The novel is about Black women’s unvalued labor in the workforce that enabled us to overcome fascism and build morale in order to win one of the most significant wars in American history. It is about how Black women’s love for one another and for our country has been both sanctuary and salvation. It is my love letter to the courage it takes to be unique and also be in sisterhood as you evolve.
I will have much more to say about the book and the process of writing it in the weeks and months and years to come. in the meantime, I hope that you’ll pre-order the book — pre-orders are really important for the success of a book! — which is available everywhere books are sold, including Bookshop or directly from your favorite independent bookstore.
The novel opens in 2018 with Carmen lamenting her daughter Jeannette’s opioid addiction, desperately hoping she will get sober, survive. This is not the American dream Carmen had envisioned for her family when she migrated from Cuba to Miami. Carmen writes: Maybe if I had a way of seeing all the past, all the paths, maybe I’d have some answer as to why: Why did our lives turn out this way?
Readers are then whisked back to 1866 and introduced to Carmen’s great-grandmother, Maria Isabel, who was the only female employee in an all-male cigar factory in Camagüey, Cuba. Antonio, Carmen’s great-grandfather, enchanted Maria Isabel by reading aloud to her and other workers to help pass the time. He reads from novels by Alexander Dumas, from Shakespeare’s plays, from news stories—his aim to help distract them from their toil, and from the encroachment of guerrilla fighting in their town. Maria Isabel herself cannot read, but in listening to Antonio she wonders: “Can one learn to fall in love with a mind?”
I had the somewhat frightening (intimidating?) experience of receiving Toni Morrison’s collection of essays and lectures, The Source of Self-Regard before its publication in 2019. [Here is the review I wrote for the smart folks at Bitch Media].
Unlike Ms. Morrison’s fiction, which I sometimes just did not understand (A Mercy, Paradise) or which I loved without really being able to explain why (Song of Solomon, Beloved) or which humored me the way a good friend does (Sula !), her nonfiction was a true education. It educated me by her example, in terms of her biography, and it educated me the way all reading does — through its structure, the way it had been nurtured and considered and through what was not there.
February 18th would have been Toni Morrison’s 90th birthday, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot, celebrating and commemorating her gifts to me and to all of us through her rigorous writing and creativity. For many Black writers, it is not only her discipline and vision that we admire, it is how she earned the nickname Mother Toni, which is a nod to her guidance to each of us as we have sought to make our way on the perilous journey that is writing and editing and revising and publishing.
Her wisdom is so much a part of my practice that I don’t even remember when I started telling others. Whenever I speak to young writers, I use her example. I remind them that Mother Toni had a day job into her 40s, that she woke up at 4 a.m. before said day job to write while her babies were asleep. I have admired this level of discipline all my life, and while I have different reasons for engaging it, it has been essential to my writing practice all the same. And at the same time, she let us know that we are the people that we are, we are not the work we do, which is essential.
She is also known for giving entire generations of Black writers permission to write the stories that do not yet exist, saying if there is a book you want to read that does not yet exist, you must be the one to write it (this is a paraphrase). I can’t imagine how many books we would not have were it not for this advice, for her presence, for her work and her inspiration.
I rarely have occasion to do such deep research when I plan to write about a writer anymore, but I sensed that Ms. Morrison would not be with us much longer. So, in the before times, I took the liberty of luxuriating in the reference room at the Schomburg. I’ve aggregated below my notes on Ms. Morrison’s life, because these were the thoughts I had that didn’t make it into publication anywhere, and didn’t really fit in any kind of linear place; they also sum up why, aside from her talent, discipline and brilliance, I never felt anything I wrote about Ms. Morrison could really do her justice. I think it was important for me to put this here in celebration of her birthday in part because of how valuable looking at the contours of her life has been for my confidence as a writer. In a collection of her quotes, The Measure of Our Lives, she is quoted as having said: “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.” One of her many talents was showing us all that writing could do and be if we were brave and persistent enough to meet it.
