Dear Graduates of Color

Part love letter, part rallying cry, Associate Professor Renee Simms writes an anthem for the Class of 2018

Once there was a woman from America’s heartland who was black and imperial and seated at a desk. Her right hand clasped a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil, which she held above a yellow legal pad. There, the woman brightly considered her next word. This was her work each day, predawn. “It’s not being in the light,” she’d say, “it’s being there before it arrives.” Her written words would become novels that one reader would later describe as “love and disaster and all other forms of human incident.” Her name was Chloe, the Greek goddess of agriculture, a word that she would later scratch and revise.

I am trying to tell a story of becoming. Becoming firm in one’s purpose. Arriving each day with a pencil in hand to do the work that only you can do. I am trying to tell a story of becoming fearless. Becoming unafraid of challenges or darkness or change. Becoming unafraid of your own imagination. Most of all, I am trying to tell a story of becoming fully human, like Chloe: fully human in what you write, in the words you speak, and in your daily encounters and decisions.

Not becoming perfect, but becoming human.

I know this is not a new idea for you. Since you arrived on campus you’ve heard us say that humanism is a core value of a liberal arts education. Our university’s mission says that we want students to develop “rich knowledge of self and others” and “an appreciation of commonality and difference.” But what does humanism look like in action? The Afro-Roman playwright Terence said, “I am human; Nothing that is human is alien to me.” Think about that statement for a minute. Think of all the different orientations, desires, impulses, cultures, and traditions that make up human experience. Then think about what it means that none of that should be alien to you. This maxim reminds us that if you are a humanist, no orientation or tradition, whether experienced by you or not, should be easily dismissed or ignored. But you will be tested on this principle when you leave here. It might happen when you enter graduate school in a small college town where you know absolutely no one, and absolutely no one looks like you or will talk to you.

You may be tested at your first full-time job where, perhaps, the core value is not humanism but profit at all costs. Or you may be tested when you return to your hometown with slightly different ideas than when you left. In fact, your humanism was probably tested here as a student of color at UPS.

So how do we recognize humanists out in the world? What is operational humanism?

If we return to Chloe’s story, I think you’ll have one example. I know that her life has been a lodestar on my journey. Chloe’s last name, I meant to tell you, was Wofford. In 1949, Chloe Wofford changed her first name because her classmates at Howard University were struggling with pronouncing it. Then, in 1958, she married and changed her last name, becoming Toni Morrison.

By looking at Morrison’s life we can see what it means to be a person of color who confronts the usual obstacles. Morrison’s life also teaches us what it means to be passionate, talented, educated, smart, and to use those gifts to deepen one’s connections to other human beings.

Like each of us, Morrison grew up in a world with racism.

Morrison’s birthday—February 18, 1931—was one month before the Scottsboro boys were arrested and falsely charged for the rape of white women, rapes that allegedly took place aboard a crowded train.

As a 14-year-old boy, Morrison’s father witnessed two of his neighbors, who were local businessmen, lynched on his street.

When she was a girl, Morrison’s family moved quite often, living in at least six different apartments. In one of the apartments, which cost $4 a month, the landlord set the place on fire when their family could not pay the rent.

Early in her career, she experienced the sort of benign failure to be noticed and mentored that is common for women of color. She’s said: “I certainly didn’t personally know any other women writers who were successful; it looked very much like a male preserve. So you sort of hope you’re going to be a little minor person around the edges.

...Frequently when men are very young, a mentor says, You’re good, and they take off. The entitlement was something they could take for granted. I couldn’t.”

She would not tell her editing colleagues at Random House that she was writing her first book, The Bluest Eye. And more tellingly, for me, is the fact that no one at Random House suspected that she was writing a book.

Despite the negative messages about black life that she grew up with, or maybe because of them, Morrison escaped into books at an early age.

“I developed a kind of individualism—apart from [my] family—that was very much involved in my own daydreaming, my own creativity, and my own reading,” she has said.

She’d become a close reader who could notice all the nuances that were on a page, but also the things not said, especially when it comes to race. As a teacher, she would go through William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and track the way that racial clues are withheld in that novel. She finds it exciting to study what isn’t being said. You’ll remember that Absalom, Absalom! is about the Sutpen family before, during, and after the Civil War, and it’s told from various and sometimes conflicting perspectives. The main conflict is that Henry Sutpen, who’s a wealthy Southern plantation owner with a second wife and two kids, has a son from his first marriage show up years later, befriend his son and try to marry his daughter. The problem is the first wife was part black which is why Sutpen left that marriage. Tragedies arise from the partially black son trying to marry into his own family.

