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Wed Aug 7, 2019, 12:33 PM

One More Time -- Roger Bonair Agard's Great Tribute To Toni Morrison

(Roger is a poet, teacher, father and spoken word artist living in Chicago, born in Trinidad.)

The first book of Toni Morrison's I ever read was Song of Solomon. It was 1998 and I was undertaking a 36hr bus ride from New York City to Dallas to do a series of poetry gigs. I forget now who recommended it, but I hadn't read a lot of fiction recent to that and thought a long bus ride would be perfect for it. Still, when i want to reference that book I often forget the name. It slips past my grasp.

What i remember first, is a passage from the book in which she talks about the difference between folks who are land locked, and folks who live at the ocean. That passage riveted me at the time. I recognized a truth that felt fundamental. It felt like it was a verifiable truth because the wording of it made me feel it / know it, in my bones. I recognized in her work more kin to poetry than i thought at the time fiction might hold.

I read the entire book on the way there, closed it, opened up my notebook and wrote a poem that at that time was a massive leap in accomplishment for me over what i had written before. The poem was called 'naming and other Christian things,' and i think it was several years before i'd write anything as good again.

On the 36hr bus ride on the way back from Dallas, i began a novel. I wrote probably 50 pages on the way back, and eventually about 150 pages of a terrible novel that is lost and locked away in a Toshiba laptop somewhere that only some computer savant can free.

Derek Walcott gave my language permission, ratified the ways in which we move from recognized English to the dialects of our speech - as literature. Willie Perdomo allowed to recognize the authenticity of the hybrid languages i was learning and evolving as poetry.

Toni Morrison completely blew the doors off the fake ass border between literary genres. I transformed almost immediately into someone who saw my potential as a writer as without boundary defined by genre. I understood how my prose might be poem, how my verse could be memoir, my notes - drama. It wasn't a new discovery by any means. It was only new to me, and I was young in my process of becoming a writer, even though i was already 30 years old.

Toni Morrison unlocked a current underneath the energy and swell of what should inform useful writing, if useful meant that it moved the reader, that it moved and was emotionally relevant somewhere to someone. She did that too while making my Black feel loved, while creating for me, personally, a paradigm which did not include white people.

By then i was already an acolyte of James Baldwin's. I have my mother to thank for that. She'd gifted me 'The Fire Next Time' while i was still a child, and it fascinated me - this public letter to the nephew, and in hindsight i believe it had some to do with my mostly absent father.

Some months ago, my father brought out a file of letters I had written him from ages 5 through 9, the pages over 40 years old and yellowed, but kept in pristine condition. It instantly re-wrote a narrative i had in my head about my childhood relationship to my father. The letters felt written from such pain too - the wanting to see my father, the hoping he could come home, back to Trinidad so he could be with us...

...when i first read Morrison I didn't know my father had kept those letters but Morrison's every line was weighted in the gravity of that boy's dreams. I believe Toni was a link in a chain that not just made me a writer but that ultimately provided a container wherein my father and I could discover each other again, and love each other, perhaps, anew.

There is no way for me to measure how responsible Toni is for any victory my writing can claim, but from Song of Solomon to Jazz - Paradise to Beloved, her Nobel Laureate acceptance speech and every random essay, which includes the sound of her voice reading them, Toni Morrison is a key element in my survival as a Black man in America.

I am certain I could not have survived the journey this far without her. To be certain, the jury is still out but she has a massive hand in getting me this far.

I can only imagine how many she has worked for similarly. I know the lady will travel well. She exhorts us to not be distracted from our work. That must include the current moment. I loved her. I love her. I'm a better human being for it.

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