Writing African American Women: An Encyclopedia of Literature by and About Women of Color, Toni Morrison entry, pages 636 – 640
Born 1931 in Lorain, Ohio
Chloe Anthony Wofford
Shortened her name to an abbreviation of her middle name purportedly (and with regret) because no one could pronounce Chloe. The theme of claiming one’s name emerged –noted in entry – in her fiction – from third novel, Song of Solomon (1977) to Tar Baby, her fourth ( 1981)
Graduated from Howard in 1953, English Major, classics minor
Master’s from Cornell in 1955 – her thesis was on suicide in the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
She taught for two years at Texas Southern University in Houston, then returned to Howard as a faculty member.
She married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison in 1958
They had two sons together, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. They divorced in 1964.
She moved w/sons to Syracuse where she worked as Random House textbook editor. Began writing at night as therapy for her loneliness when her sons were in bed.
Transferred to NYC in 1967 to headquarters for Random House editing acclaimed black women writers like Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara.
She kept teaching – at SUNY Purchase 1971-72, Yale, 1976-77. She left Random House in 1983; Appointed Albert Schweitzer chair at SUNY Albany in 1984. Stayed until 1989, when Princeton appointed her Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. (Note from me: That means 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of Toni Morrison becoming the first Black woman to hold a chair at an ivy league university.)
She’s taught at a number of prestigious colleges and universities including Bard, Rutgers & Princeton, she delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Massey Lectures at Harvard University. She’s also received a number of honorary degrees including from Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, and Yale. “Although Morrison is perhaps best known for her fiction, she has written successfully in several other genres as well, including drama, children’s and YA, short stories and criticism.”
Won the Pulitzer in 1988, the Nobel in 1993 – the first African American and only the 8th woman to ever receive the prize. Her body of work began with the short story that grew into the novel that became The Bluest Eye, work that “established her recurrent concern with the meaning and place of black female identity.”
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination (1992)
Two collections of critical essays (this would now be three, with the Origins of others, I think)
Race-ing Justice, Engendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (1992)
Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case (1997)
Icons of African American Literature
“The search for love and identity runs through almost everything I write,” (Taylor-Guthrie 96) Page 269
“For Morrison, narrative is necessary. It is a psychic process that enables humanity to conceive and satisfy its fundamental need for coherence and understanding. The model of psychoanalysis throws light on the progress of characters looking for themselves as well as on the peculiar link the narrative creates between them. Such a relationship, reflected in the reciprocal link between narrator and reader, finds its model in the relationship shared by the analyst and its patient. The narrative of the one is stimulated by the patient listening of the other. Wisdom, if it emerges from such relation, is the work of the past, thanks to the traces left by memory or dream. In both cases, the aim is to discover the power of the desire that fuels the story, its origins, in order to master the process that, by elucidating the past, will lead to maturity. For the American black community, whose past is more easily read on the mutilated bodies or in the unfathomable eyes than in libraries, whose present is most often synonymous with alienation, telling stories is above all the way to refigure and to understand, to accept and to master a dismembered history made of holes and omissions.”
Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography, David L. Middleton, 1987
From “Good, Bad, Neutral Black,” NYT Mag, 2 May, 1971, Vol. 7, p. 3 ff
“TM assesses books designed for black children…That which is truly good becomes universal: “Like so much that is meant for black folks, like so much that black people do for themselves, it ends up in the marrow of the culture at large.”
“In time, writing became a way to ‘order my experience.’
“It’s always seemed to me that black people’s grace has been with what they do with language.”
Before I was a journalist, my favorite non-fiction writing and non-journaling activity was to attend readings or lectures featuring Black authors and take copious notes. So it is a kind of coming full circle that I’ve started a Substack newsletter focused on book reviews related to books for and by Black people, Black Book Stacks. (About a year ago, I started a YouTube channel of the same name, which you can view here and if I have a Bookshop store you can find here.)
