Toni Morrison Tried to Teach Us to be Brave.
I haven't learned that lesson yet.
I like to think I’m reasonably strong and adaptable to most situations, but every now and then I feel myself weakening and giving in to fear. I was a child during WWII, scared of everything from loud noises to nighttime air raid drills, but I don’t remember feeling this much fear, even then. Or since.
These are troubling, crazy times, I don’t have to tell you. We’re all feeling it, whether or not we talk about it—and I’m inclined to talk about it less and less. That’s not like me. So of course I’ve been fretting about it.
This is Black History Month, and I’ve been thinking of those writers who made a difference when everyone else was trying to figure out what to do about the race issue and other human failures.
I thought about James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou and, of course, Toni Morrison. I knew I had written about her before and I thought I had shared my piece here, but I see now I hadn’t.
When I read this piece again, I was startled at how it morphed from an appreciation of Morrison to my own heartache over the atrocities taking place in our own country in 2019. I’d forgotten most of it, but I hope I’ve learned enough from Toni Morrison to keep on.
I needed this today. I’m sharing it in case you do, too.
Originally published at my Medium publication, Indelible Ink, August 8, 2019.
“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.”
Toni Morrison died this week. She was a writer who became a national treasure by beautifully, memorably articulating rage and anguish and forgiveness. She understood the human condition and brought us to a place where many of us had to face our own prejudices and our own fears. By the sheer, exhausting energy of her work, she made us see.
She was a black writer who wrote stories about black people we could love and hate and long to wrap their heaving, grieving bodies in our arms. Nobody wrote about self-destruction, self-sacrifice, and self-worth as brutally as she did. All of her characters, male and female, came to life under her pen, and, at times, her awesome bravery unnerved me and took my breath away.
She reminds us, in that quote above, that, as artists, as writers, as musicians, we are the witnesses, the bearers of truth. We have the means and the ability to be the agents of change. We hold among us the tools to reach even the hardest of quivering hearts. But tools aren’t enough when we’re trying to turn art into advocacy. It takes unwavering bravery, a willingness to go into battle armed with nothing more than our words.
My biggest fear is that I’m no longer up to it.
I started this piece with her quote, not knowing where I’m going with it or what I want to say. I’m tired. I want to be the best Toni Morrison wants me to be, but, while my heart is raging and in daily pain, at the end of the day my words are paltry and pitiful and not worth the time it takes to put them down here.
Yesterday in Mississippi, more than 600 workers were rounded up by ICE — the American Gestapo — in several food plants and taken away while their children cried and begged the men who did this not to do it. Calls are going out today for food and clothing and shelter for the terrified children left behind. American citizens with that kind of authority took those people away. These people, I keep telling myself, were at work. They weren’t out causing trouble, they were at work.
LAUREL, Miss. — The largest single-workplace immigration raid in U.S. history has caused panic among Hispanic families in this small southern Mississippi town, where federal agents rounded up nearly 600 plant workers suspected of being in the country illegally.
One worker caught in Monday’s sweep at the Howard Industries transformer plant said fellow workers applauded as immigrants were taken into custody. Federal officials said a tip from a union member prompted them to start investigating several years ago.
Fabiola Pena, 21, cradled her 2-year-old daughter as she described a chaotic scene at the plant as the raid began, followed by clapping.
“I was crying the whole time. I didn’t know what to do,” Pena said. “We didn’t know what was happening because everyone started running. Some people thought it was a bomb but then we figured out it was immigration.”
A Detroit man who was born in Greece and had lived in the U.S since he was six months old, was deported to Iraq, a country where he’d never been, where he didn’t understand the language, and where he has died on the streets for lack of his life-saving insulin.
