We live in a grieving epoch. Loss extends far beyond our private tears. And it seeps into every facet of our existence. We grieve the millions who have died from this plague. We grieve the loss of loves and anchors and jobs and homes. We grieve because of the way loneliness has shriveled us up, the way hope has soured. Recklessness, a standard human error, seems unforgivable. We grieve that, too.
And we mourn. If grief is the interior experience, mourning is how we materialize something out of that grief.
This year I lost so many teachers. And when I say teachers, I mean people who helped me think, grow, and understand the world. I do not mean it necessarily in the formal classroom sense, yet there was a gravitas to their teaching. And so many of them were people through whom I have learned about my vocations: being a writer and being someone who stands in the tradition of African American thought, and someone who believes in liberation for all people. I am bereft. In a way I feel orphaned, and perhaps unprepared to testify to that which they taught me and that which I have a responsibility to teach others. But I will try. Bit by bit I will try.
All of these individuals—civil-rights organizer and educator Robert Parris Moses, religious historian and professor of African American studies Albert Jordy Raboteau, art historian Robert Farris Thompson, cultural critic Greg Tate, and feminist intellectual bell hooks—left an indelible mark on the world, and many have written far more eloquently about them than I will here. And for that reason, I have allowed myself the spontaneity of thought that comes with grief, memories through which I made meaning, their gifts not only to the world but to me.
Writing about these great figures who we have lost as this difficult year closes is, for me, a mourning ritual. I have always written my way through the most painful seasons, through death and depression and heartbreak, and I hope that in the moment of communion between me and you, us and them, on this page, something hopeful happens.
July 25, Robert Parris Moses
On that day, some afternoon in the late 1970s, my mother sent me to greet new neighbors. Though we lived in Massachusetts, she hadn’t let go of training me in southern ways. I was sent on tasks that included welcoming people to our apartment complex and offering to help them unpack, even though I was small and scrawny and more likely to be trouble than useful. The Moses family, who I met halfway across the courtyard and to the left, was beautiful: parents and four children (two boys, two girls). I remember being surprised they called their father “Baba” instead of “Daddy.” I tucked that away to figure out later. The big boy sat on a basketball, and we talked about the two playgrounds nearby.
Later, as we all grew more familiar, I would sometimes pile in the car with the kids when their baba took them across the bridge to Boston for their weekly swim in a pool. Accident prone, I knew they would always help me if I limped home bleeding or crying. We played together and took up for each other. I don’t recall when I fully understood how important a man their dad was. I grew up around people involved in the freedom movement (which is how I was raised to refer to the civil-rights movement). But I eventually learned that he was the architect of one of the most important periods in the movement, the Mississippi freedom summer in the Mississippi delta. Bob was soft-spoken, playful, and as serious an intellectual as I’d ever seen—and mind you, we lived in Harvard graduate-student housing, so there were lots of serious intellectuals around. He doted on his wife, Janet, encouraging her as she pursued a second career as a doctor, and his children, Maisha, Omowale, Taba, and Malaika. And he welcomed the rest of us in the neighborhood into their community. As I grew older, I learned that habit was at the core of his movement politics. Everyone was invited to the table.
The memories aren’t all joyful. I remember white supremacists had him on a kill list at one point in the ’80s, and it sent a shiver through our community. He wasn’t the only parent who was subject to threat. But maybe we felt more fearful because we loved him so. That’s the part people often forget when they opine on this or that about the movement, or who was right or wrong. They forget that it was no small matter to get involved. It always had very real consequences for its organizers and foot soldiers, and that danger continued long after the days touted in our history books. Because there are many people still very angry that Black Americans have civil and political rights, that’s why those rights are constantly being threatened.
