Revolutionary Warfare: Remembering Toni Morrison

“Don’t die with your dream in you.” -My mama, Bessie

I first met Toni Morrison in my Sophomore Spanish I class. There was this girl who sat behind me, Lolita (No lie, that was her name!), and she was reading this book with a purple cover. I asked her what she was reading. With all the Black girl swag she could muster, she said, “The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.”

I am ashamed to say that I had no idea who she was. I knew who Maya Angelou was, but had no idea who Toni Morrison was. I remember asking her to see the book. She obliged and let me read the back. I purposed in my mind that I was going to read this book. I was going to find out who Pecola Breedlove was.

From then, it was on.

My ears were keen to pick up on anything that Toni was doing, anything that she read, recommended or spoke on. So, when Pieces I Am debuted in May 2019, I purposed to watch it. Through other demands, I wasn’t able to see it in theaters. When she died 5 month later? I felt like my grandmother had died…all over again. It was on August 3-4, that I was able to have time and space to watch it. And I am glad that I did.

When I saw her face, heard her voice, I cried–and the film was only 5 minutes in. In hearing her, hearing her story and journey (even thought I was familiar with her voice and story), I cried. It was an affirmation, a coming home as Black, woman and writer. It reminded me that I was always a writer–a storyteller, and the footsteps I follow in are not new…but worn.

As I finished by undergrad at UM-St. Louis, I took ENGL 3870: American Literature After 1865 (Shouts to my mentor, Dr. Kimberly Welch!). This class–I am ever grateful for. Not just because I got to meet Dr. Welch (the first Black English professor I had at UM-St. Louis), but the first book we read for class was, Beloved. It took everything in me not to shout like the little Black Baptist girl in me wanted to! I was studying my shero. I was studying a woman that I had admired since I was 15. Whose books and words and imagination told me, showed me, the possibility of language.

Just like Nikki Giovanni does…still (Have you read EGO TRIP by Nikki?! You need to. Go do that now!).

And to study Beloved right after she died, with Dr. Welch telling me to go to grad school, with listening to her voice on film–it was a hug. It was that nudge that all writers have (I believe) when they are on the precipice of something great–to keep going.

The tears came.

The sobs racked me.

The grief shook me.

I gave over to the power this gift has, and purposed to never hide it again. Afterall, if you surrender to the air, you can ride it. That’s what Toni said.

QUARANTINE BOOK LIST

In the middle of being hard at work building my own imaginary people and universes, I am taking time to catch up on my own reading. Since reading is one of the chief reasons I became a writer, I thought I would share my (quarantine) reading list. This is by NO MEANS the extensive TBR list! But this is something to keep your mind occupied!

Read and write!

You can do it!

-JBHarris

Image result for Stacks of books
Since you are already in, you might as well read something.

1.) Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

2.) Kindred by Octavia Butler

3.) The Color Line by Tiffany Richardson

4.) The Well-Read by Glory Edim

5.) Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

6.) Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

7.) Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

8.) Fledgling by Octaiva Butler

9.) The Mother Of Black Hollywood by Jenifer Lewis

10.) For Colored Girls by Ngtoske Shange

11.) The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by Anne Rice

12.) Beloved by Toni Morrison

13.) The Good House by Tananarive Due

14.) Eloquent Rage by Dr. Brittney Cooper

15.) If Beale Street by James Baldwin

16.) Between The World And Me by Tah-Nihsi Coates

Week 8- Get In Where You Fit In

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“I’m just trying to be me…”

-Lil Kim

 

This week was hard, loves.

When I started this week? There was all matter of dopeness! And as the week ends? I almost have a panic attack.

Why?

Money.

It always, always, always comes down to money.

These past 8 weeks have been something serious! I mean it truly has. When my husband told me to go back to school while I’m on this hiatus from work, I said why not. But in the ‘why not’ I knew that my financial aid was sketchy at worst and iffy at best! There were things that I needed to do–still haven’t done!–but this whole semester has been based in faith.

Let me tell you something. This how all this came to be.

I took a nursing exam for a LPN program and passed. Awesome! But, there are multiple hoops I had to jump through before I could ever start! One of them is I had to go through three interviews before I could even be let in! On top of paperwork, immunizations and other academic scrutiny. I was so frustrated. And I cried.

My husband, seeing me cry, offered that I should go back to school. Finish the English degree. In the course of a Saturday afternoon this happened–

I got a degree audit. I was able to reapply to my program. I only needed 9 hours, not the 12. This meant I could graduate in December. In reapplying, I got to start in Fall 2019, not Spring 2020. I started class that Tuesday. 

I believe that God was tired of me fearing what it is I was supposed to do:  I am a writer, not a scientist.

I am a healer of a different source…and that is okay.

 

______________

The dope thing that happened this week:

My professor, Dr. Welch, put me up on game. She asked me after turning in my second reflection paper, she asked if I was an undergrad student or graduate student (I’m an undergrad–last semester). Then she said this:

“I don’t know what your life journey includes, but you should consider grad school.”

You have to know what this means. A Black professor, of English, saw a Black student–and her promise–and told her to dream. Bruh! Not even dream, but prepare to take over! She told me that there is a way to complete my Master’s degree, and get paid to finish my doctorate. As a Black woman, in doing being in halls of academia–like a college–that would allow me to be in a space of influence that just being a freelance writer cannot touch.

Besides, the goal of the artist is to disturb the peace. What better way to do that than by degree at a time?

 

Week 4-Do It Expeditiously

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“Engage the text.”