I always had the innate sense that being a writer was not just about putting words to paper and hoping that others would read those words. I was always searching to put the words I wrote into a tradition. Writing was another way of trying to belong and to solidify a place for myself in a world that seemed bent on my erasure or destruction.
I have vivid memories of a small royal blue Mead notebook that was thick as a brick. I carried it with me to the old Barnes & Noble on Astor Place, through Washington Square Park, up to Emma Willard and Vassar. I had the privilege of listening and trying to absorb the wisdom of Jamaica Kincaid, Gloria Naylor, Janet McDonald, Elaine Brown and so many others. I was a careful collector of Black women writers’ quotes, usually because I couldn’t afford to purchase books of my own and I didn’t not want to vandalize library books. Quotes were the happy compromise; they were short enough for me to carry wherever I went. These were the breadcrumbs and manna they left for me in a trail to who-knew-where but I gobbled them up. Every nugget was a jewel in my crown.
As I made my way in journalism, it became harder and harder for me to give myself permission to keep up this witnessing practice in the same way. Mostly because of time, but also because I realized that such forums and opportunities to hear Black writers and share space with them were fewer in other states and cities. It just so happened that reading the work of Black women in particular was my self-paced MFA program. Sometimes, I had the opportunity to profile, interview and write about them, as was the case with Octavia Butler in 2004 and Alice Walker around the same time. But mostly, I was just glad to have their work to sit with and revel in.
Over the years, I’ve continued to focus my attention on the work of Black writers because, as more of the world knows now, we live in a world where white supremacist capitalism means that what is considered valuable is everything but Blackness or real intimate discussions of all its flourishing contours in spite of and beyond the gaze of the consumption of white people. What I mean to say, I think, is that Black literature has always been a miracle to behold. In part because it comes from a people who have a shorter lineage in the Americas of thriving in literature because of the legal restrictions that forbade them to read and write. Our resilience and perseverance and faith, all bound up in the Word, continued both in an oral tradition and on paper.
The overcorrection here, I’ve found, is that when it comes to fair critique or evaluation of the work of Black writers, is that our books are either ignored, as if they never happened, especially beyond the date or week of their publication, or they are elevated as neutral objects for sale without a real analysis of them and their context. That’s what my new newsletter is aiming to help create in the world. I hope that if that sounds of interest to you, that you’ll subscribe. Looking forward to seeing you on the list.
Danielle Evans’ sophomore collection of short stories with a timely, prescient eponymous novella is a delightful follow up to Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, whose title alone you have to love.
In The Office of Historical Corrections, we meet Black women who are sexy, dispassionate, cerebral and astute. They come from money and status; the Jack and Jill set, if they wanted to join, but generally, they’re not that interested in what you think of them. From Alcatraz to Wisconsin to the D.C./Maryland/Virginia trinity, these characters traverse the physical landscape while tromping on the generally limited and boundary-laden universes into which they are typically crammed or altogether absent.
One of my favorites in this collection is “Boys Go to Jupiter,” told from the perspective of the clueless white girl Claire who becomes a lightning rod for controversy when she dons a Confederate-flag printed bikini and posts carelessly about it online. In less skilled hands, the story would veer towards tropes that don’t truly vindicate the Black women who are often unheard in these narratives. In Evans’ hands, though, we understand Claire’s indignation clearly, and we know that it is her right to do what she wants as a kind of blind participation in white privilege that of course has come to the fore in public life more recently.
The eponymous novella, however, featuring two frenemies united in their noble profession or recovering or literally re-membering aspects of Black history that are often intentionally lost, is beautiful, timely and thought-provoking. Novellas are still unfortunately rare, but I really love the form and Evans showcases its best features here, underscoring how convenient forgetting can be even for the most conscientious among us. I hope you’ll pre-order the book from my affiliate page on Bookshop.org. I also made a short video review on Black Book Stacks, which you can see here.
