Prolific poet Sonia Sanchez invited two literary greats -- iconic author Toni Morrison and acclaimed journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates -- to have a conversation about art and social justice at the Ambassador Theatre in New York on Wednesday, June 15.
In front of a sold-out audience, Sanchez led an insightful discussion on how the writers use their craft to voice their truths and tell stories untold. Addressing modern-day tragedies like the Orlando shooting and instances of police brutality, the three explained why they felt their occupations weren't optional; they considered it their duty.
"I want to remind us all that art is dangerous," Morrison warned the audience. "Somebody’s out to get you. You have to know it before you start, and do it under those circumstances, because it is one of the most important things that human beings do."
Following the discussion, all three of the panelists received the Marlon Brando Award for excellence in the arts and commitment to social engagement from The Stella Adler Studio of Acting. As one would expect, the 90-minute conversation was full of gems -- including what they each learned from the late Muhammad Ali. Here are a few key quotes from Sanchez, Morrison and Coates, respectively, on some of the topics they discussed that night.
"When I began to write, I wanted to tell how I became the woman with razor blades between her teeth. What made me want to power others through my bloodstream, what made me want to rise up to tell my story and… all our stories, I guess it must’ve been something underneath our skirts, girls… Something accented, unaccented in my and your walk and talk. Jimmy Baldwin wrote, 'For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new. It must always be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell. It’s the only light we’ve got in all of this darkness.'”
"I began, not because I wanted to write, but because I wanted very, very much to read... I wanted to read that book that I did not think anybody had written. I read all the time, and I was never in those books. So I decided that I would write the book that I really and truly wanted to read. I called it The Bluest Eye. And it was the result of a convo I had with my friend, at 8 or 9 years old. She and I were having a very serious discussion about whether there is a God or not. I said there was. She said there wasn’t and she had proof. And I said, 'what is the proof?' She said, 'I have prayed for blue eyes for two years and hadn’t gotten them. He hasn’t delivered them to me.'
And I remember turning around and looking at her and thinking two things at the same time. One, thank God He had not given her blue eyes because she would look awful. That was when I realized that what I was thinking was, as she was, she’s a very, very dark-skinned girl with these beautiful cheekbones, high cheekbones, these great almond eyes, but I had never said or thought 'beautiful.' That’s not a word we would use as kids… For the first time, I looked at her… she was beautiful."
"I guess I never knew of it as a means to a choice. I grew up in a household surrounded by books, there were books everywhere. My dad published books. My mother was a teacher. My mother taught me how to read and taught me how to write… I was interested in doing all that outside the classroom. So if you’d put a teacher in front of me and sat me at a desk… I would almost immediately cease to be interested in reading and writing. Reading and writing was something that belonged to me. It didn’t really belong to the classroom. But the flip side of that is that it meant that there weren’t too many other options besides writing in my life. This is the thing that brought me the most joy. This is the thing that no matter, when it wasn’t being published, when it no longer made money… I’ll still be doing it. It’s just a thing that’s here."
On fighting injustice:
"All of these people who were [in Orlando], let’s take a minute of silence…. because we know if you work, not just at some point saying something like ‘I have a good friend who’s gay,’ not that… but you go to your church and people talk against your brother and your sister and your mother and your father and your uncle and your aunt. You’ve got to say something. You’ve got to say something... Because when we let that happen, then we produce people who think they have a right to kill. And so we have to come up against that at some point."
"I want to remind us all that art is dangerous. I want to remind you of the history of artist who have been murdered, slaughtered, imprisoned, chopped up, refused entrance. The history of art, whether it’s in music or written or what have you, has always been bloody because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans… And it’s something that society has to protect. When you enter that field, no matter where you enter, whether it’s Sonia’s poetry or Toshi’s music or Ta-Nehisi’s rather starkly clear prose, it’s a dangerous pursuit. Somebody’s out to get you. You have to know it before you start, and do it under those circumstances, because it is one of the most important things that human beings do. That’s what we do."
"When something catastrophic happens, we like to analyze it at the point of conflict. Take Orlando right now, and so where we are is 'OK, assault weapons are banned, that’s what we need right now.' And so things that really are insufficient measures seem like radical steps. Like assault weapons bans, which would not be adopted, we wouldn’t even be close to adopting... And so, where that goes into a situation like Ferguson, you get bogged down into this place: What happened between the officer and Mike Brown? All of the analysis happens right there. And none of the analysis goes to the sort of broader question, ‘OK, what is the relationship between the police department in general, historically, between this community and the cops.'
I think part of that is we’re just scared of the work. It’s gonna be a lot of work. It’s gonna be a lot of really, really hard work. And we might not win. And yet we have to commit ourselves to the struggle, because it’s nothing else besides struggle. There is no laying down and giving up. And so one thing about this moment right now, and I am seeing more of this in the journalism and the activism, we have to get past a place of how can we get these officers convicted in a court of law, and get to a place of why did this happen in the first place."
On Muhammad Ali:
"Along comes Muhammad Ali, and I said, I made this great production, ‘I don’t watch boxing, it’s cruel.' My father said, '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. Not only was he boxing for himself, he was boxing for all of us. I said to someone recently, he loved [black people] more than we loved ourselves. And more than he loved himself...
I remember, with my twins, going up to [Deer Lake]… and he got in the ring, he said to everybody, 'Come on, come on, come on, come on. I’m here. Come on.' And they were put in the ring with him and they start boxing him. He fell out on the ground and the kids put their feet on him. ‘We won, we won, we won.’ And then they put me up there. I said, 'I ain’t gonna box you, man.' He picked me up and throw me up in the air. His timing was so perfect. I was so scared. He was saying something like, ‘Are we getting ready to go?’ and he caught [me]. That was my one and only time in the ring, people."
Morrison (who was Ali's book editor):
"That was one smart dude. I have to tell you, and he understood instantly what other people needed in him, what other people wanted in him. He complained to me [that] he couldn’t go to some book signing in New Jersey, and I said, 'what do you mean you can’t go, it’s already set up.' 'No, no, no, it costs too much,' [he said]. I said, 'It doesn’t cost anything, what are you talking about? We pay, you just go and sign books.' He said, 'It costs because people ask me for money.' And I said, 'you don’t have to give it to ‘em.' He said, ‘I’m the champ. They hit me on the shoulder, they say 'hey, champ, give me a dollar. Give me five dollars.' I can’t say I don’t have it. I can’t say no.' So everybody who asked him for money, he always gives it and it costs. And I insisted that that was not a good enough reason for him to refuse to go to this signing... But he was correct in what the limitations were and it was less about the money, I think, than the fact that everybody who came in the line and who he spoke to hit him on his shoulder and said 'Hey champ.' A thousand of those hurt. And he’s not gonna say it. So you had to have some mechanism so you could stop it. [Laughs.] And make everybody happy, including him. But I have to say that working with him, it was strategic, that’s all I mean. You had to think like him... and use his best resources and his own personality, and then it was successful and the book was successful."
"I think we are always, as African Americans, under some sort of pressure to sort of conform ourselves in ways that won’t either bring bodily harm to ourselves or to our children, and so there’s a lot of pressure revolving on talks about this: Make sure your skin isn’t ashy, everything’s straight, your hair looks right. And there’s a whole sort of performance that we do to put on our best face for folks. And to see somebody so profoundly reject that, I mean it’s just the most powerful thing... To see somebody out there like, ‘My Image is my own. I don’t have to conform to any of these… If I’m gonna say I’m the greatest, I’m gonna say I’m the greatest.’ Just be mad about it."
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