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

Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance: Dunbar-Nelson, Grimke, Fauset, and Spencer

One of the things I miss about our move from New Orleans to Alabama and to another university is facilitating courses in African American literature, particularly 19th and early 20th century literature. A friend recently gifted me an amazing set of postcards that exacerbated my desire to teach the literature.

The postcard project, Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance: The Found Generation, coordinated by Sona L. Chambers and edited by Gail Cohee and Leslie Lewis, features 26 photographs of African American women writers, scholars, entertainers, artists, and political thinkers of the 1920s and 30s. The collection “uncovers the personal and political conflicts” and “remind us of triumphs as well as ongoing struggles of African American women” from 1920-1932, “a time during which Harlem was the focus of a new spirit of race consciousness and pride, embodied in a veritable explosion of artistic, literary, political, and intellectual activity.”

At the mention of the Harlem Renaissance, most people quickly identify writers like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Arna Bontemps, Alain Locke, who were all men. Even though there are quite a number of women writers, we hear of few of them outside or inside the classroom. In fact, Zora Neale Hurston is typically the only woman writer of the era with which some are familiar.  And with the exception of Ethel Waters, many are unfamiliar with the many women entertainers of the era.

Today, I’m using the postcards to introduce you to (or maybe, reacquaint you with) four women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I will introduce other writers, singers, and entertainers from the collection over the next several weeks.

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, one of the first African American women to voice the “lyric cry” of the Harlem Renaissance, was unique as both a precursor to and central participant in the movement. The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, edited by her and dedicated to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, to whom she was briefly married, was the movement’s first anthology. Educated as an English teacher at Straight University (now Dillard University) in her native New Orleans, she found early success as a writer of short stories exploring the lives of the region’s Creoles and Cajuns. Her careers included public lecturer, parole officer, suffragist, politician, and civic worker. She headed the Anti-Lynching Crusade in Delaware and helped to draft the Black club women’s 1920 political manifesto, A Platform of the Colored Women of America.  Although certainly best known for her still-uncollected poems, particularly, “I Sit and Sew,” and now for her remarkable diary, Dunbar-Nelson was known during the period as a prolific journalist whose essays, book reviews, and stage reviews appeared regularly in such magazines as The Crisis, Opportunity, and Colliers. –Sharon G. Dean

See some of Dunbar-Nelson’s poetry here: Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson.

Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958)

Angelina Weld Grimké was a gifted poet, dramatist, and teacher. She was born in Boston to a former slave father and a white Bostonian mother. Although primarily reared by her father, Grimké was also influenced by her famed abolitionist-feminist aunts, Sarah M. Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld. After graduating from the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902, Grimké began a long teaching career in Washington, D.C. She became a regular member of the African-American artistic circle that gathered around Georgia Douglas Johnson. In the 1920s, Grimké’s poems began appearing in Opportunity and The Crisis. Her works also appeared in several Harlem Renaissance anthologies, including Alain Locke’s 1925 collection The New Negro. Grimké’s poetry tended to avoid racial subjects, but her three-act play, Rachel, was an angry and painful drama about the personal impact of lynching. The vast majority of Grimké’s poetry remained unpublished during her lifetime, perhaps because of its explicit “woman-identified” voice.  –Eric Garber

See some of Grimké’s poetry here: Angelina Weld Grimké.

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961)

Jessie Redmon Fauset, the first Black woman to be selected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor fraternity (Cornell 1905), also earned advanced degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Sorbonne, Paris. In 1919, after fourteen years of teaching French at Dunbar High School, Washington D.C., Fauset left teaching for New York City and the offices of the NAACP’s publication, The Crisis. As literary editor  from of The Crisis from 1919-1926, Fauset was one of the people who “mid-wifed” the Harlem Renaissance into being by publishing numerous writers who later became well known. She was also an accomplished writer, publishing four novels between 1922 and 1933, and hundreds of poems, essays, articles, reviews, and children’s works. Many of the latter appeared in the twenty-four issues of the children’s magazine she also edited, The Brownies’ Book (1920-21). –Carolyn Wedin

See some of Fauset’s poetry here: Jessie Redmon Fauset.

