The day Mama Toni died, I was there. In spirit, I was there.
It was early. I think. It felt… early. On a mandated staff trip in a big fancy rental house in a man-made crimeless beach community, I don’t remember the time but believe me, it was early. This was my second year on staff with this non-profit- small team, large served population. This was my third or fourth time on an all staff work outing. This was my first “retreat.”
The morning Mama moved on, there wasn’t much air in the room I stood. Nothing wrong with the room- one of those open- concept kitchen, dining, living room combinations. Bright white walls, wrap-around sectional, oversized island, it was the kind of renovated welcoming room that capitalism welcomes so few of us into. But in the same way each room took up as much space as it wanted, supremacy and white normativity and the myth of professionalism took as much air as it wanted- which is all of it.
Standing in this very white room after taking off my bonnet before coming upstairs, I checked my phone. Time did not stop. It never does. But urgency and measurement do, they did for me. I froze. I foolishly let out a pocket of air out to whisper, “Toni Morrison died.”
the room did not stand in attention as it ought to have.There was no reverence, no wailing, no pauses, no ripping and tearing of sheets, nothing Mother Morrison deserved and for which she would have never asked. Instead, One set of sympathetic eyes. Another set of caring inquiry. And so many eyes away, elsewhere.
A pillar of black womanhood was gone and I stood among people who did not even know that my foundation had shifted. I stepped outside. To cry. To find air. To wonder how I found myself standing with people who had nothing to offer but sympathy, niceness and questions, people who didn’t know the delicate nature of foundations.
I think I stepped back into a team building session. I don’t remember. I know someone asked me who she was. Stunned and angry, I responded. But really, I was with her.
See, Mama Toni never wrote or spoke or lived for the white gaze. It was for us. It was always for us and for herself I suspect, that she created and recreated and reveled in the worlds and words of blackness. It was from those dances and our language her creativity leapt. It was black spirituality and black resilience and black joy and black sex and black black blackness that made Mama Toni who she was.
She never concerned herself with our survival. Our survival, to her, was a given. It’s what we are doing. What we have always done. She wasn’t even necessarily concerned with our thriving- for what do you call this creativity, our daring to be calm and caught up, our agency to fall in and out of bed or love or bravery or whatever at any given moment? But it is with how we would thrive and with whom that Toni Morrison made us look.
How would we thrive? Would it be by bitterness, out of spite, towards money, by way of plunder? How would we keep on doing what we’d always done? Would it be with one another? With our dearest friends, with the lovers who chose us, with or without the children we couldn’t protect, in community? She never imagined we’d focus on survival. She never capitulated to our needing to convince oppressors. Mother Morrison did not write the way she did for us to aspire to live where there is no knowledge of foundations.
So in August of last year, I chose to go with Toni Morrison. With her, I began to leave a white led and white dominated workspace. It was with Mother Morrison I stopped looking for white approval or accolades or opportunities. It was with her that I took off my wig and wore my natural hair. It was with the best American novelist of all time that I clung to my black girlfriends. It was with the Nobel Laureate I carved out a place for myself and danced in it. It was with her that I returned home to myself. Toni Morrison spent her life leaving a world made for whiteness to celebrate blackness in all our forms and on the day she left for good, I did too.