About that book, Morrison says:

“Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom! spends the entire book tracing race and you can’t find it. No one can see it, even the character who is black can’t see it. I did this lecture for my students that took me forever, which was tracking all the moments of withheld, partial, or disinformation, when a racial fact or clue sort of comes out but doesn’t quite arrive. I just wanted to chart it. I listed its appearance, disguise, and disappearance on every page—I mean every phrase! Everything, and I delivered this thing to my class. They all fell asleep! But I was so fascinated, technically. Do you know how hard it is to withhold that kind of information but hinting, pointing all of the time? And then to reveal it in order to say that it is not the point anyway? It is technically just astonishing. As a reader you have been forced to hunt for a drop of black blood that means everything and nothing. The insanity of racism. So the structure is the argument. Not what this one says or that one says. ... It is the structure of the book, and you are there hunting this black thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference. No one has done anything quite like that ever. So, when I critique, what I am saying is, I don’t care if Faulkner is a racist or not; I don’t personally care, but I am fascinated by what it means to write like this.”

While Morrison’s students fell asleep during her lecture, what she did in that lecture she’d do in the only short story she’s ever written, “Recititaf,” in which we have two girls that we follow over several decades. One is white, one is black, but they share the same class status. All Morrison gives us are details related to class, so the reader can’t tell which character is black and which one is white.

She also used this idea about “writing around race” to create a book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In it, she proposes that many of the great books that we read are writing around an Africanist presence in order to make sense of whiteness. She writes:

“We need studies that analyze the strategic use of black characters to define the goals and enhance the qualities of white characters. Such studies will reveal the process of establishing others in order to know them, to display knowledge of the other so as to ease and to order external and internal chaos. [We] need to analyze the manipulation of the Africanist narrative (that is, the story of a black person, the experience of being bound and/or rejected) as a means of meditation—both safe and risky, on one’s own humanity.”

We didn’t have a literary theory that helped us see the way that white writers construct whiteness through an Africanist presence before Morrison. Yet, we are all richer in understanding our literary heritage, and each other, because of this work.

Those are some of the contributions Toni Morrison has made as a teacher and literary scholar.

As a creative writer, she has published 11 novels, including her trilogy (Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, which give us a look at American life during a crucial century: the 1870s to 1970s). She’s published children’s books co-authored with her son, Slade; a libretto on escaped slave Margaret Garner; and a play based on the life of Emmett Till.

As an editor at Random House, she edited The Black Book, an anthology of artifacts: newspaper articles, photos, trading cards, and letters that document black experiences in America. She edited the work of Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, and Huey P. Newton. When a poorly researched biography on Angela Davis was published, Morrison wrote a scathing review of the book in The New York Times. The review features one long, beautifully crafted, Faulknerian-like sentence that chastises said biographer. A writer I know describes the review as a wig-snatch done by a hand dressed in a long, white glove.

Why am I telling you this? Especially you, Class of 2018, a class which has done such incredible work on campus as scholars and activists?

Because I want you to keep doing that work. I want to offer you a mental picture of how “doing the work” in the real world might look; how doing the work in a predominantly white industry, like publishing, has looked for one woman of color. Toni Morrison never pandered to destructive norms, never hid from her identity, culture, or traditions. She spoke up to defend her colleague, Angela Davis, against instances of historical misrepresentation and erasure. She brought others along with her, mentored them, edited them. She thought deeply and expansively, finding holes in literary theory and filling them. She acquired multiple skills as a teacher of literature and creative writing, as a literary critic, novelist, and editor. This is what you have to do. You must scorch the earth—leave everything out there like Toni Morrison.

We did not see Morrison coming in 1970 with The Bluest Eye. She told us that. And when we read the first line of her first book, “Quiet as it’s kept there were no marigolds in 1941,” we didn’t understand what she was bringing to that line. Look at her lecture on canonicity, given at University of Michigan in the fall of 1988. She explains all of her work, each word, color, image, structure. It’s all intentional. She explains why she starts The Bluest Eye with “quiet as it’s kept.” She wanted to begin with African American storytelling, to start with colloquial speech spoken by a black woman telling the secret story of abuse of another black woman. “There were no marigolds in 1941” means, Yes, there’s the preferred narrative, but let me tell you the truth of what’s going on. The story of Pecola Breedlove had not been told, it was missing, and that’s why she wrote it, to include that example of “love and disaster” into our literary canon.

Toni Morrison is my obsession, but find your own example from your discipline, from within your family, or community, and let their example of humanism inspire you. Given your education and experiences here, given what I know about many of you, your class is uniquely prepared to identify our broken systems and to rebuild them into inclusive and more humane structures. Remember that. Because quiet as it’s kept, Class of 2018, you are the ones that we have been waiting for.

 

By Renee Simms
Published July 31, 2018
Photos by Ross Mulhausen

Renee Simms is an associate professor of African American studies at Puget Sound. She is also a writer and lawyer interested in black women’s fiction, the intersections of law and literature, and community writing pedagogies. She is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Writing. Her new short story collection, Meet Behind Mars, was released in March.