Dear Queen Morrison,

toni morrison

It is with trepidation that I write this. A familiar trepidation that arises in me every time I attempt to deconstruct, analyze, or appreciate your work. I know I am unworthy and without the masterful use of metaphor, language, and syntax that God seems to have exclusively gifted to you, but in the spirit of your many beautifully flawed and defiant female characters: despite my short-comings I insist on saying what I have to say, which is thank you.

  Praise for your overall genius is nothing new for you, I wonder if it even gets old after a while, but I do have to confess that when I first encountered a novel of yours in the ninth grade “genius” was the last adjective I thought to describe you. But like the good word says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man/woman, I gave up childish ways,” and eventually I had seen the light of the intricate maze of plots you set in the beautiful, dangerous, and mysterious landscape of  your language.

The spirit of fearlessness that I’ve found in all of your work from Pilot to Consolata is inspiring and affirming—no one does a complex black woman like you. No one penetrates the taboo and exposes its good, its bad, and its ugly like you. And no one confidently refuses to explain their work like you do:

“I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books” – Toni Morrison 

suddenly there was a place for me to escape the Eurocentrism that confronted me at every corner. You showed me humanity and the complex forms it takes when shaped by race, sex, class, and religion.

There have been many times where I’ve finished one of your novels and contemplated giving up my own desire to be a writer. I mean how am I ever going to write something as intricately metaphoric as Song of Solomon, or as intensely intimate chaotic and beautiful as Tar Baby, or as brilliantly symbolic as Paradise? But the brilliance of your work, both fiction and non-fiction, is that you evoke and even require that I write, that I continue to add to the cannon of African-American literature. It is you who famously said,

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” -Toni Morrison

and even though I’m convinced you’re written every book I could possibly want to read, you encourage me to explore my voice and to share my stories and, most importantly, never explain that which is already understood by those for whom I write.

Thank you for being you and for sharing your gift—we are all unworthy of it.

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Love, Anger, Madness: Review

LAM

In 1968 Haiti had been under the regime of the self-proclaimed “president for life,” François Duvalier (Papa Doc) for eleven years. The once country doctor now had the pulse of the entire country under his commanding finger. With the help of his “tonton,” Duvalier had suppressed any notion or attempt of critique or opposition. In the midst of such fierce dictatorship that left Haiti’s poor-class still economically devastated and a bourgeois class under constant threat Marie Vieux-Chavuet, a writer and member of Haiti’s elite bourgeoise society, had a book published that would forever change the course of her career and her life. 

Love, Anger, Madness is a trilogy that takes the reader on a psychological journey through Haiti at the time of severe political, social, and economic tensions. We are introduced to an “old maid,” a student, and a poet. Through each story Chauvet allows us into the hearts, the minds, and the fears of those under the Duvalier regime. Of course the story is set decades before Duvalier enters office, but that fact is was not enough to save Chauvet from having to leave her country in self-imposed exile. Love, Anger, Madness is not only a tale that harps on the cruelty of Duvalier, it is also a novel that challenges the conventionality of women and critiques the colorism that plagued Haiti’s bourgeoise society.

The first two stories (Love, and, Anger) are Chauvet’s most developed and engaging tales with two phenomenally round and complex characters. In the first tale we are presented with Claire Clamont, a dark-skinned mulatto, who is the head of her family. Claire’s tale is written in the form of a diary and exposes her struggle and ultimate rejection of an oppressive bourgeois society that has left her sexually, mentally, and emotionally unstimulated well into her forties. Claire’s erotic fantasies are played out by her younger sister, and foil, Annette, who is physically able to do all of the things Claire only scribbles in her diary or acts out in the privacy of her bedroom or the sanctuary of her mind. Both women are on opposite spectrums of shades, age, and sexual prowess, but through both of them Marie delivers us independent, opinionated, and sexually expressive women. Chauvet also reveals to us the ways in which their society punishes them and the other women in town whether virgin or presumed slut.

Chauvet continues this question of sexual agency in the complex tale of Rose, who is the daughter of a well-to-do mulatto man profiting off of the land of his black grandfather. Chauvet continues her examination of a crumbling middle-class at the hands of a once poor black dictator—we are confronted with a class of people once boisterous and comfortable in their pride now silenced and confined by it. When Rose’s family’s land is under threat of being seized the men in her family are in a panic of what to do and relegated to pathetic passivity while Rose places the heavy responsibility upon her slim shoulders. Using the sexuality that was once perversely taunted by her father she has turned her body into her most valuable weapon for fighting against the threat to her father’s property. In a society where sex is battered for protection we witness one girl’s desperation and determination to protect her family.

