This year brimmed with scores of notable deaths across a wide range of public interest — James Ingram, John Conyers, Juanita Abernathy, Pernell Whitaker, and on and on — but no death may prove to have had a wider impact on America’s ability to reckon with itself than Toni Morrison’s.
America is big on spirit, but being in possession of a soul is another thing altogether. For the past fifty years, Toni Morrison, through her nearly dozen novels and reams of criticism, never failed to remind America that it needed a soul to go with all of the “Star-Spangled Banner’s” bombs bursting in air.
More than just a national treasure of a writer, Morrison, who died in August, was an oracle you could throw almost any subject into and get back an insight so profound as to save or shake your entire day. For instance: Absence was a thing she captured particularly well, whether it was the sting of grief —
“It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
— or the sharp beauty to be found in truancy:
“Every now and then she looked around for tangible evidence of his having ever been there. Where were the butterflies? the blueberries? the whistling reed? She could find nothing, for he had left nothing but his stunning absence.”
Toni Morrison also knew black people inside and out. She wrote about black people in a way that made her seem prescient, as if she knew every one of us personally and our mothers.
Given the well-deep scope of her talent, it occurred to me that Morrison might have light to shine on some of the black lives we lost this year.
I went back through her work, page after page, like tea leaves, finding quotes that could be read as eulogies for some of those who left in 2019. In doing so, I began to experience Morrison as a literary Charon, carrying her sisters and fathers and lovers across a river of lessons and legacy. A quote for a life would normally be an easy epitaph, but in Toni’s Morrison’s hands, a quote is a world.
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Award-winning writer Ernest Gaines stamped black reckoning into the firmament of American letters with works like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Gathering of Old Men, instant classics both. Constantly questioning not just the words on the page but the ideas themselves, Gaines was a Socratic of the highest order, always seeking the things we weren’t asking about ourselves.
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Mayor Unita Blackwell came up with little education under a horrific sharecropping system designed for all intents and purposes to extend slavery generationally. She became a preeminent civil rights activist, spending the bulk of her adult life fighting for voting rights, desegregation and education. Eventually, in 1976, she was elected the first female African-American mayor in Mississippi, a job she kept for the next 25 years. Her work in the field of equitable housing and public infrastructure was so progressive that she received a MacArthur Fellowship genius grant in 1992 for it. Blackwell not only built an enduring legacy of civic duty from scratch, but organized politicians nationally and internationally to better serve their respective communities…literally piecing together disparate pieces of our then-broken democracy to create a more just society.
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Generally speaking, I avoid politicians on sight. They’re slick and agenda-saddled creatures, their ends justifying their means too rarely for my taste. That said, Congressman Elijah Cummings was the kind of politician that could give even a cynic like myself a dash of hope now and then. Cummings did work I would never do, but I could never question the rectitude of the principles behind his efforts. He fought battles I would never fight, but that must be fought, taking lumps I would never take for the express purpose of ensuring someone like me wouldn’t have to. I sometimes rooted for him, usually with some kind of qualifier attached, but he was always rooting for people like me.
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When rapper Nipsey Hussle was shot outside of the clothing store he owned in South Los Angeles, the narrative around his death was very different than almost any other rapper who had met a similar fate. The world became suddenly aware of his quiet-as-kept philanthropic efforts and mountain of reinvestments he had been installing in his neighborhood with all his self-managed success. It was the kind of work black people who make it out of hoods are always being charged with by those who are left behind: “When will you give back?” Nipsey Hussle never left, and despite the tragedy that took his life, he left behind a road map of economic development that challenges not just the stereotype of the professional gangster rapper, but black capacity for self-determination.
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One of music’s greatest divas, opera singer Jessye Norman embodied grace in an industry that had to be taught to extend it to her. Her powerful vocal presence forced the modern music world to bend to her will, becoming one of the most acclaimed singers in the world by putting her inimitable stamp on every production in which she was featured. When the World Trade Center columns of light were unveiled in 2002 after the September 11 attacks, she was the person tapped to sing “America the Beautiful.” And as her reputation allowed her to make more decisions about what work she would do, she constantly sought to break down barriers in the modern music field by curating work by black composers, dancers and musicians.
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Speaking of divas, pointing out that actress Diahann Carroll was the first African American female to star in her own primetime network series that didn’t require her to play a maid, Julia, leaves out a score of other accomplishments. Glamorous, multi-talented, and a fiercely intelligent actress, Carroll was also the first black woman to win a best actress Tony award (No Strings), and threw in a Golden Globe win to boot (Julia). All of this would be enough for an entire career for anyone else, but Carroll set her sights on right-correcting racial imbalance on television once again years later, being hired on sight for Dynasty, making her the first prominently-featured black character on a prime time soap opera, where she held her own against an over-the-top Joan Collins for four years.
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Of the many black filmmakers suddenly afforded keys to the Hollywood kingdom in the wake of Spike Lee’s early years, few of them dropped as hard or proved to have the staying power as director John Singleton. Singleton made a name for himself by creating unapologetic street odes like Boyz n the Hood and Poetic Justice, reflecting nuanced slices of black life rarely told with such range and care. Practically inventing a genre, Singleton slammed open a door for black filmmakers that hasn’t shut since, and whose influence would spread through music, fashion and language for years to come. No one was telling those stories at the level that he was — and few have told them as well since.