Immigration attorney Edward Bajoka, who described himself as a close family friend of the Aldaouds, said Aldaoud suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and his mental illness led to encounters with the law in Michigan, including disorderly conduct and home invasion charges, which prompted his deportation to Iraq. “I don’t understand the language. I’ve been sleeping in the street,” Aldaoud said in the video of his new life in Iraq. “I’m diabetic. I can’t get insulin shots. I’ve been throwing up, sleeping in the streets, trying to find something to eat. I’ve got nothing over here.”
“Jimmy Aldaoud, a Chaldean resident of Oakland County, should have never been sent to Iraq,” Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, said in a statement on Twitter. “It was clear that deporting Jimmy to a country where he had never been, had no identification, had no family, had no knowledge of geography or customs, did not speak the language and ultimately, had no access to medical care, would put his life in extreme danger.”
In Boston, police rounded up the wheelchairs of the homeless and threw them into waiting garbage trucks. They tossed away their few belongings and left them devastated and destitute.
Police in Boston Tuesday night reportedly destroyed three wheelchairs belonging to homeless city residents in a garbage truck compactor as part of a crackdown targeting the city’s transient population.
“Operation Clean Sweep” began August 2 after a county corrections officer was allegedly struck during a fight involving a number of people on “Methadone Mile,” a stretch of the city near Massachusetts Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard where there are a number of clinics and treatment centers. The area has a high homeless population, many of whom have been the target of the operation in the five days and counting it has continued.
The destruction of the wheelchairs is only the latest incident involving the trashing of the possessions of homeless people in the operation.
Those three stories drove me to the verge of depression yesterday, but I could pull dozens of them out of the news every single day. They all involve needless cruelty, a disregard for humanity, a corruption of laws that are there to help instead of harm every human being, regardless of status or ethnicity or color.
I’m tired of saying “We’re better than this”, when we’re clearly not. I’m tired of ignoring how un-American and deliberately destructive the phrase “Make America Great Again” has become.
I’m sickened by Donald Trump’s rise to power, his path toward authoritarianism cleared for him by racists and misogynists and people too privileged, too comfortable, to ever be willing to take up the fight against him.
I’m making this personal because everything I read these days is like a punch in the gut. I feel it. I hate it. And I hate even more my own impotence. I’m the mother who wants to comfort every single innocent person this regime has singled out for persecution. I’m the child crying out in pain and fear. I’m the citizen who grew up believing decency would eventually prevail. I’m the old woman who watches in disbelief as everything I’ve worked my entire life to protect withers and dies under the dirty thumbs of unworthy, dictatorial men in power.
This is not art. This is bleeding in public. It’s all I can do right now.
But, yes, Toni, I refuse to succumb.
Keep talking to me.
I need you.
“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.
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This is art -----> "I’m making this personal because everything I read these days is like a punch in the gut. I feel it. I hate it. And I hate even more my own impotence. I’m the mother who wants to comfort every single innocent person this regime has singled out for persecution. I’m the child crying out in pain and fear. I’m a citizen who grew up believing decency would eventually prevail. I’m the old woman who watches in disbelief as everything I’ve worked my entire life to protect withers and dies under the dirty thumbs of unworthy, dictatorial men in power."
Earlier this week, I read an article on Gayl Jones in the NYT 9/17/2021. I couldn't stop reading. Every voice matters and how strong the tendency is to squash that which disturbs the status quo. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/17/magazine/gayl-jones-novel-palmares.html
This is such a powerful piece in so many ways - you really capture that 3 o'clock in the morning swirling, clenching anxiety that wakes us for no reason and then lingers throughout the next day. (I just had this happen last night so I completely relate to all you say here!)
The lovely C.S.Lewis said "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear" and he is so right.
But when I am not feeling overwhelmed by the news/getting older/ the sheer terror of losing those I love and a whole raft of other worries, I try to remind myself that consistently doing tiny acts of goodness (like your writing here!) every day, where we live, as we can, is enough - and frankly, all that we *can* do. Not being trite in any way, just saying what helps me. Sometimes. I also benefit from the occasional news "fast" because without a bit of reprieve from all the bleakness, yes, it's really hard not to sink.