It is the third story (Maddness) that seems awkwardly out of place as we spend most of the time cramped in the shack with a paranoid poet, who is neither apart of the aristocratic nor middle class. It is a tale that jarringly breaks from Marie’s assumed building comparison of female sexual suppression and agency under violent political dictatorship. But nevertheless it serves as a further critique of the vicious and silencing tactic Duvalier’s regime practiced against those who did not appear to comply with his ruling. This last story, unintentionally, serves as an erie premonition of what could have possibly become Chauvet’s life had she not fled Haiti before the book’s publishing.

Marie’s whip-smart language will effortlessly pull you into her existentialist tale of extreme violence and oppression and the ways in which individuals contort themselves in order to survive. She unzips the skin of her characters and allows the reader to travel their troubled, desperate, and complex minds. Love, Anger, Madness is as much of a critique on Duvalier’s regime as it is a critique of conventionality, gender roles, women’s sexuality, religion, class, and western influence. Like the women Chauvet writes she is a martyr for her country. Chauvet delivers a novel as richly textured, tragic, and triumphant as her beautiful country. Her work is as essential to the Haitian Literary tradition as Jacque Roumain and Jacques Steven Alexis.

“Every child needs a champion”

Literacy and Black Americans have shared an enduring relationship. I travelled to Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana recently and on The Wall of Horror—a wall detailing the horrific experience as a black slave in America—there are quotes shedding light on the violent punishment slaves would face if caught reading—25 lashes if ever caught with a pen or paper in hand. Frederick Douglass’ own story illustrates the visceral desire to read and the terrible pain that came with learning how to do so.

“I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow‐slaves for their stupidity.” – Frederick Douglass

Phillis Wheatley’s literacy and mastering of language through poetry forced her, too, a sense of agony of not being able to have her books of poems initially published. White American colonizers—Thomas Jefferson included—believed that:

“Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” – Thomas Jefferson

The ability to read and write was a right purposefully kept away from Africans forced to work as slaves in America (Caribbean and South America as well) because, as William Lynch said:

“If you take a slave, if you teach him all about your language, he will know all your secrets, and he is then no more a slave, for you can’t fool him any longer, and being a fool is one of the basic ingredients of any incidents to the maintenance of the slavery system” – William Lynch

If an enslaved person had the ability to think independently, logically and to articulate the illogic and inhumane institution of chattel slavery back to the master who manipulated Bible Scriptures to paint lies that told Africans they were born to be slaves—heirs of Cain’s mark—then slavery as White American and European Colonizers created it would be over and so would be the profits of their exploitation of labor and lives. Needless to say Literacy and Liberation were directly intertwined and Black American slaves quest for either could result in violent consequences—death not excluded.

But if one were to guess that these individuals carried on a life of illiteracy one would be mistaken. Slaves who were lettered risked their lives to share such knowledge with their peers. Every negro spiritual sung on the field told a story; many told the route toward the underground railroad famously travelled by a conductor of the name of Harriet Tubman who carried thousands of slaves to freedom. Such in intricate and elaborate trip from the depths of the south to the opening of the north could not have been done by those who were illiterate. The idea that literacy is only expressed through the ability to read flat text is a myopic one, to put it nicely. Everything from the music, to the folktales, to the quilts and markings of safe-houses along the underground railroad proved that Black American slaves had found a way to express Literacy and to go in search of their liberation in spite of the violent consequences, but when the confederate south Surrendered to the north Reconstruction will prove to be a period of great hope and a period of great despair.

