On June 15, Sonia Sanchez moderated an intriguing conversation between Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates. All three writers were presented with the Marlon Brando Award for “excellence in the arts and commitment to social engagement” given by the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Morrison is a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist; Sanchez is known for her poetry (she received the Robert Frost Medal, a huge honor) and association with the Black Arts Movement; and Coates is a journalist and writer of race and social justice and National Book Award winner. These are only snippets of their achievements.
Image courtesy of Color Lines.
With a lineup like that, how could their discussion on “Arts and Social Justice” be anything but great? The three discussed a variety of topics, including the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 13, police brutality, writing influences, and Muhammad Ali. While there’s no video recording of the discussion, Vox provided some highlights from the night.
Toni Morrison made a comment that is resonating with many. She reminded us that “art is dangerous… because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans…And those people are artists. They’re the ones that sing the truth. And that is something that society has got to protect.” Despite this difficulty, we must never give up.
Here are some more highlights from the night:
Toni Morrison: I was 38 or 39 years old before I began to write a book. And that is when I remembered that exercise from when my sister and I were kids. But at the same time, more importantly at that time, I wanted to read that book that I did not think anybody had written. I read all the time, but I was never in those books. Or if I was, it was as a joke, or as some anecdote that explained something about the main character without the main character looking like me. So I decided that I would write the book that I really and truly wanted to read.
[On writing The Bluest Eye and remembering a “very dark-skinned” friend who desired blue eyes]: How Awful it is, how really destructive it is, to believe that you’re ugly.
On Muhammad Ali
Ta-Nehisi Coates: We are always, as African Americans, under some sort of pressure to conform ourselves in ways that won’t bring bodily harm to ourselves or to our children. Make sure your skin isn’t ashy, make sure your hair is straight and everything looks right. There’s a whole performance that we do to put on our best face. To see somebody so profoundly reject that is just the most powerful thing. To see someone say, “My image is my own. I don’t have to conform to you. If I want to say I’m the greatest, I’m gonna say I’m the greatest.”
And to see someone have a second act like that. To find within themselves that they’ve lost a little bit of their foot speed, a little bit of their hand speed, they can’t quite play the game like a younger man anymore, and to find within themselves an older man, is a great inspiration. Because you can’t write the same book over and over again.
Sonia Sanchez: … my father said to me, “You need to watch Muhammad Ali, because he’s like Sugar Ray Robinson. He is this dancer. He is this poet. He is clever. He’s a clever boxer.” And so I watched him and fell in love with him, what he did. Because, you see, not only was he boxing for himself, he was boxing for all of us.
On police and the black community
Ta-Nehisi Coates: We have to get past the place of, “How do we get these officers convicted in a court of law?” and get to a place of, “How did this happen in the first place?” At the point you’re dependent on the courts, at the point you’re dependent on the very system that sent those police officers there in the first place, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to get to the level of policy first.
Toni Morrison: There are white kids in Vermont and upper Massachusetts who are OD’ing on drugs. And guess what? They found a little piece of medicine that you can inject to make sure that somebody does not die of OD. And also all of these houses where you can freely be rehabilitated. All of a sudden it’s a problem that we can handle and not send those little white children in Vermont to jail. So policy, you’re right, Ta-Nehisi.
There’s so much more and it’s all well worth the read!
Featured images courtesy of Indiewire, http://bit.ly/29duw7C and Project Black Man.