There is an African proverb that when an elder passes away, a library closes its doors.
October and now, November, have closed the doors of yet another elder.
In October, it was my last aunt, the last elder in my maternal line. While she was not a published author, the stories of her life were written on the faces of generations. she lived to be a grandmother, great-grandmother and nurtured an entire community. Her mom was affectionately called The Funny Farm.
As I was thinking of her story set against the stories of her sisters, my mother was the eldest and passed away when I was four years old, I thought about my reasons for reading Black female literary works and celebrating the griots. We know who we are because of the stories told to us and as a people descended from the Triangle Trade (Africa to the Islands to Europe to the Americas - all the same folks), we can only go back so far. A lot of us is written, etched within our spirits, and is how we are able to keep parts of ourselves alive. Aunt Jo used to talk about "those old Creole ladies" of her youth and let her waist-length hair be the working salon for every girl who needed to learn to braid. She had a witty personality and was "bossy" to her final day, living on her own terms, loving purple, and still flirty, fun, and fabulous. Oh what it would be to have her story written down.
When I woke up this morning, on Aunt Jo's 92nd birthday, I found out about the passing of Ernest Gaines, the Louisiana writer who invited us to consider conversations and connections. Two of his many works, A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men, were some of the volumes I read as a young lady trying to figure out myself in a time before smart phones and social media connected millions. He took pen to paper and brought to life the experiences of rural Black southerners in a way that was wholistic, nuanced, and complete.
I was ten years old when his novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was made into a television move in 1974. It was a time when I was asking questions about identity and place. I was born the year of the Civil Rights Bill being signed. The protagonist, the fictionalized rural woman, Miss Jane Pittman, was so believable that so many thought she was a real woman who experienced all the racial segregation, discrimination, despair, and hope that encompassed that time of history from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of The Civil Rights Movement. I was an adult when I learned she was not real, that is how complexly he drew us into her story and how brilliantly Miss Cicely Tyson played her during that television biopic.
His other novels that formed me when I was a young woman were A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men. These were also set in rural, black, segregated Louisiana. Zora Neale Hurston, for which my literary circle is named, is one of the only other authors he named as telling full stories about rural black people. As a reviewer of black female literary works, I think there still remains stories to be told about people who do not live in the cities and suburbs of urban Black America.
Gaines passing away brings my sense of literary loss to thoughts of what else needs to be written so the future generations do not lose themselves in the fierce moments of a tweet. He took seven years to write A Lesson Before Dying. Toni Morrison, who also passed away this year, didn't start writing until after age 40. Paule Marshall, who passed away just ten days after Toni Morrison, is also part of our cultural library that has closed doors forever.
We are left with their words, words that transcend time and are timeless in the humanity conveyed in understanding people beyond stereotypes and sound-bytes . Who are we really? Mr. Gaines taught his students to discover this at the end of their keys and to his final days, left us with many opportunities to seek those answers.
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
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