Honoring the Living and the Dead

Three things. First, the living.

I. Dr. G.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a celebration for Dr. Geneva Smitherman, known to most folks as Dr. G. Dr. G. is University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. Her work in and advocacy for African American language has impacted so many people, myself included.

At her celebration, organized by David Kirkland, past and current students, and colleagues spoke not only to the importance of her work, but also to how Dr. G. created humanizing spaces within academic institutions that often feel dehumanizing. There were sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, and what’ s known in Lansing as crack fish.  Jeff and Tama Wray’s daughter, Jasmine, did an incredible rendition of Afro Blue. A slam poet from New York  spoke a poem about being trilingual that brought everyone to their feet. I learned MSU has a breakdance club. There was a DJ spinning old skool beats. Jeff Wray quoted Song of Solomon and talked about how Dr. G.’s work made us all believe we could fly. He presented her with a booklet that Terrion Williamson put together. Terrion put out a call to folks at MSU to submit original writing or writing by other writers that would honor Dr. G. and her work. I submitted a found poem that I wrote using the words from Dr. G.’s collection of essays Word from the Mother. Dr. G. spoke after everyone had testified, which is what the celebration was–a testament to her and to what her work has given so many of us. It felt like a house party, and all the things I miss about church (but not enough to make me start going again–just being real).

Some pics from the evening:

Another one of those Michigan moments that made me love being here.


II. Toni Morrison     

The other event I went to this year was the celebration for Toni Morrison in Blacksburg, Virginia. I was going to post something about the celebration weeks ago, but what I started writing has evolved into a much longer essay about writing, memory, history, death, and really good bean pie (not a joke–in Alabama). Two years ago I took a solo drive across the country and drove through Blacksburg, Virginia. In the essay I’m writing, my earlier trip is merging with my most recent trip. We’ll see what happens with it.  But briefly, the event for Toni Morrison was wonderful. I’m glad I made the trip. I didn’t have a good camera with me, but I met a young woman from District Heights, Maryland who sent me the photos she took. Shout out to Anne-Sophie Amegah who’s a first year student at a small college in Virginia for these pics:

You can watch a video of the whole event here, or just a clip of Toni Morrison’s response to the event, which happened after  people read excerpts from all of her books–kind of amazing–right here. One highlight among many: India Arie sang a song she wrote when she was nineteen after reading The Bluest Eye.


III. Now, the dead.                                                                                                                                                                                                       I recently finished reading d.j. waldie’s holy land: a suburban memoir. I learned about this book from my colleague Marcia Aldrich whose Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP prize in Creative Nonfiction. Marcia’s book, which I haven’t read yet, tells the story of “the aftershocks” of a friend’s suicide. When Marcia mentioned Waldie’s book, I was interested because his book is about Lakewood, California, which is near the city where I grew up.

Tokens from Waldie’s book: “Houses in Southern California are built as sketchily as possible, while still able to shed rain. Walls are a thin, cement skin over absence”; “The past is always slipping away, nowhere more quickly than in Los Angeles, but the past isn’t always distant”; “The work of every generation includes reconciliation with its past”; “I want the day to come when writers deal honestly with the divided heart that’s in every story of every American place.” It’s a beautiful, sad book about the death and renewal/change of a place.

The question that’s been on my mind this year: How do we honor the living and the dead, even in the face of the difficult? My question has to do with home, memory, with d.j. waldie’s “divided heart,” maybe not divided in the same way that Waldie imagines it, which I think has more to do with White American individualism, but divided nonetheless. I’ve been thinking about this question not only because of events I’ve attended this year like the ones above, but also because my father died last December. As the anniversary of his death quickly approaches, I’m not sure I’m any closer to answering the question. I know that telling stories matters. Remembering matters, even when it’s difficult. And while it feels as if I’ve spent most of this year trying very hard not to think about grieving, it’s probably true what a poet friend who lost both of her parents told me this past summer, that our subconscious is doing the work even when our conscious mind can’t. Dang poets. I try to avoid them. They’re all about truth-telling, and metaphors. I do know I wouldn’t have been able to write even this much about his death at the beginning of the year, or that I probably wouldn’t be writing the essays that have started happening, essays that are bridging past and present in ways I didn’t plan.

So on this Thanksgiving which celebrates family, but which also marks a history of genocide, I’m remembering the living and the dead. Thanksgiving I spend with the hubby’s family. We’re taking walks in the mountains near one of the places the hubby used to call home. We’re both enjoying the break from the flat, freezing Midwest, which has its own beauty but is flat and freezing and far away from both of our families. I’m looking forward to seeing my sister-in-law and her wife, and their two amazing daughters, and to the stories that happen when any of our families gather. And I’m baking pie. Sweet potato pecan.

Giving thanks.