From 1619 to 2019: 400 Years
Among all the deaths that have surrounded us in the past week, eating at the very fabric of our souls, the death of African American author Toni Morrison has surfaced to the front of several conversations in which I have been engaged. Some of us seem to know her on some level as we scan the newspapers and read stories about the dead in the Oregon District of Dayton and the Walmart store in El Paso. We are always hoping not to see names and photographs of those we know.
It’s important, however, that we realize that for many, seeing that name or photograph will bring a special grief that will last for years and perhaps for the rest of their lives.
Toni Morrison proclaimed, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” I used this quotation in a class on writing for young adults (YA) that I taught this past week to telecommunication employees. This provoked an outpouring of comments about the impact Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Morrison has had on their lives, including an after-class discussion with one of my students. It seems as if my African American students can say things to me in private that they can’t express during a class.
Later in the week nine family member dropped by my home for a visit and a meal, and the subject of the mass shooting and racism came up in our conversations. My oldest son, who majored in English at the University of Houston and who, like me, is always seeking solutions to the problems that plague our country, remarked with passion, “If all kids in our schools were required to read The Bluest Eye, that would do much to eliminate racism.”
The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, published in 1970 and set in Lorain, Ohio, tells the story of Pecola Breedlove who is deemed ugly in school and in her community because of the darkness of her skin. As she goes through traumatic experiences, she comes to believe that if she only had blue eyes, she would be perfect in a society where we judge others primarily by their appearance with those with white skin and blue eyes being at the top of the hierarchy.
As a student of literature, I could speak about the innovative and masterful ways in which Morrison wrote her first novel, but my column is not about critical analysis: It’s about the ways in which what we read and other experiences in our lives’ trajectories determine our belief systems, our ethics, our behavior. One of Morrison’s reasons for writing the book was to remind readers of “how hurtful racism is.”
Morrison indicated in an interview that “The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.”” There’s a truth to that statement, but until more members of our society embrace inclusion, we have much to do, and we must do it while we do our work. It is, moreover, a significant part of our work.
I want to share with you an email I received this week from one of my telecommunication students who works for a major company in a large metropolitan area.
At that facility they have a book club, and employees who are participating vote on the book that is to be delivered, read, and discussed each month. My student wrote the following: “A woman I used to sit near and have been friends with for at least a decade told me she would not read the latest choice, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead because it was just ‘[racial slur] propaganda.’ You could have dropped me with a feather. I had no idea she was like that and wish I’d never heard it ‘cause I can’t forget it.”
My student, who is deaf, wrote a poem about her hearing loss, and I want to share a bit of it with you:
“Science is amazing and soon they developed/ an aid for even me./ Out I went upon the world, my hearing now restored./ I heard it all:/The cacophony of the music,/ The screeching lovers,/ And all the mindless gossip./ Perhaps the best place for my aid/Is right here in my pocket.”
We must hear and respond. In 1619 a Dutch ship sold 19 black men to Englishmen at Point Comfort, now Fort Monroe, at Hampton, Virginia. The initial intent was that those sold were to be indentured servants, but making these imported human beings slaves became politically and economically attractive. It’s been 400 years now since their arrival to our shores. How many more centuries will it take to eradicate racism?