I’d learn that baba was a name for daddy in Tanzania (and in many other parts of Africa), where the Moses’s family had lived before returning to the United States. That’s another thing people forget: The imagination of the movement was vast, and people in it fanned out all over the world, seeking kindred spirits. Amazingly enough, many of them also made their way to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bob attended to our (and here I mean all the kids in the neighborhood) learning as well as our well-being. When he founded the Algebra Project it was because he understood that math, as an academic subject, was, like many areas, a site of inequality. Black and Latino and poor kids, even in a place like Cambridge, were weeded out of opportunity because of it. And he identified access to Algebra in seventh grade as making the difference between opportunity and barriers in the lives of children. He went from a local to a national program working to make math an equalizer.
As I grew older, though he was always an elder, Bob became an intellectual interlocutor. He and my mother talked education. He and I talked law. He pushed me to think about constitutional theory in ways never broached in my law school experience, and how to boldly imagine what democracy could mean. He wasn’t ideological, though. He didn’t proclaim he was a particular type of thinker or even call himself a leftist as far as I could remember. Instead, Bob talked about how people could work together in communities to address exclusion and domination. He believed in democracy not as a technocrat, but as part of a belief system. And he never asked anyone whether they had the right beliefs, but posed challenges about whether they would do the work.
At Princeton, we hosted him for a year as a distinguished fellow, and he brought along his colleagues with whom he had worked in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi. We, faculty, were often sitting quietly while they told stories, learning history that we’d only read about in books. What was most remarkable was their joy in memory. Only rarely were there flashes of anger. But if Bob ever thought anyone was diminishing the sharecroppers, the domestics, the everyday people—the unsung heroes of the movement—he spoke sharply. He reminded everyone that no movement could have taken place without the protection and care of local Black folks in the Mississippi delta, who fed them meals and wisdom, who taught them how to navigate a violent and hard world. And also, rarely, painful memories would come up, and Bob would go silent or walk away from the group. He never once drew attention to himself in those moments, but one does not stare Jim Crow in the face without trauma. I learned to be even more grateful than I already was for him, and that we who believe in freedom stand in a tradition of freedom seeking, and that work doesn’t require a name or recognition to matter. It just requires us to be in communities of conscience and care.
September 18, Albert Jordy Raboteau
In my house growing up, “Al” referred to only one person. We knew other people named Albert, but Al was Al. My mother had met Albert Jordy Raboteau when they were in their late teens. He’d dated my mom’s best friend. They shared a passion for theology and, more specifically, Black Catholic liberation theology, of a sort homegrown in the freedom movement in New Orleans, Louisiana. My mother and he attended two universities together and lived in three cities at the same time, attending marches and conferences along the way, and entering into the larger world from the Jim Crow South with common conviction. Sometimes I’d pretend to be asleep while my mother and her friends would talk late into the night, and I’d overhear them reminiscing about old days. I remember they would say that Al was brilliant and dashing, yet moved about them like a spiritual guide, potent and poised.
I always knew his name, but it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college and I took a course called African American Theology that I saw his name on the cover of a book. We read Slave Religion, Raboteau’s classic text on the history of African American religion. As an American, and in particular as a Black American, you learn of slavery overwhelmingly as deprivation and disaster. And that’s not fiction. But it also isn’t the complete truth. Through painstaking research, Professor Raboteau, as I referred to him when discussing his work in class, offered a window into how Black people in this country remade Christianity into a theology through which freedom and their full humanity could be asserted. He taught us about the covert religious institutions that existed in slavery, and the structure of community and ethics through religion in slavery. And he was a spiritually driven intellectual. He taught us to listen for the ancestors and to heed them by finding the material evidence of their truths. Upon reading that book, I knew I could never countenance the idea that Black Americans had been destroyed by slavery. Imagination was ignited by faith in even the cruelest of circumstances.
When I began to work at Princeton, I met Al not in my mother’s memories or as an admiring student but as a colleague. Every once in a while he’d look at me, shake his head and smile while saying something like, “You look just like your mother did.” My mother, who like Al had come of age with requisite Catholic humility and the intensity of Catholic education, had taught me to be self-effacing but intellectually sharp. Working with Al was a master course in that regard. He didn’t flinch when it came to disagreement. He would tell you when you were wrong. But there was no bombast. He listened carefully to everyone. His head would tilt back if an idea intrigued him and he was working it out. Sometimes his eyes widened if he heard something stunningly brilliant. He was the most distinguished scholar in his field, but I never saw him make a fuss when he entered or exited a room. The work spoke for itself. His disposition spoke volumes. Even at his retirement party several years ago, he seemed to be most delighted to be surrounded by his children and grandchildren and less concerned with being feted. But several times, one of his beloved colleagues would say something deeply admiring and his eyes would sparkle.
