Toni Morrison, 1931 – 2019

Toni Morrison passed today. As the accolades and memories pour in, I am remembering tackling “Song of Solomon” freshman year and invoking her in one of my 2016 readings for “Strivers and Other Stories.” Some notes from that reading:

Thanks for coming and giving me a bit of your weekend time. Your support is definitely appreciated. I will be brief and won’t hold you very long. 

I honestly was a bit nervous that no one would show up. WWPH had its book launch event last week. My family came to that, many from out of town, and along with my WWPH press cohort, we had a good crowd. I thought I had exhausted my potential local reader base at last week’s event, so I am glad that a few of you who weren’t able to attend that event, are able to come out today.

First, let me thank Shirkiana and Sankofa for inviting me. I am very happy and excited to be invited to read on Georgia Avenue. This is providing me with a tangible, physical connection to the African-American literary legacy and tradition when I think about who has walked the blocks of this street just outside this space: Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka,  Zora Neal Hurston, and so many others. I have lived in Washington, D.C. for over 23 years now, so like many of you who have been here in this city during that time period or longer,  I have seen changes in the spaces and places in our city. And even though I am not a native Washingtonian or even say I am “from” here– I still say I “live here”— you do began to feel a bit of hometown nostalgia when spaces that you’ve known are no longer around, which is happening more frequently in D.C. And lots of those spaces that are disappearing are spaces like this one; artistic communal spaces and places that are a part of your past and become etched in your memory,  and memory, for me is a significant part of my writing and played a significant role in shaping the stories included in  “Strivers.” 

So, I wanted to talk a bit about memory before getting into the reading, but  first though let me share a memory about this space, Sankofa: 

I believe the very first time I was in Sankofa was in the early 2000s. I actually came here on a first date. I was trying to impress a woman by being literate and worldly and “woke” so I planned an outing of hip spots to hit. So we were going to stop here, go to eat African food in Adams Morgan, and then go to Chief Ikes, a Latin dance spot on Columbia Road.  We browsed around and I can’t remember if or what we bought here but she seemed impressed. So we proceeded to dinner, to Ghana Cafe, when it was in Adams Morgan, another place that’s now relegated to memory. It was there that the date went haywire.  I won’t go into too many details, but during the date, while she was talking, I turned to a pair of women sitting next to us because they seemed to be having a more interesting conversation than I was having with my date.  And if you remember the old Ghana Cafe it was a pretty small space, and the women were very close to us, so it was hard to be discreet. Suffice it to say that was a royal screw up and the date didn’t end well.  So whenever I have passed or dropped in Sankofa over the years, I am forced to revisit that not-so-good memory.

This summer I went to a fiction writing workshop put on by Callaloo, a journal of African diaspora arts and letters.  There, we talked about a notable essay that often gets discussed in Black writing spaces– an interview really, with Toni Morrison that has become to be known as the “Site of Memory.” In it, she talks about the importance of memory to writers generally and African-American writers in particular.  She says:

The act of imagination is bound up with memory.

“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact, it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, that valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is an emotional memory–what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our flooding.”

Toni Morrison calls it literary archeology—on the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork, you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply.

That notion of literary archaeology, spurred and charged by memory has always resonated greatly with me and conveys what I think I was trying to do when I put this manuscript of stories together. Almost every story in Strivers and Other Stories I can trace to a memory of a space, place or artifact that put me on a path to not just raise a mirror up to that memory but to pursue some question of truth that I wanted to excavate about the characters walking around in my imagination, and the times and places they lived in. Interestingly, that pathway sometimes leads me to reflect on how contemporary characters process that history as much as it propelled me to want to dig into historical pieces. 

The collection is 15 stories in total, spanning the 1920s to the present day. Not all, but many of the stories are rooted in memories from my formative years in Augusta, Georgia. I grew up there in the 1970s and 1980s. It would be easy to dismiss Augusta as a “typical southern city.”  And the images that you might conjure up from that label, would probably be right. We had confederate statues downtown and all the visuals and sounds associated with racism, segregation, and economic disparities. Shotgun houses. Sweet tea. Fried chicken. BBQs.  Diabetes. Thick accents.  But I think there is a specialness to the place that belies some of those archetypes.

For a city its size, Augusta had a good number of institutions that helped to sustain a thriving Black working and Black middle class. And when I say middle class, I don’t mean the Bourgie stereotypes: BMWs and big houses. No, the frame I always see, shows a simple picture of people who worked, had roofs over their heads and could feed their families.  Augusta had a large military base, a sprawling medical center,  an HBCU, a large public school system, several large historical churches, industrial plants, a Black-owned life insurance company and a number of small Black-owned businesses. It was also historically the summer home to a good bit of white wealth to which a Black service class was tethered. Several of my stories have been informed by the gallery of people within the culture that I grew up in who worked within and whose lives revolved around those institutions. The stereotypes and extreme representations of pathos associated with the Black Southern experience were not so apparent to me during my childhood in Augusta.

 It has taken me some time to process the specialness of the time and place I grew up in and the connection it gave me to my history through memories which triggered my imagination. That “flooding” of memories and the resulting stories, just came.

 I initially tried to find a story encapsulating a ‘truth” reflective of every decade in the 20th century. This notion of course was borrowed from August Wilson’s century cycle.  I didn’t quite make it to fully doing 10 stories covering every decade and there are several stories among the fifteen that are meant to be contemporary and a few are set explicitly other locales besides Georgia. There is one story set in D.C., one in Norfolk, Virginia, and one set in South Carolina. But I wanted to share in this reading two stories with origins I can specifically trace to memories from my childhood in Augusta. The first one is set in contemporary times and is called Love You Always.  

The story comes from a memory of bracelet that my cousin got from a boy. It was a mysterious bracelet and had an odd name encrusted on it. A boy’s name, but not the boy who had given her the bracelet. Its origins and history were a mystery—we all assumed the boy probably stole it before giving it to my cousin. It made me think about how inanimate objects trigger memories and they themselves carry stories that exist quietly and take on reinventions as they are shared. 

The second story is called Cotton Compress. I will just read a very brief excerpt from that one. It is set implicitly in my hometown during the 1940s. So obviously I wasn’t around then, but when I was growing up,  there was a building near my grandmother’s house that my father would explain to me was a cotton warehouse, or compress.  The building had kind of a ghostly presence. With weeds growing up around it, it was set back a bit from the street. It likely housed a thousand untold stories, especially about the men, Black men, who labored inside it.  Also, related, when I stayed with my grandmother as a kid,   there would be a lunchtime whistle that would blow from some industrial worksite nearby.  She’d tell me it was the lunch whistle for the working men. It always made me think of the way someone might whistle to a dog. I often reflected on how when you work in that kind of setting, you must live a life so regulated and ritualized that you become conditioned to the systems and structures doing the regulating. It becomes normal and acceptable.  So I imagined a story about those men, what they did when that lunch whistle blew for them, wondering, how and when they began to accept the conditions, yet still found moments of pride, joy, camaraderie and maybe a little hope.

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