I was moved by the sight of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, leading a white-robed procession to inaugurate the first of ten Bench in the Road placements (by the Toni Morrison Society) honoring the memory of slaves near their point of entry into this country. On July 26, the seventy-seven year-old Ms. Morrison, braved blazing South Carolina sun in Charleston Harbor along with approximately 300 yellow parasol-bearing participants in a service complete with African drumming, pouring of libation, flower casting into the waters which brought the ancestors to American shores and Ms. Morrison taking a seat, finally. The gesture is a poignant reference to a comment made by the author nearly twenty years ago about the need for commemoration of the middle passage: “There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath or wall, or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road.”
From the “Bench of Memory at Slavery’s Gateway,” photo by Anne McQuary for the New York Times
Just days later, I find myself once again moved by communal white-robed gathering to honor our revered dead. Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theater and impassioned champion of Black culture and her Harlem community was sent off to join her place among the ancestors in fittingly theatrical fashion on Monday, July 28.
Celebrants of her storied life were asked to wear white, honoring West African funeral traditions and purple, the color of royalty. The cortège began at the site of the theater she founded 40 years ago, with 40 African drummers and an African elephant (she loved them.) The white glass-walled, horse-drawn hearse bearing her coffin then proceeded through the streets of her beloved Harlem to the packed Riverside Church, where the paeans to a fruitful life were delivered in profusion. After the release of doves, a 21-gun salute and a three-hour repast, Dr. Teer was memorialized in a final dramatic display–fireworks by the famous Gruccis from a barge on the Hudson.
From “For Champion of Black Theater, a Salute in Harlem’s Streets,” photo by Gianni Cipriano for the New York Times
For a stirring first-hand account of Dr. Teer’s Homecoming, visit Xenobia Bailey’s Artist Journal