Happy summer, as happy as it can be, I suppose. I wanted to drop by to rave a little about Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece, Caste, publishing soon and definitely one for you to pick up. Here’s my full review from the Sunday Boston Globe and an excerpt:
“With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” “America is an old house.” It is a simple analogy that is classic Wilkerson, whose previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” chronicled the Great Migration through the masterful weaving of thousands of narratives within the United States. In her new book, which should be required reading for generations to come and is as propulsive a reading experience as her debut, she turns her attention to India, Germany, and what their histories have in common with America’s.
A significant work of social science, journalism, and history, “Caste” removes the tenuous language of racial animus and replaces it with a sturdier lexicon based on power relationships. “Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,” Wilkerson explains, “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry.” Using examples from around the world, she goes on to demonstrate how the codification of caste throughout the world has hardened economic and political inequality into seemingly permanent markers of difference.
I feel like I have been wanting to post about it since I got the assignment months ago, so now I’m bursting with joy and excitement. I wanted to just share some more about the wonder of Black creatives, the lessons we have across timelines & movements.
I thought when I read Memorial Drive that what magnetized me to Natasha Trethewey’s work was our common mother loss, but no, it was so much deeper than that. I loved and still do her resilience, her strength, her vulnerability and her focused ability to transmute pain into real, lasting beauty and triumph.
In our interview, I was honored that she trusted me so much to hold space for so much of her journey. She talked about going up to read her work and people introducing the life-shaping story of her mother’s death “with the word murder hanging in the air,” so her memoir was an opportunity to re-contextualize the life of her mother, the social worker and self-advocate who did not live because we have no way of really protecting victims of intimate partner violence and what a failure that is.
There’s so much more and I hope you will read the print issue. Here is more, another part that stays with me: “They have a saying in South Korea that you don’t bury a mother in the ground; you bury her in the chest, or you carry her corpse on your back…As much as I carry her corpse around, I have also planted my living mother in my chest, and she grows there continuously. I have both, two mothers.” May that offer some kind of comfort and/or recognition to all of us as we mourn not just our mothers, but Black daughters like Breonna Taylor & the many others whose names we can’t forget to keep saying.
My friend and radical visionary Mia Birdsong has written the new necessary and inspiring new book, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community (Hachette Go, June 2, 2020) I contacted Mia about her book a few weeks ago, hoping to share her words in a broader forum. My humble blog is as broad a forum as I have, so I hope you find her words about alternative forms of care, especially community care, as therapeutic as I did. I was struck by examples of how Mia, who is partnered and has children, shows up for her single friends like Mariah, which is what frames the first question.
I love the attentiveness and care you mention in the book related to Mariah and her managing diabetes as a single person. The model of attending to her needs outside of coupledom feels like one we need to adopt, especially now. What did you learn about attending to your friend in this way that might be helpful for others as we try to connect virtually now?
Being in Mariah’s life in this way meant that both of us had to push back against some deep American socialization. For me, it was claiming the truth that my loved ones are my business. That means I can butt in if I see a need, gap, place that needs tending to. I was definitely worried about being intrusive, sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong, overstepping, but I also knew that if I pissed her off with unwelcome meddling, we could talk about it. I also thought about how hard it is for people to ask for help, especially when, in this case, the support I was thinking of wasn’t about addressing an immediate need or a crisis, but establishing a long-term, committed kind of support. Ultimately I decided that all the worse-case scenarios of me not butting in were worse than the possibility of pissing her off.
On her end, she had to wrestle with the way we, especially as Black women, are taught to handle shit ourselves, to be super women, and, frankly, to not be dependent on anyone because they might fail you. When you’ve lived your whole life being extraordinarily competent, independent, and excelling at everything you do the way Mariah has—all while managing a condition that could totally kill you and the racism and sexism of America—it’s super hard to allow yourself to lean on someone in such an intimate way.
