, Toni,” and thank your mother and father for creating you so I will always have your writing even if I no longer can imagine you writing away in your own house.
A friend sent me a fascinating and gripping article about the black woman director, Dee Rees. After years of doing strong work in theater, e.g., “Pariah,” “The Last Thing He Wanted,” and the powerful “Mudbound,” Rees is currently working on an ambitious opera and moving into “big-time” Hollywood. So I am reading along feeling both excited to learn about Rees’ body of work and irritated that I have not heard of her before now. I have grown accustomed, when reading articles put onto the Internet from newspapers or magazines, to having the text be peppered with annoying boxes running ads for things like tooth paste or viagra or vacations in warm places. As my eye was moving down the page on my computer, I saw a long horizontal line, cuing me that such an interruption was about to appear.
It did and it was an advertisement for the current revival of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve never been a fan of this book because early on I realized, as a white person who grew up in Alabama in the 1940’s and 50’s, that Lee had provided white Southerners with exactly the story they needed. A white lawyer stepped in to argue for the innocence of a black man and his daughter worshipped him as the white savior/hero he was. So, when I learned of this revival, I felt like I did when “The Green Book” won the Oscar instead of that little tinpot statuette’s going to “Black Panther” or “The Favourite.” So I just was going to gloss over the interruptive box and keep reading about Ms. Rees who tells the truth about race. But then I actually read what was inside the box: “‘To Kill a Mockingbird” has not played to a single empty seat. It is now the most successful American play in Broadway history.” I felt kicked in the stomach by a soft pillow–yes, I intend the mixed metaphor.
For no one in the production office that posts things like the excellent article on Dee Rees not to have caught this glaring and painful incongruity is outrageous. To conjoin an account of this innovative and talented artist’s work with praise for the cotton candy story of Atticus and Scout is so offensive I can hardly bear it. I only hope Ms. Rees’ wife, the memoirist Sarah Bloom, has shone this visual travesty to Dee so they can have had a big laugh–or thrown a heavy book at their computer screen–whichever might have felt like more fun.
We all have been thrilled if we’ve watched people let groups of doves fly into the sky to mark some special personal occasion like a big birthday or a special rite of passage. Sometimes these white flyers have been part of a celebration of a life that has ended.
Anyone who has read or heard stories from the Judeo-Christian Bible know that doves have played important and pivotal roles in both those faith communities. In the story of the Flood, we are told that Noah heeded warnings of the coming deluge, built his ark onto which he herded pairs of many animals needed for whatever community awaited them should they survive. We also know that Noah had no idea of when it would be safe to leave the ark, since when it stopped raining it might well still too dangerous to abandon his safe craft. But God knew and chose a way to tell Noah and his family using a fool-proof device. He got a single dove to fly to the ark holding a fresh olive branch in its beak. When Noah saw the dove light somewhere on deck or maybe on a low masthead, he saw how dry the olive branch was. This was the signal that land ahead was safe for the Noahs and their menagerie to put down anchor and disembark. So that dove was the messenger from the Lord who rewarded Noah for being prudent and for heeding warnings.
In the Christian Bible, in the Gospel according to Matthew, we learn about Jesus of Nazareth’s traveling from Galilee to the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized by John who was doing lots of dunking of new believers. When he comes up out of the water, it seems the sky opened up and Jesus saw the spirit of God coming down as a lone dove. This time the bird landed on Jesus and then a voice said “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” Once again, the deity relied on a dove to be his messenger.
Both these stories flashed into my mind when I saw, shortly after Francis was made Pope, the photograph that went viral on the Internet (seen here). The expression of sheer delight on Francis’ face touched me, since he of all people would also be remembering just how important this particular bird has been in the faith he inherits and practices.
Because I love stories and take them to be perhaps our most profound way to find truth, I thought “The deity is once again sending down a white bird to light on this ecstatic man’s hand as a sign to those who want to see it that this person finds favor with a caring force in the universe.” So we might be wise to pay attention to what Francis says and does, I thought, just as he surely is paying attention to this visitation as a call to right action.
At my church this past Sunday, the choir sang a powerful piece composed by Pavel Tschensnokoff, a Russian composer living between 1877 and 1944. The title is “Salvation Is Created” (1912) and the only words are “Salvation is created in the midst of earth.” It’s in a minor key with those unmistakable bass resonances found in so much Russian choral music. Once the words are sung, however, the piece is far from over. It continues for many minutes but the only sound is a series of “alleluiahs,” the Russian form of “alleluia.” As I let those syllables enter my consciousness, I thought again about the power of repetition. There are simply some moments in our lives when sentences or even phrases fail us because what we are feeling is too large to be expressible. Sometimes such moments turn around unspeakable losses, e.g. King Lear’s inability to make sense of his daughter Cordelia’s death so he just keeps saying over and over “Howl, howl, howl, howl.” Other times we may find ourselves amidst such grandeur that no regular words will do, e.g. how I felt as I stood amid all the stone sculptures and carved out rock spaces in Arches National Park in Utah. So I just kept saying hopelessly inadequate things like “wow.”
In faith systems, such moments occur when someone like a composer of sacred music feels so certain of their supreme being’s love that they stop trying to put that into words. Then we get chants by holy women and men or repeated words like “alleluiah” in the piece I just heard. The common factor in such moments may be a realization that no human construct of meaning is sufficient to hold the deepest mysteries or to give sense to the ineffable. We know in all such moments that some things cannot be explained or even understood, but must either be dismissed as some kind of “magic” or we admit just how tiny and limited we are in the face of grace, be it natural or supernatural.
Mr. Tschesnokoff felt that as he wrote about his sense that salvation is not something nebulous or out of this world. Rather, for him and for me, I must say, it is in and of the world we inhabit every day. We miss it sometimes because we’ve been taught that it is beyond us, just as sometimes we miss miracles because we expect some Damascus Road experience that changes everything in an instant. So salvation can be my feeling connected to the three cardinal couples who visit my feeder each dusk, first in gendered groups–the males come first, lighting up my back yard, and then the females in their stunningly nuanced shades of tan and scarlet. Or it can be how I feel when a poem takes over my consciousness, drawing me deeper and deeper into some world I haven’t imagined or been able to inhabit before.
Watching my cardinals or reading poems by people like Tracy K. Smith or Robin Coste Lewis or Emily Dickinson or John Keats, I slip into incantations, leaving any attempts at sentences in the wake of my emotions. “Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.”