Remembering Two Who Mattered So Much
One of the things people do just after the start of a new year is look back at the year just passed and the events that had an impact on us as a nation, members of a group or groups, and as individuals. It is a necessary attempt, I believe, to “sum up;" to do that human thing of trying to make sense of whatever has happened: and make it make “sense.” We acknowledge certain things as ‘important’ or “vital,” and construct some sort of narrative. We need to put things in some sort of order and try to find meaning from doing that. This is one of the things that makes us human.
For me, this act often reminds me of the effects certain people have had on my life- how what they said, sang, wrote, played and/or stood for spoke to me and influenced me. I know Americans like to think of themselves as self-motivated and self-made, but I know that so much of who I am, how I think, and what I do I owe to others. People who encouraged me, guided me, provided an inspiration, gave me a new idea or new way of looking at things, and helped me see things in a different or clearer way. In 2019 I had the opportunity to think back on two particular people who played such roles in my life: the writers Ernest J. Gaines and Toni Morrison. I never got to meet them, and I heard them read live only one time each. But the impact they both had and have on my thinking, reading, looking at the world, and sense of what it means and meant to be an African-American in this country and in this time is immeasurable.
I came upon these writers in my early and mid-20’s-a time that is often the time of a quest for identity, self-knowledge, and exploration for so many of us. And it was a time-the 60’s into the late 70’s- when openly questioning narratives we were handed was supported by much of the culture. As I mentioned in my November 13th newsletter, written shortly after Gaines had died, I stumbled onto him via John Oliver’s great book, Interviews with Black Writers. I had not yet read him or many other Black Writers whose lives and works were not rooted in the urban arena with which I was familiar. But Gaines’ love of language and his upbringing, his sense of place, and his connection to Russian writers and to Faulkner drew me in. He was intriguing. And his themes and insights, as I started to read him, were startling in their power and importance. Stated and implied, his characters represented and illustrated different ideas about color, history, family, manhood and more, and they gave me tons of things to mull over for the next half century of my life. I began to understand and appreciate more fully my family’s Southern background and the way that past formed such a large and powerful part of this country’s history and culture. And as I was interacting with, meeting and learning from so many Southern bluesmen at that time, it was serendipitous.
Likewise, I came to Toni Morrison’s writing indirectly. She edited, The Black Book, that marvelous wide-ranging scrapbook of Black life both here and worldwide. That book exposed me to a lot of little-known tidbits of history, both big picture and small, and gave me tons of things to research and think about. I was also impressed that a major publishing company put all of the money and resources into a book about African-American life and had African-Americans write and edit it. And one of those editors, Toni Morrison, had a job as a full-time editor at this publishing company! This was 1974, after all, and it was a major development at that time. So when I saw a novel written by this same Toni Morrison, I just had to read it. Sula, her second novel, immediately grabbed me with its description of the thoughts and life of this sad but amazing and often infuriating woman who, because she had no art, became quite dangerous. Compelling, dramatically phrased, full of feeling and insight, Ms. Morrison’s prose cut into me like a Sonny Boy Williamson harp riff; intense, deep, and lovingly bringing me almost to the point of tears. Her way of depicting life in a small-town Ohio miles removed from my urban Philadelphia also widened my understanding of a whole other aspect of Black life and experience. Like Gaines’ Louisiana, this was literally new landscape for me, and it helped my appreciation and understanding of another segment of Black life and American life; my world was getting larger. So I joyously read more, including Song of Solomon, to me her greatest work. With its mix of magic, poetry, religion, identity, use of names, family relations, and pictures of different struggles to make meaning of life in this world, this is one of the most beautifully written and wonderfully complex books I have ever read. Thinking of some quotes and situations in that book still moves me today.
But the beauty and power of the writings of these two authors is so much more than just the socio-political. Their prose is magical, capable of conveying moments of wonder, insight, thoughtfulness, and beauty at the same time it is bringing their characters or a situation into focus. They are first and foremost WRITERS: people who create quiet miracles with the English language in ways that stick with a person and have him re-reading certain passages again and again:
“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind — wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”
“It came from a piece of old wood that he found in the yard somewhere. That's what we all are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we--each one of us, individually--decide to become something else.,,”
Ernest J. Gaines-A Lesson Before Dying
I am fortunate to have had the works of these two authorial “guiding lights” in my life. It is fitting, I think, that they both died in the same year and within months of each other. For they each came into my life in rapid succession and gave me much to drink in and enjoy, learn from, marvel at, and they both deepened my sense of myself, the world and the places where they interact. Thank you, Brave Authors. Thank you for the pleasure, surprise, beauty and knowledge your words gave me.
(Here are links to my newsletters after the deaths of each of these authors)