Sylvia Barnes and Toni Morrison | Teaching, Preaching, and Doing the Work

Dr. Sylvia Barnes, October 2014.

Last week was not a good week for my heart.

Before I could digest the news that the literary goddess herself, Toni Morrison, had passed, I learned that Dr. Sylvia Barnes, one of my undergraduate mentors, had passed. With the news of both deaths, I felt as if every bit of oxygen was squeezed from my body.

As I sat through a brief meeting holding in the knowledge of their passings, I realized with everything in me that I am sick and tired of loss.

I’m tired of trying to find the words to express the deep sense of emptiness I feel when someone significant to me dies. There are no words for the love I can’t give, the unexpressed admiration and near deification of those who have profoundly impacted my life and who have had a strong hand in shaping who I am as a person, a writer, a scholar.

Sisters. Aunts. Uncles. Friends. Mentors. Professors. Literary goddesses. I’m tired of processing loss.

It is interesting that both women died the same day, August 5, 2019. I held both in high esteem for their unapologetic focus on black lives, for their commitment to excellence, for their wisdom, for their very humanity.

Dr. Barnes was the Toni Morrison of my undergraduate world. We were in awe of her—her standard of excellence, her fiery passion, her unflinching dedication to the deep study of literature, language, and light. Her dignified presence filled any room she entered. She taught eager undergraduates so many things, not just about literature but about life and love and how to navigate the madness of the world. I distinctly remember some of the wisdom she shared about the importance of reading in gaining and creating knowledge, about relationships and love and attraction.

In her raspy voice, with polished Jamaican accent, she urged us to “Read, read, read everything you can get your hands on. Read!” She wasn’t just an English professor. Like Baby Suggs Holy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved–preaching in the clearing–she was a divinely inspired preacher offering keys for life; every single class with Dr. Barnes felt like a sermon of love for our beautiful Black selves.

When I struggled with racism in graduate school, I reached out to her for counsel, and she candidly shared stories of her own similar experiences while in pursuit of the doctoral degree. Somehow, just knowing she overcame them intensified my determination to push through.

Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe–50 Years Anniversary of Things Fall Apart.” December, 2008. Photo by Angela Radulescu

I spend a great deal of time studying, teaching, and writing about Toni Morrison’s novels. My first real encounter with her came when I was in college through my own not-for-a-course reading. The Bluest Eye left me in utter despair. I had read other black writers. I was drawn to them because of the way they spoke to an American experience with which I could identify. But it was Toni Morrison who awakened the scholar in me, who made me ask questions and drove me to write about books; it was her body of work which led me to theorize through literature the unique experiences of Black girls and women.

It was Sylvia Barnes who showed me I could, who encouraged me to use my singular voice to speak about Black girls’ and Black women’s experiences.

It has only been a week, so I’m still processing these losses and what they mean to me. These women—goddesses, really—have filled me for more than half my life and have prepared me for their parting. Though they toiled tirelessly, there is yet much work to be done. The mantle has been passed on, and we—those of us who write about, think about, theorize about Black experiences—must get down to business and with urgency do the work.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge–even wisdom. Like art.  Toni Morrison, The Nation, 2015

Photo from Pixabay

Good Vibes | Music, Hope, and Monochrome Mayhem

I always want to talk about important subjects, but with hope. Music is supposed to heal people. — Fatoumata Diawara

At the beginning of the year, I thought I’d focus on developing my monochrome photography skills, but life got in the way. Before I pressed pause on that venture, though, I was able to coordinate and complete two “Monthly Monochrome Mayhem” swaps in the “A Thousand Words” group on swap-bot.

Through the swaps, I made another photographer friend, Betty H., from the United Kingdom. She does a lot of concert photography, so she shared photos from a show at Birmingham Town Hall that featured Fatoumata Diawara and Staff Benda Bilili, singers from the continent of Africa.

Diawara is a Malian singer-song writer and actor whose music:

draws elements of jazz and funk into an exquisitely sparse contemporary folk sound – refracting the rocking rhythms and plaintive melodies of her ancestral Wassoulou tradition through an instinctive pop sensibility. At the centre of the music is Fatou’s warm, affecting voice, spare, rhythmical guitar playing and gorgeously melodic songs that draw powerfully on her own often troubled experience.  –from Fatoumata Diawara’s Facebook Page.

Diawara opened for Staff Benda Bilili, a group of disabled street musicians from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The group consists of:

Four senior singer/guitarists sitting on spectacularly customized tricycles, occasionally dancing on the floor of the stage, arms raised in joyful supplication, are the core of the band, backed by a younger, all-acoustic, rhythm section pounding out tight beats. Over the top of this are weird, infectious guitar-like solos performed by a [young] prodigy on a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can. –from Staff Benda Bilili’s Facebook Page

The name of the group translates roughly to “see beyond [appearances].”

Betty says the musicians were “a joy to photograph.” I can tell! There’s so much energy in the photos that I can feel the good vibes.

