We continue to celebrate Black History Month today which would have been the birthday of two of favorite writers, Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison. Hell, I think such a shared birthday of two such writers should be a national holiday.
“We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit,” claimed Lorde reclaiming tenderness, “because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of black women for each other.” She also told us, “Certainly there are very real differences between us…But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences …”
All of us: study tenderness. Act tenderly. Make it a habit. Especially as we recognize our differences.
A Litany for Survival
BY AUDRE LORDE
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
Toni Morrison read The New York Times with pencil in hand. An editor by trade, Morrison never stopped noting errors in the paper. In 2015, during a conversation with The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, Morrison observed that the stories she cared about were once absent from the news. Now they were present but distorted, she found. “The language is manipulated and strangled in such a way that you get the message,” she noted wryly. “I know there is a difference between the received story . . . and what is actually going on.” Morrison was the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and one of the most beloved writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In a wide-ranging interview with Als – you can read the whole thing here – Morrison discussed her last novel, “God Help the Child,” writing in a modern setting, and her relationship with her father, who she says was complicated and “racist.” When she was older, she learned that he had witnessed the lynching of two of his neighbors. “I think that’s why he thought that white people . . . were incorrigible,” she explained to Als. “They were, like, doomed.”
Als: Now, there was this very intense moment in my young life as a reader, where I read part of a speech that you had given. A talk. And you said that one of the things that was interesting to you about America was that, despite bestial behavior, we had failed to produce a nation of beasts.
Morrison: Mean. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] We’re going to get to that. And then, when I thought of that quote again, I thought of what I call the elegance of survival that’s in your books. Son in Tar Baby for instance, is regarded as a sort of feral character. And yet he dreams of those women of color who restored order in the black church and in the world. Would you like to elaborate a bit on your original statement? And do you still feel it’s a little true? Or less true?
I was thinking when I made that statement of the really vile and violent and bestial treatment of slaves and their descendants. But they did not succeed in making those descendants reproduce that violence and that corruption and that bestiality. Their response was—it’s a little contemporary, but I was not really surprised when the survivors and the family members of those people who had been killed in that church were not, I want him dead. It was something else. It was grander. It was humane. And it was eloquent and elegant, that response of forgiveness, which we always assume, for some reason, is a kind of weakness. . . . But sometimes we understand that kind of generosity. And I’m not gonna let you tear me up as a kind of weakness. Whereas I always thought that that was extreme strength, extreme.
Do you think that that’s a way of preserving the community? That if you do the sort of eye-for-an-eye thing you’re stepping outside of the community, and then you’re really in danger?
Oh, indeed. Oh, yeah. If it’s just about vengeance and what you think is justifiable punishment for someone who has done something violent or wrong, then you’ve made that connection. You’re like that person. And the community—I mean, I’m not so sure that it’s true now. But I’m sure it’s true in some places. But my notion of the community is a recollection of the one I knew best growing up, where, I was saying to somebody recently, adults can no longer say, “Go outside and play.” Because it’s scary out there.
For me, they used to say to all of us, as children back in Ohio, “Go outside and play.” It was almost like a command: “Go outside and play.” And you came in at lunchtime, et cetera. And there are a lot of people in my generation who know that, even in places like New York City. But now—
It was the discipline of care.
That’s right. But the point was that whatever you were doing, there was somebody else in the community who knew where you were, who you were, and whether or not you were in difficulty. Neighbors and people who walked by. And they all knew. So they knew each other. But, you know, those were the—that was a real community. Not one that’s just fearful and full of locked doors, and maybe somebody will hurt me today, or not, tomorrow morning.
Well, I thought one of the things—I’m skipping ahead a little bit, but—fascinated me about Home was the idea of sanctuary, that one of the things that happens in the book that you establish early on is that each person of color he meets helps him on his journey because they’re not asking questions about his legitimacy; they know his legitimacy. And he gets home. Which doesn’t exist anymore, really, in the shape that he knew it as. But those people establish a fraternity of: you are us; you’re our son.
Oh, yeah. I remember travelling on trains when my children were small, going from, say, Washington back to Ohio. And in some of those places when we were travelling in the South, not with my children but before, there were cars where colored people sat. And where white people sat in other cars. But the most important thing was the porters, who gave you twice as much orange juice, or four sandwiches and two pillows. There were so excessively generous and kind. So it was like a luxury car, I suppose, to what they thought. And I was thinking not too long ago that if I walked down the street at night in Ithaca, New York, when I was at Cornell, and if I saw a black man, I would run toward him. Then I thought, These days, with all of the discussion about black men as threats, I would not do that. I may not do that. But I certainly wouldn’t run toward a white man. I might just have to flip a long haul by myself. [Laughs.]