I learned from Al to be diligent and steadfast, but also to know the virtue of listening closely to people and to ancestors.
November 29, Robert Farris Thompson
He was an institution. A white Texan percussionist, a Yale professor of African and African American art who attracted hundreds of students each semester. He forever erased any doubt that Black Americans were African in cultural origin, style, and gait, and that African spirituality lives on through all of us across the diaspora. He taught us symbols and rhythms, theology, ethics, and traditions, and his classes were electric—dance, song, and visual images were all part of the occasion. And he did something in class that I suspect many would find off-putting today: He often asked us, Black students, questions in class, treating us as authorities in his subject. One cannot assume culture because of race, and today I imagine many would feel uncomfortably singled out or treated as performers called upon in class that way. But 1992 was a different time. And in those moments, in that Ivy League institution that could be quite cold and hostile to Black students, it felt deeply affirming. That was possible because it was very clear that for this white Texan, our culture was appropriate for rigorous detailed study and that we came into class with a much deeper font of knowledge about it than our peers, who often seemed to sneer with the assumption that we were inadequate.
I took two classes with Professor Thompson, but didn’t know him much beyond receptions and gatherings here and there. He was affable, gracious, ready to dance and banter. He moved like the musician he was and always kept a southern cadence on his tongue. I marvel, I suppose, that a white man modeled for me absolute confidence with the poetry of my own culture even when surrounded by ivy walls. He taught me that the way a Black athlete moves is not ego and bluster; it is a philosophical relation to the world, a mastery of improvisation in uncertain circumstances. Our swagger, he insisted, was earned and enlightening.
December 7, Greg Tate
It is hard to fully capture what it meant in 1992 to have a book that explained the thrill of the moment we were living in, the golden age of hip-hop. I’d read Greg Tate in The Village Voice, but to walk into Harvard Book Store and pull Flyboy in the Buttermilk off the shelf was something special. I would meet Greg Tate a few years later. He was perhaps the only person I ever knew who could easily move between journalism, writing as art, academic circles, and the music world with absolute panache and grace, and to be beloved in every realm.
We were never close friends, but he was warm and generous in every encounter I had with him. He charmed people who couldn’t stand each other and would have them all laughing together. He treated Black musical culture with an unmatched reverence, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of Black cultures all over the world. He’d tilt his head, tip his finger forward, and say, “Well you know …” and take you on a journey. And we’d all listen. That’s just who he was. But when I learned of his passing, just two short weeks ago, the first person I thought of was his mother, Florence Tate. I have a copy of her posthumously published book, Sometimes Farmgirls Become Revolutionaries, and I’d been carrying it in my purse for two weeks before that and I couldn’t tell you exactly why. Sometimes I would simply hold it in on my lap when I first came back home after being out. I believe in signs, and perhaps that was one.
Florence Tate had a significant impact on me in the several times we’d met. She was both southern and cosmopolitan, had been an activist and a thinker. I admire older women. I admired her. And I would watch the way she’d look at Greg (I always saw her somewhere where he was speaking) with such adoration and a little smile. As a mother, I watch mothers. I especially notice the ones who have made spaces for children, and in particular their sons, to be expansive and artistic, because I have sons who I want to be free spirits and expansive thinkers. I noticed she didn’t nitpick, or fuss under her breath, or attempt to straighten his collar (which was often askew). She laughed along with his friends, talking to them warmly, engaging them in conversation. One day—and I wonder if it was a sadness in my eyes that she saw—she pulled me aside and gave me words of affirmation that I repeat to myself frequently. Now, having read her book, and learning how she moved between moments of deep depression and incredible exultation, I understand why her presence resonated so much with me. She was someone who devoted herself to making space for her children not only through nurturing them but also through following her own sense of passion and commitment. They did different things, Greg Tate and Florence Tate, but she—a traveling activist believer in freedom dreams—was absolutely a model for the great Greg Tate. Until you defy expectation, you don’t fully know who you are or all you can be. And Greg Tate did that in a way that created space for so many of us to think and explore.