Anne Spencer (1882-1975)

Anne Spencer was hailed by critics of the Harlem Renaissance as its most technically sophisticated and modern poet. Born Annie Bethel Bannister to newly freed slaves in Henry County, Virginia. Anne Spencer (as she was “pen-named” by friend and mentor James Weldon Johnson) was, like many of her Harlem Renaissance sisters already 40 and a working mother of three at the movement’s outset. Strongly influenced by Olive Schreiner, Spencer’s poems are more about gender than race, about rebellious wives, male fantasies, muses, and washerwomen. Yet she founded her hometown of Lynchburg’s first NAACP chapter, spent 20 fitful years as librarian at that town’s Jim Crow library, protested segregation, wore pants as an adult, founded a suffrage club, and cultivated a renowned garden that became both the metaphorical center of her poems, her “soul,” and the centerpiece of what is now an historical landmark–her home and writing cottage. Anne Spencer is the most consistently anthologized woman poet of the Harlem Renaissance. –Sharon G. Dean

See some of Anne Spencer’s poetry here: Anne Spencer.  Also, check out the Anne Spencer Museum site.

I hope this feeds your literary soul this weekend…

Until next time…

 

Lessons in Art and Piano

Pure exhaustion made me miss my “Focus on Black” post last Friday, so I’m posting this morning to avoid the same mistake this week.

Today, I’m using children’s art to “introduce” African American artist Romare Bearden.  Even though Bearden is far from an “unknown” artist, few people know who I’m talking about when I reference his work:

Considered one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, Romare Bearden’s artwork depicted the African-American culture and experience in creative and thought provoking ways. Born in North Carolina in 1912, Bearden spent much of his career in New York City. Virtually self-taught, his early works were realistic images, often with religious themes. He later transitioned to abstract and Cubist style paintings in oil and watercolor. He is best known for his photomontage compositions made from torn images of popular magazines and assembled into visually powerful statements on African-American life.  -from Biography.com

Last year, my favorite (now retired) second grade teacher, Mrs. Crarey, introduced her students to Bearden’s work. They studied his art, noted his interest in jazz music–which influenced some of his art–learned about his collage technique and then created their own Bearden-esque masterpieces. [Click an image for a closer look]

The children used rulers, pencils, Sharpies, crayons, and markers to imitate Bearden’s collage style. As you can see, they used piano keys patterns for their borders.

I pretty much love everything Bearden created.  The Piano Lesson: Homage to Mary Lou is my favorite, probably because it was the masterpiece that inspired African American playwright August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, one of my favorite plays.

The piece was inspired by jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams who collaborated with Bearden’s wife, Nannette, on a musical and dance composition.  If you are familiar with Henri Matisse’s The Piano Lesson and The Music Lesson, you will see his influence on the work as well.

There are two versions of the work–the original:

Romare Bearden’s  “The Piano Lesson: Homage to Mary Lou” (popularly known as “The Piano Lesson”). Watercolor, acrylic, graphite and printed paper collage on paper.

And a signed lithograph:

Romare Bearden, “The Piano Lesson,” Lithograph

For more about Bearden’s life and influences, click the links below:

The Bearden Foundation’s page features more resources such as a timeline and an impressive collection of Romare Bearden’s artwork.

Until next time…

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938. Poet, novelist, statesman, civil rights leader, lawyer. Artist, Winold Reiss (1886-1953). Pastel on artist board.

The song dubbed “The Black National Anthem” should need no introduction, but I learned last October–moments after I posted an article focused on the University of Florida’s playing the song at the arrival of white supremacists on campus–that many Americans are not familiar with the song. In fact, one (Euro-American) friend uncharacteristically responded by declaring UF’s actions “racist.”

[We’ll save discussion about how that action could not have been “racist” for another time].

My friend’s judgment was based on the title of the article. She had never heard the song.

That surprised me. I’m pretty sure I initially learned the song at the majority white elementary school I attended, so I assumed it was standard for elementary kids in the U.S. Not so, I guess.

So what is the “Black National Anthem?”

The  “song,” actually entitled “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was written as a poem by African American poet James Weldon Johnson to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It was later set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson.

The song gained popularity, was adopted by the NAACP, and was dubbed “The Black National Anthem.” But if we pay close attention to the lyrics, we’ll find that even though the song resonates with African Americans, it speaks to a broad American experience, one that in spite of its “informal” title, celebrates our collective history, freedom, and unity, one that speaks of faith and hope. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” feels more inclusive than the official national anthem of the U.S.A., “The Star Spangled Banner.”

I invite you to read the lyrics.

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Then, listen to this amazing arrangement sung by the “Choir of the World,” the Aeolians of Oakwood University:

See the Poetry Foundation for a a brief biography which references James Weldon Johnson’s extensive bibliography. A favorite for many is God’s Trombones.

Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month, and “Lifting the Veil of Ignorance”

Did you see yesterday’s (February 1) Google doodle? The doodle appropriately featured “The Father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson, and, when clicked, provided links to the many articles and websites focused on Woodson.

If you missed it, here it is [image links to Google search on Woodson].

Google Doodle by Artist Shannon Wright

Woodson was concerned about the role of African Americans in history. He wrote of the history and hoped to “lift the veil of ignorance.” His work, The Miseducation of the Negro (1933), which critiques the American educational system for its failures to include accurate and deep attention to Black history, is still relevant, valued reading at many colleges and universities. He founded the Association of Negro Life and History (now, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and launched Black History Week which later expanded into Black History Month.

Every February, we face the same questions about why there is a need for Black History Month (BHM); we endure the same declarations that BHM is “racist,” or that it valorizes one “race” over another. It’s frustrating to hear these statements year after year after year; they unveil a myopic view of the USA and its peoples that rejects any well-reasoned response.

As many times as we’ve explained that American history, as typically taught, erases the full participation of nonwhites from the narratives, some people simply can’t/don’t/won’t get it. They continue to rant and rave that if “African Americans contributed, then they’d be in our history books.”

I no longer waste my energy.

If our schools offered comprehensive study and examination of American history–that included the contributions of all Americans–perhaps, there would be a reason for the question.

But they don’t.

Even with BHM, the same names are repeated with little attention to the broader work, contributions, struggles, and progress of African Americans.

Boondocks Comic Strip, Aaron McGruder, February 8, 2000.

Another point many people miss is that BHM is not a “national holiday for Blacks only.”  It provides an opportunity for all Americans to educate themselves on the work of African Americans who have “made history” because of their contributions in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), medicine, music, literature, law, philosophy, dance, psychology, social justice, athletics, and so much more.

[I found the cartoon above on an IG page. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the original author. Forgive the misspelling of “y’all,” but please don’t miss the point].

Instead of writing for pages about why we still need Black History Month in the USA, I’ll leave you with a few links to articles that provide background information and that sufficiently make the point.

And for laughs–or a good cry–check out the brilliant and (necessarily?) irreverent satire of Aaron McGruder on Black History Month: Black History Month in “The Boondocks.”

Until next time…

The Fortunate One: St. Josephine Bakhita

Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself, ‘Who could be the Master of these beautiful things?’ I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to pay him homage.    –St. Josephine Bakhita

Today’s “Focus on Black” post comes because I was a little surprised to learn that many people I spoke with could not name one Black saint, though even if not Catholic, they knew the names of European saints. Indeed, the only individuals I spoke to who knew about Black saints were two students who attended Catholic primary and secondary schools.

So, though there are many Black saints, today I’m introducing you to St. Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947), Patron Saint of the Sudan.

Saint Josephine Bakhita, 2003. Oil on canvas. Artist, Janet McKenzie

We know very little about Bakhita’s early life, but she was born into a prominent family in the western Darfur region of Sudan. Her path to sainthood began with terror:

She and a friend were walking through a field in her native Sudan when she was abducted by armed slave traders.  She was so terrified upon capture that she forgot her name. The slavers called her “Bakhita,” which means fortunate.

Bakhita endured terrible cruelty at the hands of a succession of owners. Her fortunes truly changed when she was

purchased by Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who treated her with kindness and respect. Legani left her with a friend, Augusto Michieli, and his wife in Italy.  Bakhita served as caretaker of their newborn daughter, Mimmina.  When business required the Michielis to travel, they entrusted the girls to the Canossia Sisters of the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice. There, Bakhita came to understand the God who had given her the fortitude to overcome the hardships of slavery. After several months, she received the sacraments of initiation and was given the name Josephine. She remained with the Sisters and served as a nun for the rest of her life, beloved for her kindness to children and visitors to the Institute.  When she died her body was displayed for several days as thousands came to pay their respects. –from 365 Days of Black History, I Only Know the Story

St. Josephine Bakhita, the first saint of Sudan, was canonized–made a saint–on October 1, 2000.

At her canonization ceremony, Pope John II said of her:

In today’s world, countless women continue to be victimized, even in developed modern societies. In St. Josephine Bakhita we find a shining advocate of genuine emancipation. The history of her life inspires not passive acceptance but the firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence, and to return them to their dignity in the full exercise of their rights.

To learn more, see:

For more black saints, see:

Until next time…