It’s not like she couldn’t survive without me or the other folks who have become part of her care circle—she has been for her whole life– but she shouldn’t have to. I think that is a critical realization that a lot of us need to come to terms with—just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
Our practice opened a new way for us to think about care and she’s built more around that that I’m learning from. Having a handful of people instead of one is really powerful. One night when her blood sugar not adjusting, two of us were in touch with her and then in touch with each other. We get to build relationships with each other too.
Now that Covid Times are here, she has actively reached out to the circle of folks that she’s gathered up around her to talk about how to get food, to vent about people not physically distancing properly, to share the latest info, to freak out, to laugh. It’s been a gift to all of us.
Having this practice with Mariah meant that when Covid Times hit us, I was more comfortable with the idea of inserting myself into the lives of my people who live alone, especially if they are high risk. I have a handful of folks that I check in on a few times a week, I bring them food or whatever. And I check in with our friends in common about them to see if I’m missing anything and to encourage others to insert themselves as well. I have a friend with whom I talk about what he wants to happen if he dies, what of his stuff he wants various people to have, where his documents are, etc. That’s a totally new conversation for us.
I guess all of that is to say, I think we need to be brave right now about thoughtfully pushing ourselves into the lives of our loved ones and asking for our loved ones to tend to our wellbeing in ways that might be uncomfortable. We ought not assume that our folks who have lots of friends, or our folks who present as strong and having all their shit together, or our folks who seem ok on their own don’t need our presence and support.
It feels more evident to more people that our racialized capitalistic society and healthcare system has failed us and COVID-19 response (or in some cases, lack thereof) underscores this. What practices, processes or alternative frameworks inspired by and/or explored in How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community do you think can help us to respond to this disappointment and collective trauma — individually and collectively?
I’ve been so heartened by the way folks have shown up for each other as soon as it became clear that we are all we have when our systems (which function as they were designed) are failing to care for us in the ways they should. And I worry about our ability to sustain our mutual aid networks and also hold our government accountable for not doing the work we are now doing. Right now we are trying to fill in for failed systems and we can’t just be cool with that.
One of the things government can’t and shouldn’t do that I see folks doing for each other is creating space to process, to grieve, to connect, and to celebrate. My women’s circles—Tough & Jolly and Black Women’s Freedom Circle—are meeting twice as often now to hold space for ourselves. Having those opportunities to be in our feelings and hear from each other has been life giving. My friend Mac started what is essentially Sunday church. We check in, and every week a different person leads us in song or reflection or meditation.
The other thing I’m loving is the dance parties. I interviewed my therapist a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to understand trauma more. It was clear to me that everyone of us is experiencing trauma. It may hit differently, but it’s universal. She explained fear cycles and what happens when they get interrupted and where people are getting stuck. She also talked about how we can hack our system to make sure we reset it regularly. One of the things she’s recommending to her clients is that they dance every evening. Celebration lets our system know that we are OK—if we’re dancing, we aren’t in immediate danger. So all those DJs on Instagram are helping us reset our system so we release some of the trauma.
How do you imagine reclamation of our communities, family and friendship in the after times – what some call the new normal – will shift in light of the global pandemic, if at all?
This is such a hard question. I’ve been sitting with the fact that while the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, the arc of the material universe doesn’t care about whose fault it is that we have a global pandemic or that our systems were designed to disadvantage Black and Indigenous people, people with disabilities, queer folks, unhoused people, etc. The virus is not out here trying to eliminate the polluters and oppressors. It is going to kill the people with the least power, the weaker immune systems, the least money and access to health care.
So I’m horrified by the thought of what that means for who is getting care now, who will get access to a vaccine when we finally have one and who will be left in a few years when this comes to some kind of conclusion. It feels inadequate to say “we’ve got us,” or “build community” when the forces in power conspire to exploit this moment for profit and continue to leverage their power for their own gain.