-Professor Kimberly Welch

 

This week left the kid reeling. Like for real, reeling! I failed a quiz because there was a day I was so outta focus that I could not focus enough to read. And the book?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

Bruh.

I mean, I am a fan of Ellison! When I put just my name on that paper to take my quiz and nothing else? Humbling as loose drawls. I vowed right thing, RHETTHEN(!!!), I would not fail not nam nother quiz. But I had a check moment. When I saw that quiz, on the screen, and new I hadn’t read? I couldn’t stand my prof. The same woman I just quoted. The woman, a Black woman, whom has my dream job.

I had to sit with that. I thought she was too hard, thought she didn’t like me, and who did she thinks she was! But, dear ones, Prof. Welch is the first Black English professor I have had this institution! I had to respect her drive, respect for the subject matter, and had to respect her for demanding that a broad keep up! I had to think about what it was like for her, teaching a class where there are only two other Black women–and maybe six Black men.

I had to examine what made her seem to be an enemy, and not an ally. What I came up with? I wasn’t ready, and expected the rules to change for me–because she looked like me. The Black girl space, in that space, this space, excludes manipulation. I had to realize this grade is going to require all of me, and I ain’t scared of that.

But I carved out the Black girl space with a Black girl named, Bianca.  Seeing a girl that looked like me, just as brilliant, in Prof. Welch’s class? This Black woman providing this space to discuss this text (Invisible Man) gave us this chance to deep breath. The cooler thing? We were in this group discussing this text with a girl that was not Black, but when we started crafting this space? She pulled back–she didn’t force her way in.

She pulled a curtain for us. I cannot tell you how dope that is.

There is space in this place, this realm for me–for us. I am charged to not just make space for me–but for those after.

The words are bigger than me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SABEM-Week 2: What We Aint’t Gon Do

“And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

-Robert Frost, STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING

 

This whole week I have gone to my English classes this week listening to trap music. Let me tell you why.

Poetry is rap, rap is poetry. 

Poetry is still elevated language.

 

But I digress…

This week I needed all my Blackness seen and reconfirmed. I needed to be seen and see those around me whom (as I say) do these words.

The aforementioned quote, I had quoted, and requoted, and forgot where I had gotten it from. This quote, this phrase, reminds that there is so much in me, and so much more that I have to do–and I cannot quit.

What made this week unique was I got humble. real quick.

For my English 3700 class, we are studying BELOVED. This is lit, especially after the loss of Toni Morrison. And my professor (in whole title, not just the colloquialism ‘Professor’), is a Black woman? MORE LIT.

But in trying to get my reading done, she was gracious enough to upload BELOVED on pdf. Now, I transferred into this class because I needed the credit, and needed Blackness and academia to intersect. I truly did! Finding this class was everything! Now, any English major will tell you that the hardest thing is the reading and keeping up with the reading. I fought with this pdf for 3 days! I couldn’t get it all to print, I didn’t see the highlighted stopping points and I wound up buying the book because the book was easier.

Enter the crazy part.

I got the copy of BELOVED. I looked at the syllabus. I got the page numbers and read. I was behind read 90 pages in about 5 hours. I thought I was caught up! But when I got to a certain point, I compared my page number to the pdf? I was still behind! Why? I had a paperback copy she had scanned the HARDBACK!

BRUH!

And although we don’t meet on Monday (my 3700 level class is M/W), we must have BELOVED red by Wednesday, and have 2 reflection papers due 9/9, and the new work started by then! The hustle, y’all. The hustle! But this is what I asked for; what God made space for.

My professor, Dr. Drucilla Wall says to never put the word, just in front of phrase ‘English major.’ Bet. Never again.

 

The MFA journey continues…

SABEM-Week 1: So Glad I Made It

 

 I walked into my first English class in six years last week.

The cool thing is that I’d taken a poetry course with this particular professor before! She was engaging, she was witty–and she thought my poetry was brilliant. After looking over my second chap book for the class (my final project), she gave me this direct quote:

“This is good. You need to start getting your published. And rejection? Get over it.”

This is was a realest thing any professor had ever told me. Still.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the reading list for this next 16 weeks, seeing this semester’s required reading as white as paper. I almost cried.

Here is why.

For my latest 6 year hiatus from academia, I’ve been in activism. I’ve been in circles to push for change, and run some of thee Blackest blog on the planet:  The Ideal Firestarter for the last 3 years (year four starts January 2020! Go and be a #Torch!). I have leaned in and accepted this mantle as teacher and writer. I have some other things brewing to be shared by the end of the year. So, I walked into this class with a naivete people have when they believe they know something is happening–and have it under control!

I didn’t.

For the last 3-4 years I have been working this writing gift, and all I know, the biggest thing I had been screaming was visibility and representation. When I saw that reading list? I wanted to walk out! My heart that is still grieving the loss of Toni Morrison, that uses Lorde, Angelou, and Baldwin to cope with the national insanity, did not want to read Robert fucking Frost!

I had to settle my heart, loves. I discovered the work of Lucille Clifton–who I didn’t know she existed–and she’s Black! The part of me that was hurt by the lack of representation, wanted to quit! But the part of me that remembered the writers before me? Hughes, Hurston, Dunbar, Baldwin, Angelou and now Morrison–had to to deal with a much less melaninated canon! I had to stay–there is only one other Black girl in this class. I stayed because that’s what the writing ancestors would ask me to do.

I did my reading, did my assignment. And came to class Thursday–but know what?

Class was cancelled. Oh, well. #TheWritingContinues

 

JBHarris, future MFA recipient.