I am honored to have been invited to participate in the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Urban Education's celebration of Toni Morrison’s life and legacy through the viewing of the documentary, "The Pieces I Am," and the subsequent panel discussion.
In preparation for my role as moderator, I viewed the documentary prior to the actual event and collaborated with Dr. Khirsten L. Scott in the construction of the questions that would be posed to the panelists. Dialoguing and constructing the questions was an experience in itself – as the questions became reflective of revelations from the documentary that seemed to be responding directly to our own personal, academic and community-based explorations around Black stories, freedom dreaming, and community-informed praxes. I was quite proud of the questions, and my pride was evident in the excitement with which I posed them to the panelists.
Viewing the film a second time, at the actual event, prepared me more fully for the panel discussion because this time, I was watching and absorbing new information less for inquiry, but more so for establishing a personal connection with some new aspect of Morrison. This connection was not crystalized until I decided to respond to a portion of the first question during the panel – “What were memorable parts of the film for you?”
I was intrigued by the confidence with which Morrison accepted the presence of ancestral apparitions. She describes a girl wearing a hat who rose out of the water when she was writing Beloved; the voice of her father when composing Song of Solomon; and at the conclusion of the film, she recollects a figure walking towards her while she had her hand pressed to a dark mirror. In each of these instances, Morrison does not fear or question their presence, nor does she question herself. Instead, she receives them as a confirmation.
I realized in reflecting on her embrace of these spiritual influences, that I too have felt or been compelled by an ancestral influence. However, I questioned the validity of the experience – “Did it really happen?” “Am I trippin?” “I’m being dramatic.” In answering this panel question, I realized how we have been conditioned into an unbelief of ourselves, our bodies and our ancestors. This severance is painful and deleterious. Morrison, however, received and wrote with the generational energy of our ancestors.
As the panel progressed through the questions, I found myself wishing intently that we had spent the entire three hours of the event in discussion. There was so much information being shared and transferred – considering the obvious intensity each panelist exhibited in their connection with Morrison and her writing, I can only imagine the depths of what remained unspoken.
For example, in her response to the question “what does it mean to tell a Black story?” and the consideration of the ways in which Morrison eliminated the white gaze, Michelle King said that “part of my own journey in this work is to fall apart…and trust my own gaze… [There is] something about my mother’s gaze that helped me move through the world.” In addition to “gaze,” King proceeded to reframe and/or redefine the word “apocalypse” and “discipline” in an effort to emphasize the profundity of language and labels. She challenged us to consider “what are the new names we must call ourselves.”
Similarly, in response to the question of “how must we live and rearrange ourselves in order to survive?” as an extension of Sonia Sanchez’s comment that we must re-read to Morrison every 10 years in order to survive, Kendra Ross called for a “return to loving critiques” to encourage us to consider our own authenticity and intentionality. She illuminated significance and variety in Black women’s glances – the when, how, and why our Black mothers, sisters, and aunties “just read us.”
Both women, alongside the three male panelists, shared stories of pain, joy and community as they reflected on their early introductions to Morrison and her impact on every aspect of their lives thereafter.
Accordingly, reflecting on her impact on my own life, I found myself at yet another realization when Damon Young asked me to respond to the final question: “Do you have a favorite work of Toni Morrison and why?” Initially, I had no intention of responding; largely because I thought I did not yet have a favorite. However, when posed the question by Young, I thought of an answer and immediately felt in my body a stirring sense of joy at the thought.
My favorite Morrison work is The Big Box. Not so much for the narrative, like many of the panelists – though I appreciate the conceptual complexity and nuance, as well as the intergenerational collaboration through which the story came into being. The Big Box is my favorite because of the experiences that will now, forevermore, be attached to my reading of the book: I was invited by Dr. Khirsten L. Scott to read The Big Box and co-facilitate a community-based literacy project that took us into two Pittsburgh Public elementary schools, one middle school, and one public library. Each of these readings and projects generated critical, colorful and liberatory dialogues across communities. We ignited children all over the greater Pittsburgh area to think, imagine and talk about freedom.
These readings and projects affirmed the work to which I have committed me life, and simultaneously affirmed that freedom is real – we are experiencing it in live time, and through our freedom dreaming praxes, we are constantly reimagining and expanding it for ourselves, our communities, and our descendants.
This panel catalyzed these realizations. I departed the panel and remain grateful for the ways in which Morrison and her legacy brought communities together for the purpose of dreaming.