This is all on top of the fact that even after they “open up the country,” we are still not going to be able to hug each other, to hold hands, to share meals in each other’s homes, to gather to worship, celebrate, plan, protest, and just be together for a painfully long time. It’s demoralizing and heartbreaking. And at the same time, it’s still absolutely true that we’ve got us. We are already figuring out how to be with each other, support each other, celebrate with each other, feed and nurture each other. And I imagine we will figure out ways to be together that are safe and support our emotional wellbeing—like maybe we’ll have to plan dates, dinner parties, and small gatherings far enough in advance that everyone can quarantine for a few weeks before getting together. (That is not a recommendation.) Maybe we will have to really do the work of dealing with our own wounds and damage and building grown-ass relationships with excellent boundaries and explicit communication and expressed desires and needs so we can cultivate the kind of trust that would be necessary to gather like that.
I barreled unexpectedly through Natasha Trethewey’s beautiful and painful memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. I was compelled to finish it quickly the way we are taught to rip Band-Aids off our wounds to ensure that we won’t prolong a stinging sensation, so that we can get on with the healing part and rush through the grief. I explain a little more, too, in my video review on YouTube.
It is not so easy to recover from wounds that involve our mothers, particularly when they do not survive the failings of the world — the world that’s supposed to protect them.
Memorial Drive is the story of Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn, through the past and present lens of her daughter’s keen, writerly eye. No detail is spared, which includes transcripts of recorded phone conversations between Gwendolyn and Trethewey’s former stepfather Joel, a haggard, menacing Vietnam War veteran who continually threatens the uneasy peace that opens the book and remains a question mark throughout its pages.
Poets are gifts to us in times of happiness and relative ease but particularly in times of despair, I think, because they can distill what we would normally couch in euphemism down to its essence. In short, they remind us that events are not only what happened but our histories are our active destinies. We can shape them as we wish, but the facts — comforting or not — well, those remain. For women and Black women most of all, there is a way that this power of witness can override the willingness and tendency of others to forget us.
The ache in my heart spread and flourished every time I read a new detail of Joel’s torment of Trethewey, his disregard for her mother or her brother. His manipulation was a knife, twisting and turning with every page; at one point, he breaks the lock to Trethewey’s new gold-edged diary and the violation the poet felt then and perhaps every moment after she had “found her audience,” was so visceral I had to stop reading.
Part of my reaction to the book, of course, is remembering my own mother’s experiences with abuse; the cavalier way in which she would recount having her nose broken by an ex-husband, the way we fled similar boyfriends and sought shelter in homes for what were then called domestic violence shelters. When I posted a review on Instagram, someone mentioned, too, that one of the other aspects of the global pandemic in this moment has to do with a common feature of disasters, which is a rise in intimate partner violence.
The neglect to which my mother succumbed was very different and, besides, you can’t compare one mother’s death to another’s. But what feels the most true here is that I understood that no one was listening to my mother, even when she documented her experience, even when I was a witness. From this, I learned that women were not considered the authorities of their experiences; that even if they were hunted and pursued until they were broken, they would likely not be deemed worthy of protection under the law.
This is a belief I would rather be convinced is untrue. It’s not really in my nature to give into despair. And yet, here is what happens in Memorial Drive, here is what takes the poet three decades to begin to approach & even now, with great suffering and agony: After many attempts to document the abuse and violence and to escape it, Gwendolyn was murdered by her estranged husband in June 1985. Like so many people who have experienced intimate partner violence, she could have been saved — there were so many people warned, so many signs, documented evidence of his threats to her life — and yet, she wasn’t.
This is devastating on so many levels, but especially in Memorial Drive because Trethewey composes the poetry of her extraordinary experience with clarity, grace and generosity while also compiling detail by way of utilizing the economy of every word to perfect effect. As a result, Memorial Drive reads like a classic memoir of grief, like a tragedy in slow motion, the narrative arc, already known, lingers over the text like a set of strings.