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

Our Hearts Unhinged…

“Non-violence.” Photo by Louise Mamet, Caen WWII Memorial.

A few years ago, following the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, President Obama said “our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” His argument was that we must back up our prayers with action–legislation that makes it difficult for individuals to purchase the type of weapons that can enact a massacre in seconds.

“Thoughts and prayers,” was again the trite refrain following two mass shootings in the United States this weekend. But neither thoughts and prayers nor legislation are enough. Sadly, no gun legislation will prevent hate and misdirected anger; determined people will always find a way to accomplish their nefarious goals.

As a nation we must do soul work. “Faith without works is dead,” so God to Whom we direct our prayers expects us to do the work. We must wrestle with the ugly truths that are part of who we are, that make such actions possible.

We must unearth the thing in people’s hearts that breeds thoughts that result in wanton disregard for life. We must work to transform individuals and the soul of our nation from the inside out.

We’re weary, yes, but from the weariness we must find a different path.

This year, we’ve done laps around despair;
and we’ve grown tired of running in circles
so we stepped off the track and began to walk.
As the earth shifted beneath our feet,
we moved forward together. Our hearts
unhinged, guide us toward a [nation]
remade by love, into a future
that our past could never have imagined,
beginning today.

Excerpt from “Reimagining History,” by Marcus Amaker and Marjory Wentworth for the 2016 Charleston Mayoral Inauguration.


About the image: Today’s image was shot by my photographer friend Louise Mamet at the Caen WWII Memorial in Normandy. Thank you for the use of your image, Louise!

microblog

A Fortunate Find: A PhotoArt Journal

“A Fortunate Find.” PhotoArt by Diane W.

One of the most gorgeous mail packages I received this year came from my photog friend and art journaler, Diane W, aka midteacher on swap-bot. If you’ve been following along for a while, you might remember that she enjoys working her photographs into mixed media works of art using paint, fabric, paper, washi tape, and other materials.

“Mail Call.” PhotoArt by Diane W.

Over the years, I’ve watched her skills develop and evolve and her projects become more and more complex and beautiful. Sometimes the beauty is difficult to convey through photos.

“There Is Beauty in Simplicity.” PhotoArt by Diane W.

Such is the case with a photo journal she sent early this year for a “Favorite Photos of 2018” swap. The swap invited photographers to look through the photos they shot the past year and select those that brought them the most pleasure.

“Went Off Bravely.” PhotoArt by Diane W.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to share this project on my blog for months! Beyond the visual, there’s the heart that goes into her work, and that can’t be captured.

Diane is attentive to every detail–from cover to cover.

Photojournal Cover by Diane W.

On the binding, she “dangled” charms that feature my interests and personality–an owl, (sun)glasses, leaves (trees!), and of course, a camera and a sunflower!

“Charmed Binding” by Diane W.

I know Diane chose her favorite photos, but her selection aligns with my loves–sunsets, vintage/unique mailboxes, [places of] solitude, leaves, rusty old things, autumn, and sunflowers.

“There Is a Strange Fascination.” PhotoArt by Diane W.

I l-o-v-e the way she arranged the elements on pages. I also love, love, love how she affixed to each page a phrase perfectly matched for the featured photo. How did she do that?

“Just at the Moment.” PhotoArt by Diane W.

I’ve placed [photos of the] pages throughout the post, but I’m not convinced this is the best way to share.

After the fact, I realized I could have created an “unpacking video,” so you could experience my glee and the heart and soul that went into the journal. Unfortunately, I don’t pause long enough to think of a video when I receive mail– especially when beautiful envelopes like this are pulled from the box:

My original plan was to write individual posts for each page of the journal, but after reviewing my backlog of “to be blogged” materials, I decided to choose a few. Soooo…I look forward to giving the four below their hour in the sun. [Click an image fo a closer look].

And guess what! I have another art project from Diane that’s been on “blog hold” even longer, so we have that to look forward to also.

Diane has been encouraging me for a couple of years now to venture out of my digital comfort zone and start “making a mess” with my photographs. I have far too many creative irons in the fire, but I’m beginning to see how this can work with my writing.

I’ll get there, Diane. Eventually. I will.

You can find Diane blogging about photography, her art journals, and “a focused journey” on her blog and on Instagram. I’m sure she’d love for you to follow and play along.

Have a fantastic week!

Art Mail and Watercolor Therapy

As I mentioned a month or so ago, I’ve been “doing art” to combat some of life’s stressors. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve been able to pull off. In fact, one of my friends loved my doodles and drawings so much that she chose one as her new logo. Wow–right?

Thanks to artist and blogger Deb Breton, I’ve now added watercolor to my daily art therapy sessions. She sent an art mail package that contained a set of 12 watercolor pencils, a 9×12 watercolor pad, and a print featuring “Birds on a Wire,” one of her first watercolors. Squeal!

I played with the pencils all weekend, familiarizing myself with the medium. I prefer a smaller canvas, so I cut the paper down to 4×6 and experimented with the watercolor pencils, ink, and regular colored pencils. Here’s a sampling of my weekend fun.

Trying out the pencils.

My first not so great background–which I tried to redeem with a doodled flower and a “feel good” quote.

A better background. I have plans to add a poem and doodles or a photo.

My third attempt at flowers. Same quote.

The “paintings” actually look better “in real life,” but they’re still far from perfect. Of course, perfection is not the point. In fact, it’s freeing to have less expectations, so I can continue to experiment and have fun without the pressure.

Before you go, be sure to click one of the links above and check out Deb’s “Birds on a Wire” and her other work. I’m always inspired by her creativity!

Thank you, Deb, for making my life a little more artful!

Acquainted with the Night: A Painting and a Poem

“A Yorkshire Lane in November 1873,” by John Atkinson Grimshaw

An Extra Hour? What Would You Do?

“Starfish and Seashell,” Photo by Catwoman. Postallove.com

“If I had an extra hour every day I would…”

That was one of the topics for “Postcards with Prompts,” a fun swap-bot postcard series I participated in last year.

Swapper Susan sent the beach-themed postcard above with her response:

If I had an extra hour every day, I would go to the beach and walk on the sand and in the water and collect shells. I love the beach and I don’t go there often enough.”

I can certainly use an extra hour each day. I would use it wisely, of course, and take the extra hour to sleep or read for pleasure. From August to May, there’s never enough of either, and I literally dream of getting sleep and reading something that I don’t have to think about once I turn the last page.

I love the ocean, though, so maybe, I’d simply sit quietly at the beach. I’m certain of one thing–I would not squander my extra hour on work. There’s always too much of that!

What would you do with an extra hour each day?