“A Giantess Ascends To New Heights” : Reflections on Toni Morrison

In 1998, Black Star’s “Thieves In The Night” initially alerted me to Toni Morrison’s genius. In the song, the hip-hop duo paraphrased the following passage from “The Bluest Eye”:

“And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.”

I didn’t delve in immediately. Morrison’s work wasn’t included in my high school’s literature curriculum. If I remember correctly, the teachers thought her novels were too challenging. I continued to run from that “challenge” for another year or so. A college freshman year of nouveau wokeness and subsequent self-realization erased my trepidation. I read “The Bluest Eye” the following summer. It was the tale of a young, Black girl grappling with America’s standards of beauty. Standards many of us have adhered to in some form or fashion. Nothing was the same after.

Morrison’s work was incandescent. The voices of her characters were vivid. Her stories were familiar. Reminiscent of musings of my mother, grandmothers, aunties, cousins, friends and any other Black woman worth her salt. Just as sage, but poetic and eloquent in ways that felt too grandeur for this stratosphere. The buck didn’t stop there. This revolutionary would floor me with “Sula” a few semesters later. A novel that further defined liberation for me. Expanded the confines of womanhood. A standard was set. An unfair one to measure other writers against. Morrison was operating on unicorn levels.

A good writer always forces you to think. An even greater one forces you to excavate the surface. To penetrate its layers until you arrive at uncomfortable truths. Morrison was beyond great. She swaddled and exalted us in our Blackness. Held up a mirror to the world around us while weaving truths that gave us wings. Now that she’s flying in the ancestral realm, I feel a slight tinge of sorrow. However, no tears. Above all, sheer gratitude. Eventual joy, as I explore her collection once more, knowing that her canon will justly soar along with her for ages.

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Eternal Queen

Aretha Franklin//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Tackling Aretha isn’t easy for this Xennial. Nearly a decade and a half removed from her ascent, she wasn’t always on my radar. I had Whitney in the Eighties. Toni, Mariah and Mary in the Nineties. I was familiar with the hits, but Aretha’s music didn’t “click” until my junior high school year. The song: her rendition of “Say A Little Prayer”. One of the few times I’d felt goosebumps while listening to a record. There was an instant connection. Soon after, there’d be several songs in Aretha’s catalogue that would put me in every solitary feel.

When I fell in love, I further understood. Nobody sang about love like Aretha. If you weren’t in love, she made you want the type of love she sang about. If you were experiencing heartbreak, her vocals nursed you through the pain. Made you feel like you’d not only recover, but triumph. Made the pain bearable. Hesitant to tag her a “feminist”, as she encompassed far more, but most indelible was her demand for balance and equality. “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man”, an all-time favorite, exemplified that. She mastered several genres, but epitomized soul. That’s what her voice and music stirred. You simply didn’t have a pulse if it didn’t.

The Queen’s transition left me contemplating legacy once again. The urgency of creating an impact. A Black woman witnessing Aretha’s legacy can’t help but be moved to action, no matter the scale. There will never be another Aretha. I’ll never need one. I’m content in cherishing her unique gift. Rejoicing in her legacy. One of love, freedom and victory. One I’m grateful to have witnessed. Unrivaled, she emoted in a fashion that resonated. I felt that grit, even though I hadn’t fully lived it. That’s the power her artistry wielded. It’s why she belongs to every generation. May the embers of her Fire energy burn for eternity and light the path for those who love her. I’ll bask in that light every time I lift a needle to one of her records. Job regally done.

Problematic Fave?

Nasty Nas//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Photo Courtesy of Raheem Nelson
Artist is available for commissions

I became a Nas Stan in 1994. From Word Up! pullouts to writing “words past the margin” in my poetry books, I was obsessed. I’d never heard such vivid stories or lyrics delivered as effortlessly. His vibe was reminiscent of Rakim, but wittier. A significant portion of his discography has been uplifting and besides having a wack ear for production at times, he could do no wrong. Until I watched his ex-wife, Kelis, in a recent interview. She alleged that Nas mentally and physically abused her. It’s often said that there are three sides to a story: Side A, Side B and the truth. While I await Nas’ side of the story, I believed Kelis in this interview. Her body language and display of raw emotion while recounting the details of their marriage swayed me. I don’t expect perfection from my artists, so I’m hesitant to cancel a fave. However, I’ll never be able to listen to Nas the same.

These are our heroes (c) Nas

Though we don’t know these artists personally, their work often resonates in ways that makes us feel as if we do. We experience emotions. Good art taps into those emotions, leaving indelible marks, almost endearing us to the artists. It then becomes difficult to separate the art from the person. At what point do we make a clean break from an artist when they disappoint us? Should we? After all, everyone has demons. The difference is, our favorite artists are often fighting them on a public stage. Do these demons help us empathize with artists or do they make it easier for us to chastise them? The media responses I’ve read suggest the latter. The “cancel” culture has become prevalent. Talent is immense within the music industry, but if we cancelled many problematic artists, our legendary pickings would be fairly scarce. Redemption arguably becomes necessary. Not only for the artist, but the fans.

Redemption is a universal principle. It begins with a show of remorse or a sincere apology. Do artists owe us this? Yes, if they want continued support from some of us. Whether artists like it or not, their morality is weighted by the public, especially if their work has a conscious element to it. We want to believe that our faves are practicing what they preach. If not, some of us want to throw them from the pulpit. Does continuing to produce great art seal passes for certain artists? Yes, but at this point, as an opponent of domestic abuse, it’s going to take more than hot sixteens and great production for me to ever consider donning my cape for Nas again. “Life’s A Bitch”, but “Life Is Good” when my favorite artists strive to exemplify decency beyond their content.

Resources:

https://www.nrcdv.org/

https://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/

http://eacada.org/

#ZoraDay

“Unapologetic.” Uttered often, but how is it personified? In 1998, I learned – without knowing I’d learned. That year, my English teacher assigned us Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. It’s Southern dialect reminiscent of afternoon porch conversations amongst my great-grandmother and her … Continue reading #ZoraDay