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

Joy Break 3 | Infallible Sign | #Wordless Wednesday

Raven’s Joy I

Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.
–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

For today’s #WordlessWednesday, I’m sharing three photos my Raven shot with her “not iPhone” while on a walk yesterday. 🙂 She texted the photos to me with the message that she “thought to flower up [my] day.” I smiled from the inside out at this beautiful tribute to my love for photographing nature.

Raven’s Joy II

The message was timely. I spent much of yesterday fretting about an “unfairness” over which I have little control, and Raven’s joy served as a powerful sign of God’s presence.

Raven’s Joy III

Thank you, Raven for sharing your light and joy!

Be the Light!

My home office is a complete, utter mess. The books and papers are literally closing in on me. There is a narrow path from the door to the desk and my favorite thinking place–the window. Other than that, every space is covered with stacks of books and piles of paper.

At some point, I’ll spend a day or two getting things back in order. For now, I’m glad I kept the many beautiful works of art created by swap-bot and Love Notes pals separate from the madness–especially since I have a lot of “catch-up sharing” to do this summer.

Today, I’m sharing a couple of postcards that remind us of the [potential] role we play in the life of each person we encounter.

The first card came from Martha S. of Postcards in the Air.

“Be the Light.” Artwork by Martha S.

Martha’s cheerful watercolor urges us to “be a light in someone’s life.” Her work has been featured on Pics and Posts many times. My favorites are her autumn leaves and the über cute raccoon watercolor.  Be sure to check out her blog for more of her work and musings.

The card below, also a watercolor, came from Rae L. I hadn’t seen her in my mailbox in ages, so I was overjoyed to receive this pretty card.

“Flowers.” Artwork by Rae L.

Rae included a Mother Teresa quote with her flowers:

Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love. –Mother Teresa

I truly appreciate the messages of love and light. The world can be lonely, dark, and cold, so the work of light workers is critical. If you think you have very little to offer, remember, even the smallest flicker radiates tremendous light.

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!

I.M.A.G.I.N.E.

“From Mother’s Garden.” Photo by Christine B.

Yesterday, our university president, Dr. Les, began a day-long meeting with inviting faculty and staff to think about those with whom we work who have gone out of the way, demonstrated genuine care, and made a positive impact on our lives during the “just completed” academic year. After contemplation, six were selected to share their stories and express gratitude to those individuals. This was an excellent move, and I was heartened after hearing each story.

It’s good to know that people see us as living, breathing, complex beings and not just a cog in the machinery. Furthermore, it’s good to know that we are not alone and there are always those who are willing to “take the burden” or lift us up with words and deeds.

This “lifting” must have been Peggy’s motivation when she wrote Love Notes 27, Prompt 2. The prompt was “Imagine,” and she used each letter of the word to craft seven perfect affirmations:

I think you are magic
My dreams for you are in technicolor
A light inside you shines so bright
Good things are rushing towards you
I believe in you
Never stop exploring your soul
Everything good and beautiful is meant for you

I receive with gratitude each statement as a perfect gift to carry–to bless and inspire others.

What do you imagine for others in your life? How do you help them move from imagination to practice/reality?


About the Image: Today’s purple flowers were shot by another Love Noter, my penfriend Christine B. It was the card she sent for International Women’s Month. The flowers are from her mother’s garden, sent to honor me and the memory of my sister Lori. Hugs, Christine.

Sunflowers and Connection

I participated in the latest round of Love Notes and made a new penfriend!

Peggy L, my partner for Love Notes 27, is a retired nurse who’s finding her way to other “identities” and embracing the artist within. Her messages were sweet and cheerful and I looked forward to retrieving each from my post office box each week.

In response to the first prompt, “I invite you to…,” Peggy wrote:

I invite you to believe that we are all connected and that we can and will change the world together. I invite you to join me in a peace army, a joy tribe, a group of women who KNOW that we are the answer we have been waiting for!

Isn’t this beautiful? It fits perfectly with the woman-empowered inspiration of my Women’s History Month posts. Also, thanks to this note, I finally figured out what to do with the beautiful love notes and messages I receive. Instead of keeping them in a box or album, I’m making them a part of my journaling. Yay!

I’ll be sharing Peggy’s responses to the prompts this week along with images that feature a couple of favorites we have in common–sunflowers and purple!


About today’s image: I spotted surprise sunflowers dancing in the wind while returning from an errand on campus. They were part of a giant bouquet placed near the entry to one of the dormitories. It was a happy find!

The person who placed the bouquet happened by and chatted with me while I photographed the sunflowers. She was torn. She wanted to take the flowers to her room, but felt it would be selfish. I assured her that since the flowers were given to her (instead of being tossed at the end of an event), she was not being selfish. I invited her to enjoy the flowers for herself! 🙂 Besides, cut flowers last longer indoors than outdoors.