Tuesday, March 7, 2023

“The Presence of the Word: Out of the Darkness: Sound and Substance; Liberation and Black Imagination”

 [In perpetual, joyful transcendent honor of Toni Morrison, upon the issuing of the U. S. Postal Stamp, March 7, 2023. First presented as panel presentation, Conference on the Catholic Imagination, Loyola University Chicago, August 2019 --After [Toni Morrison] Author's comments/responses in red--

“And God said.....”

Of course, God said...”darkness, you shall not prevail. There will be light.”  Creation begins with a word, spoken, with the power to make things. And to make things happen.  Yes,  “àshe:  Make it so.” The power within all that has been created. Before anything was created, there was the power. There was and is and will always be, the word.

“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”̀

What they were drowning in, in the bottom of the wooden vessel, rocking on water that could also drown them – water that was now to be a forever-locked gate to the only strength they had ever known, where the ancestors, the living-dead, wept for their being ripped away from the earth where they had learned to dance. And it was dark.

The evil ones proved their clever genius in how they broke even the bonds of words -- “We were landed up a river a good way from the sea, about Virginia county, where we saw few or none of our native Africans, and not one soul who could talk to me. I was a few weeks weeding grass, and gathering stones in a plantation; and at last all my companions were distributed different ways, and only myself was left. I was now exceedingly miserable, and thought myself worse off than any of the rest of my companions; for they could talk to each other, but I had no person to speak to that I could understand. In this state I was constantly grieving and pining, and wishing for death rather than any thing else.” (Equiano,  Chapter 3, p. 90)

No words, but crying and moaning and the groans of wide-awake night (always, never broken night):

“Then late at night, after the songs were over, from the darkness of the lower decks of the Young Hero and thousand other ships, the sailors could hear ‘an howling melancholy noise, expressive of extreme anguish.’  On one such occasion, the ship’s doctor said that he asked his black female interpreter to go inquire the cause of the wailing noise. According to the doctor, ‘she discovered it to be owing to their having dreamt that they were in their own country, and finding themselves when awake, in the hold of a slave ship.’” (Harding, There is a River, p. 16)

“And God said”  And in the conviction bestowed in them at birth, they sang.  Each utterance shaped the universe, resisted the darkness. Word. Sound. Sounding truth. Speaking “No,” to the destructive trauma of darkness.  Erasing the circle of all that was truth and evident:  we are born, we grow, we bless and are blessed; we teach; we descend into a darkness where we are named, blessed, called forth through the gateway of the night, to protect those who sleep. We are bringers of peace.


The circle was forever destroyed. This we knew. But we could only sound the anguish, being separated from the words that allowed us to live.

And so we live. They named us, “dead.”  And yet.... we howled and sang and year by burning year, we found a word, then more; then many. And now, we now shape the circle -- being completed once more.

They brought storms into our sky and into our minds and the howling we have done is nothing but the howling we have been burned by.  Flinging the darkness up and away from us, we are the ancestors of the children yet unborn.

Every song draws someone, one by one, by “We”, into the circle where they and we can learn who they and we have always been.

[Toni Morrison]

“For a long time, the art form that was healing for Black people was music. That music is no longer exclusively ours; we don’t have exclusive rights to it.

(Ain’t that the truth! Somebody  stole all my stuff, Father-brother-uncle-cousin Langston said)   

Other people sing it and play it; it is the mode of contemporary music everywhere.  So another form has to take that place, and it seems to me that the novel is needed by African Americans now in a way that it was not needed before – and it is following along the lines of the function of novels everywhere.

(So we gotta do the soul-food magic, again, take the left-overs and cook them up so good and delicious that we can feed a neighborhood...of strangers)  

We don’t live in places where we can hear those stories anymore; parents don’t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological archetypal stories that we heard years ago.  But new information has to get out, and there are several ways to do it. One is the novel. I regard it as a way to accomplish certain very strong functions....

It should be beautiful, and powerful, but it should also work. It should have something in it that enlightens; something in it that opens the door and points the way. Something in it that suggests what the conflicts are, what the problems are. But it need not solve those problems because it is not a case study, it is not a recipe.

”[there are things to be incorporated] that should be directly and deliberately related to what I regard as the major characteristics of Black art, wherever it is.  One of which is the ability  to be both print and oral literature: to combine those two aspects so that the stories can be read in silence, of course, but one should be able to hear them as well.

It should try deliberately to make you stand up and make you feel something profoundly in the same way that a Black preacher requires his congregation to speak, to join him in the sermon, to behave in a certain way, to stand up and to weep and to cry and to accede or to change and to modify – to expand on the sermon that is being delivered.....And having at my disposal only the letters of the alphabet and some punctuation, i have to provide the places and spaces so that the reader can participate.  Because it is the affective and participatory  relationship between the artist or the speaker and the audience that is of primary importance, as it is in these other art forms that I have described.” (What Moves at the Margin, pp. 58-59)

Oh, so what you mean is that Black literature is sacrament and sacramental?  It achieves the effect that is intended?  It has the power to make the stranger a neighbor, neighbors a community; and communities a culture?  Is that what you mean, Ms. Morrison?  Is there anything else we need to know, for this time and space and place and purpose?  Anything about how the original artists, through their ability to be mystics, in the truest sense of the word – becoming the angels that traverse Jacob’s ladder and not the trashy individual caught up in their dream – learning to demand that God come down from heaven and liberate those who groan and cry and mourn and weep – making their voices the primal and primary therapeutic response to the enduring trauma inflicted on them all – being thoroughly assured that “their wings were going to fit them well, since they tried them on, at the Gates of Hell,”  of becoming Moses, Joshua, Daniel, Elijah, Mary, Martha, John the Baptist, Peter and even the silent abused Savior – in other words,  the carriers of the Voice of God (like all good prophets are).  I’m sorry, Ms. Morrison, is there anything else you want to tell us about how the art you conjure up is so closely aligned with the principles of sacramental theology that we can grin and wallow in your generous teaching?  Is there?  Oh, Ok....

“The only thing I would add  . . is the presence of the ancestor; it seems to me interesting to evaluate Black literature on what the writer does with the presence of the ancestor.  Which is to say a grandfather as in Ralph Ellison, or a grandmother as in Toni Cade Bambara, or a healer as in Bambara or Henry Dumas.  There is always an elder there.  And these ancestors are not just parents, they are sort of timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective, and they provide a certain kind of wisdom.

Yes, ma’am. Saints. The living-dead of the Kongo cultures. The visitors of our dreams and daydreams. The intercessors, guides, angels and guides.  The saints. When the survivors of the ocean voyage stepped on the earth that would be their prison, they decided that as soon as they learned the language of those who enslaved them, they would use that language to free themselves.  They stole the book, the book that starts with darkness and sound – with the word of power. And they named themselves the liberating heroes of the stories held dear by those who sought to control them.

And they said, “Never been to heaven, but I’ve been told, the streets of heaven are paved with gold.”  “When I get to heaven, gonna sing and shout, and there will be nobody there to turn me out.”  And, “Everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there.”

Yes, ma’am. And all the ma’ams and sirs.  You have taught us to see and hear prophetic literature.

And we are grateful. And that is why we love you all. By giving us your art and becoming our ancestors, you have taught us to love the gifts you show us to be.

“Without ever leaving the ground, [you] could fly.” (Morrison, Song of Solomon)

To fly.  Without. Ever leaving. The ground… in the world of the Spirit.  Amen.