In Margaret Walker’s, Jubilee, one thing Vyry, the protagonist, wanted most for her children after the Surrender was to go to school:

“I wants my chilluns to go to school, too, and learn how to read and write and cipher”                                                                                                                                     – Jubilee

The economic disparity within the south, along with the continuing racial tension, after the war made it difficult for schools to exist

“The question of sending white and black to school together was always answered by a storm of protest, and violence erupted every time there was an attempt to put such schools into operation. The negroes themselves were crying for education, and by 1870 the Freedmen’s Bureau had established a few schools in every southern state. These schools, of course, were not free”

                                                                                                                          –Jubilee

What’s more was that white individuals were willing to refuse schools if it meant black children being able to learn beside them. Black people were now “free” by definition, but a lack of flat-text literacy left them vulnerable to further labor exploitation through share-cropping and countless other exploits. My grandmother told me the story of her mother being unable to read or write and in the place of her name she would mark an X. My great-grandmother was by no means an unintelligent woman, but that lack of flat-text literacy made her depended on the literacy of her children so much so that my grandmother expressed how she worried about her mother and who was assisting her with her documents when my grandmother moved away.

  Even black americans who were flat-text literate faced violent attacks from the newly developing Klu Klux Klan that was determined to restore white-supremacy in the south. Black Americans now had more options than before to become flat-text literate, but limited means and the familiar threat of violence continued to make an already task even more daunting. So here I am, a century after the failing of Reconstruction, working for a literacy-based program in Americorps. How did I get here? Why did I chose to be here?

The answer is in that century—and counting—long struggle for the literacy and liberation of Black Americans (and across the Diaspora). During the time of Reconstruction when so many young children of former slaves were left without formal education, many people stepped up to educate them as best they could; it was not easy by any means and the battle between school and economic support was, and still is, a battle that incapacitated a lot of black Americans from receiving education. Had it not been for these nameless people lost in history I would not, could not, have been the woman I am today with my nose forever hidden behind the creased spine of a book I’ve annotated to death.

There is a sense of gratitude I feel for people like Mary McLoud Bathune, Marva Collins, and Rita Pierson—educators who focused on the needs of the black community, who gave of themselves the knowledge that was eclipsed from us over one-hundred years ago. I am also grateful for people like my seventh-grade librarian who let me work with her to cancel out books from her database then take home whatever cancelled books I wanted; she was my resource for finding books about girls whose hair, face, culture, and family was like my own. She helped me to articulate my thoughts, and most of all, she encouraged my budding love for reading. Where would I have been if it weren’t for the individuals in my life who rooted for me, who pushed me, who gave of themselves so that I could be the best version of myself?

I joined this literacy-based program because I wanted to be what Dr. Rita Pierson calls a “champion.” I wanted to be what those nameless individuals were who risked their lives during slavery to teach others how to read, those who combined their resources to conduct schools in church-houses for black children during Reconstruction, those who continued on through several liberation movements, through several threats of violence to gift their people with literacy.

“Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possibly be” – Rita Pierson

I’ve never planned on becoming a formal teacher–I often have to ignore the pestering of others trying to understand why I’m doing this (as if volunteering a year to educating the next generation is so terrible), but when I think of the life of one of the most influential revolutionaries in the world, a revolutionary who co-founded a black self-defense movement that extended to include and inspire the self-defense and liberation of the proletariat people of, across, and beyond America, I think of the fact that he, Huey P. Newton, could not read until after high school. Like Malcolm X, Huey’s evolving literacy level directly elevated his mind and his passion for liberation. I know I cannot magically enhance the reading-level of every young student I come into contact with, but my hope is I will be the best champion I can be so that no other Huey P. Newtown makes it to seventeen without being able to read, without the access to the means to articulate the innate intelligence within. 

Your Job is to be Happy

  At around the time you entered pre-school or kindergarten you were probably asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up,”—because, somehow, at the age of five you had enough exposure to the world and its many career fields to have meticulously map out your career-goals.

  If you’re like Beyoncé, at the age of five you were able to confidently respond with what you wanted to be and by your 34th you’re able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your dedicated and tenacious labor. 

  If you’re like me, at the age of 22 you’re still trying to figure out the answer to that question. 

  After graduating college with an extensive resume and an even more extensive network you would think I’d be on my way toward that answer right—wrong. Weeks before my graduation I kept being accosted with that question as if the fate of the asker’s life depended on my answer— side-note: it is incredibly rude to ask a graduating senior what their post-graduation plans are. I was just trying to make it to the graduation stage, I hadn’t exactly planned my life further than that moment. But as a sufferer of chronic first-child syndrome I knew I could not just go wherever the wind blew me, in fact, I was always resisting the wind’s persistent urging of me away from the path of logic. I needed a plan. I had spent four years exerting my independence, attempting to establish an identity, there was no way I could go back home. And yet here I sit typing this from my childhood bedroom, which is currently stuffed with all of my college memorabilia. I had packed up that independence and identity and brought it underneath the roof of my beloved mother’s home. But! I was not jobless. 