December 15, bell hooks
There’s an old Nikki Giovanni poem on an album that I used to listen to when I was a child. In it, Nikki personifies an old woman, and she keeps saying, “My time is near.” I was trying to get to bell hooks before she passed and didn’t make it. But I’d noticed when she returned home to Kentucky some years ago that Gloria (as I called her) was drawing closer to the conclusion of her life.
She had once been a whirlwind, but in recent years her gait was tentative. She smiled but didn’t holler-laugh like she used to. I’d first met her when I was an intern working for Tanya McKinnon at South End Press, where Gloria was publishing her books at the time. I was 19 and I read through the pages of her book of dialogues with Cornel West, Breaking Bread, in order to find all the references they made to other books. I would then go to the library to get the full citations to go in the bibliography. I was surprised the first day she came into the office. She wore a bright-red linen sundress (I have one just like it to this day) and red nail polish, and she drove a red Mercedes. And she was a Marxist. She was a feminist who didn’t avoid talking about sex or admiring masculinity. She listened to hip-hop (and judged it) and read European social theory (and judged it) and also could treat people in both arenas tenderly. She was a worldly intellectual and very much a downhome, Kentucky woman. Her voice was higher and squeakier in person than on the page. And the last time I saw her she said, “Girl, you getting fat!” in a way that is very much Black and southern, auntie-like and teasing, and not at all a suggestion that I weighed too much (but absolutely noticing that I had gained quite a bit).
She had so many ideas, so much passion for creating a world that was free of domination and oppression of every sort. And she also was a wounded soul. Her feelings got hurt. She offered her abundant intellectual and literary gifts to two Black feminist generations and then was crushed when she felt forgotten or turned on. I suppose I understood this even when I disagreed with her assessment, because no matter how strident I am, I too can get my feelings hurt quite easily. It is sort of a strange way to be, to think you can step out onto a public stage and speak against the way things are, and opine and rant, but cry when you get intense backlash. So be it, we all have our idiosyncrasies. Still, here’s something I do know: Gloria’s sensitivity (and sometimes hypersensitivity) was integral to many of the greatest gifts of her work. She thought constantly about love and healing. And she gave voice to our yearnings, including a desire to escape the loneliness that is epidemic in our lives. So when you opened her books, you could feel your own heart beating.
One of my best memories of her is from a brunch in the South End of Boston. We were a group of Black women. And she said: “This is the life we should have. We should wake up and have a delicious breakfast with friends. And then we should do our intellectual work and our teaching for some hours. And then in the afternoon experience beauty, be in nature, shop, laugh, go on dates, have fun.”
It sounded so simple, and yet so completely improbable at the time. I wasn’t even 21, and I knew how elusive such a life would be for any of us. But I have nevertheless held onto that vision of the good life. Communion with family and friends, doing my work, and beauty as an everyday thing.
My friend Yaba is the one who called me and told me when bell hooks passed. Yaba and I had spoken just the night before, discussing another death. And just a few days before that, discussing yet another death. It is a choreography on loop over these two years with all my friends. And we repeat, “Lord have mercy,” “too much,” and “I can’t” over and over again. So much of life remains elusive or fleeting.
We have been crying. And there are more tears to come. And as mundane as death is, in this grief-soaked era, wailing “why” feels like the only thing to say most of the time. I cannot even pretend to say anything like, “They’re in a better place now” or “They’ve gone home to glory,” much less something analytical or measured. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not ok. We are not ok. I want my teachers back. And since I can’t have them, I want you to read them and I want to channel their beauty back into the world again and again in the time I have remaining.
But right now all I have to offer is mourning. It’s mourning time in America.