It is only when a notable black writer leaves the earthly plane for the higher one that the void they leave behind is truly felt. It is wide, cavernous, and deep.
t is filled with their public works – if they have been lucky enough to be recognised – and their private deeds.
If they have been prolific, their catalogues of produce are lovingly listed from their ambitious and glittering debut to their most magisterial and critically acclaimed works. Even their lesser efforts garner praise.
What I have always been curious about is what the desks of these great black writers look like the day after they depart and leave us with the mess of human life.
What remains unwritten? What words of power and truth remain unuttered? It has always felt, to me, that a black writer’s work was never done. Sometimes it feels as though it has not even started.
The space a black writer leaves behind is scary.
Why? Because that space can be quickly filled with so many things. Inconsequential things – like all of their minor shortcomings or the one time they incorrectly phrased that one thing. It is not just writers, though; any black artist’s legacy is always up for grabs upon their passing.
Mostly, though, the space where a black writer used to be almost always gets filled with whiteness.
It is quite curious and quite vulture-like, the way whiteness waits for black writers to pass on before ripping the carcass of their works apart. Whiteness suddenly finds new meaning in their words and work – everyone professes to have been loyal supporters of their struggles and visions from day one. Radical works get sanitised and diluted. Long, fiery prose is reduced to short, glib quotes; the whole becomes fragmented; the blackness is co-opted. He or she suddenly “wrote for all of us”.
If you list any notable black writer, you see the inevitable pattern: There is a race to see who can reduce their struggle to a pop culture melody or a poorly produced biopic catering to the white gaze.
That is why Toni Morrison’s passing hits home so hard. She was a vital pillar in black American and world literature. She brought black life to the literary world; she made black people feel seen – to others and ourselves. Her passing leaves a space that is filled with her magnificent and ferocious work. But it also leaves a black space behind, a space that is in danger of becoming a blank space.
So, the questions remain.
Who will hold steady on the frontlines? Who will serve? If not you, then who? If not now, then when?
Because I assure you, the jackals are already circling. For now, the space is crowded with grief. But sooner or later, inevitably, the race to turn Toni into a T-shirt will begin.
Toni Morrison (1931 – forever).
That is all. That is not enough. That is all we have.
Remy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born columnist, essayist, short-story writer, poet, photographer and novelist. His debut novel ‘The Eternal Audience of One’ is available now.
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