The spark is even more apparent in the original color photos.

Aren’t the photos spectacular? Betty confessed that she frequently converts concert photographs to monochrome because “working around the choices of the lighting technicians” can be challenging. I see her point, but I love the mysterious aura of the color photos too.

Indie Week’s interview of Fatoumata Diawara outlines her philosophies of music and life. And if you have never heard this soulful singer, please take a listen to Fatou, her debut album.

And then, turn to the rhythmic fusion of soukous (influenced by rumba), rhythm and blues, and reggae found in the music of Staff Benda Bilili.

As Diawara points out, there’s a lot of difficulty in life. There’s also hope, joy, and laughter, which make the tough stuff bearable. I feel all of this in the music of Staff Benda Bilili and Fatoumata Diawara. Don’t you?

Until next time…

The Wind of Change

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
–Socrates, character in Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman, 1980–

About the Image: My Love Notes pal and literary twin, Bianca, sent the postcard above for International Women’s Day. I admired the postcard on Instagram, but had no idea it was winging its way to me. It fits perfectly with the Words and Art series. The purple, happy naturalista dance for me!

“Black Women Breathe Flowers Too”

black women breathe flowers, too.
just because
we are taught to grow them in the lining of our
quiet (our grandmothers secret).
does not mean
we do not swelter with wild tenderness.
we soft swim.
we petal.
we scent limbs.
love.
we just have been too long a garden for sharp
and deadly teeth.
so we
have
grown
ourselves
into
greenhouses.

–greenhouses
nayyirah waheed, salt.

Happy International Women’s Day 2019

#ThursdayTreeLove | You’ve Got a Place Here Too

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots. –Marcus Garvey

It rained so much during the last two weeks that my heart sang whenever the rain ceased or the sun brightened the skies–even if for only a few moments. As always, I took every opportunity to note the trees.

For some reason I was most drawn to the interaction of the trees: Trees touching. Bare trees mingling with half-dressed trees. Signs of spring and winter in one shot.

I enjoyed witnessing the elements of nature conspiring to push us toward certain awakening.

I read Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “BLK History Month,” earlier today, and I realized how often we use trees to underscore the importance of Black history and presence. And since the final #ThursdayTreeLove of the month falls on the last day of Black History Month (BHM) this year,  I’m ending with Giovanni’s poem, which uses a tree [?] analogy to challenge the argument that BHM is not needed.

“BLK History Month”
If Black History Month is not
viable then wind does not
carry the seeds and drop them
on fertile ground
rain does not
dampen the land
and encourage the seeds
to root
sun does not
warm the earth
and kiss the seedlings
and tell them plain:
You’re As Good As Anybody Else
You’ve Got A Place Here, Too
Nikki Giovanni, from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea

I am joining Parul Thakur for #ThursdayTreeLove every second and fourth Thursday of the month. If you would like to play along, post a picture of a tree on your blog and link it back to her latest #treelove post.

Walk with Truth

Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is black? …. Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other? –Sojourner Truth

I chuckled to myself when I realized the reason for today’s Google Doodle. Initially, I wondered why Sojourner Truth. Did the google gods discover today is her birthday? Then, it occurred to me today is the first day of Black History Month (BHM).

Why the chuckle? Because it’s predictable.

Sojourner Truth–like Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman–is almost always brought up when discussing anything related to Black history.

Do I mind? Not really.

I like Sojourner Truth. I like her moxie. I love how she stood up for herself when the odds were most certainly against her. There are a lot of amazing lessons in her life.

Today, I opened class by talking briefly with my first-year students about not allowing themselves to  be so focused on the mountain in the distance that they render themselves incapable of taking the tiny day-to-day steps that make conquering the mountain achievable.

I wish I’d thought to weave some of Sojourner Truth’s life into that brief talk.

Sojourner Truth didn’t look at the mountains in front of her and freeze with fear or run in the opposite direction. She didn’t see the obstacles of her skin color, her gender, or her status as enslaved person as barriers to conquering the insurmountable. As a result, among many other “unlikely” accomplishments, she won a lawsuit against her former “owner” who sold her son into slavery after the State of New York had declared slavery illegal. And while we haven’t quite figured out whether Sojourner Truth said “Ain’t I a woman?” or “Ar’n’t I a woman?” in her famous speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, the reality is even if she never said a single word, the fact that she showed up to a party she wasn’t invited to and insisted on her Black presence and humanity says enough for me.

She literally walked the path to freedom in her own truth and with a righteous insistence on her own humanness. As long as she held on to the essential value of her personhood, no racial or gender mountain could stand in the way of her truth.


The art above is part of the “Celebrating Women” banners that were on display at The Lower Eastside Girls Club’s Celebrate Cafe in New York City when I visited several years ago. If I remember correctly, each piece of art added to the banner was created by a young woman who was involved in the Club.

If you want to know more about Sojourner Truth, click any of the links above, particularly the Google link.