The past few days have been brutal in this country. Within the span of 24 hours, at least 31 people died in two mass shootings, one in Dayton and another in El Paso. Hatred, white toxic masculinity, and bigotry expressed through extreme violence. It is unfathomable, inhumane. It is domestic terrorism. Eight months into 2019, we have endured 255 mass shootings just this year.
In the past two days, calls to action and pressure against the empty offerings of ‘thoughts and prayers’ have rightfully followed, along with a poem by Brian Bilston with the chilling refrain, “America is a gun.” How could we not be, if this is what we allow, when so many children and mothers and fathers and beloveds have been shot in vain, in grocery stores, places of worship, schools, offices, any hour of the day? In service of white supremacy, more often than not? We are crushed beneath the weight of this violence, and we are all at risk.
Today, we also learned of the death of one of the most cherished, prolific American authors of all time: Toni Morrison. Her body of work is not only exemplary of intellectual brilliance and literary mastery, but also grounded by a felt-sense of embodiment – what it means to carry generations of trauma and pain within one’s body – and therefore, the urgency of justice work.
She once said, “Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.” As a black woman in this country of ours, with its simultaneous ignorance, promise, and history of profound violence, Morrison mined the depths of black experience, identity, suffering to illumine the power of a people who survives, creates, endures, and loves through immeasurable strength and communal bonds. I am in no position to summate the impact or nature of legacy, but today, as I have contemplated the indelible impression her words have left upon my heart, I am only left with gratitude and awe. She was and remains powerful, beautiful.
It is poignant that we grieve Toni Morrison’s life today, a day in which we reckon with what fans the flames of hatred in the United States, for her writing, her speeches, her presence, her art stood in robust resistance to the forces of dehumanization, reduction, caricature, and violence. In Sula, Morrison wrote of despair, “It was a fine cry – long and loud – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” Morrison was a wise woman, who knew of both beauty and cruelty, of sorrow and of the preciousness of life. Let the tears fall for what has been lost and for the injustice that is sustained. Grief is an expression of our humanity; it isn’t everything, but it is a start.
If you have not had the pleasure of reading Toni Morrison, go read any one of her books. It will be a humbling, educating, and enlightening experience, forcing you to look at your own complicity in the systems and history that have shaped American cultural life over time and in the present, but to read her words is life-giving honor, I promise you that.
In the words of dear Toni Morrison, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
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.”
* * *
This, too. This, too. This, too.