From Elizabeth Alexander’s grief memoir The Light of the World (2015). This is the conclusion of the final lecture she gave to her “African American Art Today” class, just one week after the sudden death of her husband:
“Don’t forget to feed the loas” serves as an entreaty or opening salvo and refrain in Ishmael Reed’s great novel Mumbo Jumbo. The phrase articulates the imperative to remember to honor the deity-like ancestral forces that guide us through our contemporary lives. The offerings on their altars may be fruit or flowers, chicken or wine; when taken metaphorically, offerings may also be found in the form of art and the calling of names that honors our dead and keeps them near…
…Art replaces the light that is lost when the day fades, the moment passes, the evanescent extraordinary makes its quicksilver. Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other’s lives, as we all must eventually leave this earth. Great artists know that shadow, work always against the dying light, but always knowing that the day brings new light and that the ocean which washes away all traces on the sand leaves us a new canvas with each wave.
It’s a fact: black people in this country die more easily, at all ages, across genders. Look at how young black men die, and how middle-aged black men drop dead, and how black women are ravaged by HIV/AIDS. The numbers graft to poverty but they also graph to stresses known and invisible. How did we come here, after all? Not with upturned chins and bright eyes but rather in chains, across a chasm. But what did we do? We built a nation, and we built its art.
And so the black artist in some way, spoken or not, contends with death, races against it, writes amongst its ghosts who we call ancestors. We listen for the silences and make that art. “Don’t forget to feed the loas,” Ismael Reed wrote, and so by making art we feed the ancestors, leave water and a little food at the altars we have made for them, and let them guide the work. We listen; we hasten to create.
Survivors stand startled in the glaring light of loss, but bear witness.
The black folk poets who are our ancestors spoke true when they said every shut eye ain’t asleep, every goodbye ain’t gone.
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