-Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters
A couple of weeks or so ago I said the universe speaks to me in death. I was talking about the death of the brilliant Gloria Naylor whose writing has had a major impact on my work. I was processing the death of my grandfather who died a few days before she did. Gloria Naylor’s first book was published the year I was born. She died exactly one month before the release date of my first book. This week, as I continued my process of rereading Gloria Naylor’s books and tried to write poems about my grandfather, my father died. I didn’t know what I knew. Can that be true? What I should say is that words are as powerful as they have always been. And it’s a power greater what I can understand in any given moment. To honor Gloria Naylor I have been in the process of designing the Black Boundlessness Intensive which begins on Monday. It doesn’t feel like mere coincidence to me that just at the time where my heart is breaking and suturing itself again, when I am screaming and crying and vomiting, when I am laughing and rejoicing and remembering. Just at the time that I am grappling with how to relate to my father, who has left behind the boundary of his body…I am also sitting here crafting word portals for us to access black boundlessness, time travel and space ellision.
Black Boundlessness. How can it not feel like abandonment? In a society that seeks to constrict and constrain and contain black bodies forcefully and unrelentingly, what have I learned? How can I not resent my father for his freedom to be anywhere at all in the universe? How can I understand and honor his lifetime of imperfect but lasting attempts to somehow be with me? In Bailey’s Cafe, which I am rereading right now, Gloria Naylor works with the distinction between the edge of the world and the end of the world. They are close. I can feel how close they are right now. Here, where it hurts to breathe through tears. Here, where I have no appetite. My father’s illness and death line up with systemic racism, what Ruthie Gilmore explains as the production of early death for black people. A cruel pattern in our health system (can we call it that? a health system?) where most Black men don’t know they have prostate cancer until it has spread far beyond the prostate. Where the type of testing that could cause early detection isn’t usually covered by insurance, and where my father didn’t have health insurance for decades. When he was finally covered by the affordable care act, there was cancer in his bones.
My father, who used to dance awkwardly and often to all the music of the Caribbean, was limited to a hospital bed. And like countless physically disabled people he used his computer and his phone to still be everywhere. Truth be told, even when he could still walk he spent more time on facebook than anyone his age I know. He used poems dedicated to loved ones and to strangers as an intentional practice of attempting to move beyond his own body, beyond his own history into someone else’s experience. Interestingly enough, he still ended up writing about systemic racism and sexism in almost all of those poems. Not that long ago, as he explained to me the relationship between a poem he wrote for me and a poem he wrote for my grandmother, my father explained that he thought of life as a cosmic dance floor. Earth was a very small part of it. All of our energies, the living now and the living ever were dancing, improvising, responding to each other’s movements. In the picture at the top of this post I am holding my father’s hands on a literal dance floor. And now what was his body is ash and dust and I am responding to spirit. This is a difficult and strenuous part of the dance, black embodiment, palpable loss. And a worthwhile one. So I am continuing to design the course. I am qualified to design this course, in which I am also a student. And I am offering praise and gratitude to one of my most important teachers.
*Free to Be Anywhere also refers to the title my cherished mentor Farah Jasmine Griffin’s 1996 essay “Toni Cade Bambara. Free to Be Anywhere in the Universe.” The way she honors her father in her work on Toni Cade Bambara, and in general, guides me.