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

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

“Montgomery on My Mind”

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically…No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in –Rosa Parks

My colleague, Dr. Ramona Hyman, always has “Montgomery” and its rich Civil Rights history “on [her] mind.” Thanks to her, I have Montgomery, Alabama on my mind too as I prepare to spend a couple of days there with her and several Huntsville educators “Revisiting the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” The educators are working on integrating this piece of history into their K-12 classes. I have a different research agenda–as I’m thinking through a project on women’s involvement in critical moments in history.

Today is a perfect time to share some of the Rosa Parks postcards in my collection. I’ve had them for quite some time, but now that I’m thinking about Montgomery, it’s an appropriate time to share.

Many people know about her contribution to American civil rights and history, but just in case you don’t know–Rosa Parks is considered the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” Her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955 “triggered a wave of protests that reverberated throughout the United States.” The boycott lasted for more than a year and ultimately catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into national prominence. The boycotts led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on city buses.

Here are three related postcards from my collection:

The “Rosa Parks Bus” at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan

From the postcard back:

Montgomery City Bus 2857. Originally built in 1948 in Pontiac, Michigan, Bus 2857 was operated by the Montgomery City Bus Lines in Montgomery, Alabama from 1954-1971. Rosa Parks was riding this bus on the evening of December 1, 1955 when she was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man. This incident sparked subsequent civil rights protests, especially the boycott of Montgomery’s bus system. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the beginning of a revolutionary era of non-violent mass protests in support of civil rights in the United States. The yearlong boycott kept Montgomery’s [black population] off all buses until December 1956 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of public transportation was unconstitutional. Bus 2857 was retired and sold in 1971. After sitting for 30 years in a field, the bus was purchased by auction by The Henry Ford [Museum} and has been restored to appear as it did in 1955. The bus is now on display in the Henry Ford Museum.

You can find more details about the purchase and restoration of the bus here: Restoring the Rosa Parks Bus.

Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white man.

The postcard, featuring the familiar image of Parks being fingerprinted, comes from the Women Who Dared collection sent to me during Women’s History Month several years ago. The sender added a Parks quote:

Each person must live life as a model for others. –Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

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 (2010, maybe?). If I remember correctly, each banner was created by a young woman who was involved in the Club.

You can find out a lot more about Rosa Parks by reading her biography on the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute website. You’ll find that she was much more than the woman who refused to give up her seat.

“A Hymn for Montgomery 55” by Ramona Hyman
from her collection, In the Sanctuary of the South

Holy, holy, holy: a hymn of praise
For prophets framing freedom
In Montgomery 55: Strange fruits marching–some
Walking, some crawling–some…

Holy, holy, holy–a hymn of praise
Emptying itself
Americans: black and white; hand in hand
Saintly sighing a freedom song of praise

Holy, holy, holy–the march raises
Into victory: freedom swells, the flag: separate
And unequal shreds into the face of anxious
Soldiers–black and white jumping the broom
Into a new day–the Civil Rights Movement begins

“My Hair Is Not an Apology”

ENSEIGNE AFRICAINE. “Coiffeur de Dames,” Cotonou, Benin. Photographed by Lionel Adenis (Postcard from my collection. Purchased).

Every semester I choose a “theme” for my first year writing courses. The past semester’s focus–one word–misogynoir.

Misogynoir is an amalgam of the word “misogyny” (dislike or contempt for women) and “noir,” the French word for “black.”

Moya Bailey coined the term to “describe the racialized misogyny aimed at black women.” But many were writing and thinking about misogynoir long before there was a word for it. In fact, I recall writing an essay in junior high about intra-racism and the experiences of darker hued Black women in New Orleans. Basically, all the work of my “professional life” is a response to misogynoir.

In my classes, our goal was to find constructive strategies to cope with and combat the effects of misogynoir. Discussions covered many topics: images of black women in the media–including social media; representations of black women in music, film, art, literature; controlling images of black women; black women’s invisibility; politics; health and housing disparities; police brutality; systemic biases and treatment. The list goes on and on and on.

Obviously, there was no way we could cover all the topics, particularly since new issues emerge(d) frequently. But it was interesting  to note how often black women’s hair entered the conversation.

Of all things.

Books have been written about it. Documentaries filmed. Policy written. Memes created. Regular discussions held around the dinner table and on social media.

Black women’s hair.  

Little black girls are removed from classrooms. Nursing students are “forced” out of programs. Professional women are fired. Because of  hair. Because of hair. Because of hair.

Let that sink in.

Black women are targeted when we refuse to press or relax our hair, when we insist on loving our natural selves–including our hair–when we reject conformity in favor of self-love, when we shun the European “standard” of beauty because we know there are countless ways to be beautiful.

I’m not sure other women are advised [urged] to damage their hair to make it [read: themselves] more presentable, or told their hair is intimidating.

Does this happen to non-Black women?

When they were undergraduates, my [former] students, Lauren and Jasmin, performed a powerful piece on this very topic. Take a listen.

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…