  Instead of going for the glossy starter positions with companies I had interned for I decided to join Americorps. It was a decision so out of the blue my own grandmother still needs constant reassurance that I haven’t gone insane. Why would I, a graduate of a well-respected university who worked hard to gain experience and contacts in a particular field, suddenly drop all of those opportunities to become a volunteer? Well, the answer is simple, I wasn’t happy.

  I had never truly enjoyed college and I felt like I was sacrificing my emotional well-being for the expectations of others. In Eat Pray Love style I dropped everything and went in search of this so-called Happiness. But in our current economic climate, and with the current interest rate on my looming student loan debt, could I really afford happiness? It was a question I asked after having my first interaction with Sallie Mae post-graduation–let’s just say she’s not as generous when you’re no longer a student. I was comparing my current income to my current debt and happiness did not seem like a wise investment, but in the spirit of Oprah, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many others I decided to make that risky investment in myself. Now whether or not I’ll have a billion dollar return remains to be seen.

  Like Oprah, Bill, and Steve walking away from convention isn’t easy, especially when you live in a capitalistic society where your self-worth is directly correlated to your bank account. I grew up in a family where corporate America was the logical route. My grandmother had taken it, my mother had taken it, I would lead the third generation of women into that life of power-suits and executive moves. I had never truly imagined my life after college anywhere other than behind a desk, anything else just wasn’t logical for me. There was one problem, I began to dread every interview I went to—and I went to a lot. My resume was getting so many call backs that the average graduating senior would have been pleased, but I was physically sick. My body, my spirit, and my mind did not want to put on that blazer and creased pants and discuss why I would be a great candidate for a particular company. I went to each interview and conducted myself professionally, but I would be praying not to get the job. Was I crazy, yes, but my spirit was screaming it didn’t want to be in corporate America and the screams were becoming so deafening that I finally relented and stopped filling out applications. Now, there was another problem, how was I going to support myself financially?

  The battle of financial security and emotional well-being isn’t new: for some individuals there is no choice and for others the choices are endless. My need for emotional wellness had gotten so desperate that it eclipsed my drive or my willingness to see opportunities that would continue my avoiding it. I finally sat myself down and posed that same question I’d been hounded with for half my entire life: “what do I want to be when I grow up” and while I can’t answer with the same tunnel-vision as Beyoncé I’ve promised myself to try every option that feels right to me with no goal of arriving at one specific answer. I am not interested in having the definition of my life be summed up in a job-title. I am not romantic nor am I privileged enough to ignore the fact that I need money for basic survival, and I do aspire to have financial security, but I have realized that I cannot compromise my emotional well-being for financial gain. I watched two generations of women work with such tenacity in their specific fields for the majority of their lives. That work-ethic is definitely hereditary as I find myself with the same dedication and ambition the only difference is that I cannot fathom the idea of working at one company for thirty consecutive years. I’ve seen and enjoyed the perks of working for corporate America, but I’ve also witnessed the toll it will take on you, the pressure and the stress, and the micro-aggression, and the isolation—especially when you’re a black woman. I couldn’t find my purpose in any of the companies I had interviewed there. Beyond the financial gain I could not see any other reason for being there and that scared me.

  Today I sat in my Americorps training session and my coordinator summarized our job requirement as, “to be happy, to show up with a positive attitude.” It was the most illogical sounding job requirement I had ever heard; work and happiness were not two words I’d ever put in the same sentence and yet here I am at work and happy. Of course the job has just started, so I might be using a different adjective a month from now, but it was such a foreign feeling to wake up and be excited to start my day. I had been so conditioned to dread the work and the school day. I moved around lethargically spending my day counting down the hours until it would finally be over. I couldn’t keep doing that. I couldn’t spend the next thirty years of my life waiting for it to be over. So, I finally submitted to the wind and that Edgar Allan Poe poem and set about my journey on the road less travelled.

  Four years ago I did not see myself here. The person I was when I entered college is vastly different from the person I am now that I’ve left. Call me a naive young optimist sheltered under her mother’s roof and away from life’s harsh reality, but I believe our one true job in life is to be happy, to show up with a positive mind.