The below is contributed to us by the wonderful Oyinkan Muraina. You can read her other piece about immigration on DORÉ here.
On Tuesday, February 18th, in a corner of the Brooklyn Museum, an auditorium hummed. A diverse audience, of young and old, came together to celebrate the life of author, Nobel Laureate, and national treasure: THE Toni Morrison. Morrison passed on August 5, 2019, but her spirit was very much alive that evening. The inaugural Toni Morrison Festival brought together a swath of talent, including Sandra Guzman, Tyehimba Jess, Wayetu Moore and LaTonya Yvette. The audience purred, snapped, and swayed to the program. I crept in, unable to find a seat, and leaned against a wall, transfixed. I have read Morrison, though fretfully. Like an overeager driver in traffic, I would ram up only to break suddenly. No one wrote like her, placed words next to each other just so. But there was also a violence in her stories. One that often felt personal, left me lurching right before the lesson was learned. Beloved, The Bluest Eye, tragedies that would make Shakespeare shed tears. And yet, in that room, in that time, only joy shone through.
Since then, the founders of the Toni Morrison Festival have been hard at work on another project, called LOVE As A KIND of CURE. Inspired by Morrison’s dictum that “this is the time when artists go to work, LOVE As A KIND of CURE is 7 days of art, culture, and community to soothe the global pain caused by COVID-19. The series began on April 19th and will close out with a blowout brunch tomorrow, April 26th at 12:15 pm (psst, you’re invited). The brunch will include the likes of actress and comedian Michelle Buteau, organizer and podcaster DJ Thanushka Yakupitiyage, award winning artist Buhlebezwe Siwani, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Broadway star, Sarita Amani Nash. And, if you’re super eager, there will also be a story-telling workshop at 11am EST, led by filmmaker and director Idil Ibrahim. Suffice to say, you shall be a more cultured, informed, and enlightened individual upon returning to your typical quarantine.
I sat down (alright…telephonically communicated) with the founders and curators of these ground-breaking events, Cleyvis Natera and Magogodi Makhene, to discuss how the festival came to be, why now is the time to discuss the political, and how they plan to celebrate Morrison 365 days a year.
Part of Toni Morrison’s lore is that she was an editor first; she created a space for many black creatives to be seen. As creatives and as curators of this event, what did it mean to create space for other black heroes to share their work and commune with one another?
MAGOGODI: I think very deeply in my own writing life about the role of an artist and of an artist’s imagination as the beginning of the world that we want to live in. I think it’s important to harken back to that, the way in which the worlds we are hungry for, what’s in our hearts, what we would most want to see when we walk out of the Brooklyn Museum leaving that festival, the America that we want to live in.
I think it’s the artists’ work to make that real first, to make people see it; to help people to feel it, to touch it, and part of what I think humbly we did is help people to taste that reality. I thought it was so interesting, someone made a comment about how diverse the audience was that came, such a broad range of ages and backgrounds. You know that was intentional, that didn’t happen by accident, we wanted to make everyone feel welcome, we wanted to make everyone feel included, and that is reflective of the very wide and diverse readership that Toni Morrison enjoyed, which is really something because, if you think about the media landscape that she was operating with, and especially the publishing landscape, in terms of the decision-makers and the power players even today, it does not look like that audience. We want to inspire change! I think, again, the artists’ work is to hold up that beautiful mirror of look at what we are capable of. And once people feel it, taste it, imbibe it, then they go out into the world and, hopefully, can create it. I don’t think anyone that was with us on Tuesday woke on Wednesday without some uplift in their heart and some form of generosity in their spirit for helping the world. That’s part of what we’re doing.
“Generosity of spirit.” What a powerful concept!
CLEYVIS: I think what you’re saying is so important. You know the question, “How do we inspire change?” And you know, what I think Magogodi is talking about is a transfer between the artist and the audience. I believe every person is an artist. I believe there are some people that never find that path and there are other people who really groom it and make it grow. And then there are folks who find it and the abandon it. You know there are so many iterations of this. But one thing that I know for sure is that anyone who has read Toni Morrison has been transformed. And there are people who find her work challenging. Some of her books are really hard. You know her language at times can be beautiful and so lyrical and sometimes it purposefully difficult, it makes you read it slowly; it makes you read it again. You have to start a paragraph over because she is purposefully making you think very carefully about words. And so, to me, there’s something about you committing to her work and growing an appreciation for her style, because so much of it is, like in the oral tradition, or so much of it is not what’s being said on the page, that elicits these images and ideas in your mind. So, for me, I have felt personally impacted by Toni Morrison’s work, like I’m a writer today very much so because of Toni Morrison. There are others too, but she is my major influence. When I think about the generosity of how you can transfer your love of something and your understanding of the world, and Toni Morrison was really interested in looking at oppression and what does oppression do to the human spirit. How do we overcome it and how does everyone not overcome it? And so, I think there is something so powerful in opening up a door where Magogodi and I are saying to everyone in the world, come join us, there is a different way that we can combat the ugliness that’s happening, and it is through love, it is through creativity, it is through giving each other platforms to show how much beauty exists inside of us. Each of us.
When did you come up with the idea for LOVE As A KIND of CURE?
We came up with the idea for the festival in early March. Understanding that our communities would be impacted in disproportionate rates, we looked to Toni Morrison for inspiration. Toni Morrison was clear in her charge to artists for this time. She once wrote, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” We decided to create LOVE AS A KIND OF CURE in response to Morrison’s charge. Ours is a global movement with love at the center that focuses on activating individual action toward a collective shift in favor of an equal world post-COVID 19
I see that. I saw that you had the Resistance Revival Chorus perform at the festival, I hadn’t heard them sing before, but when I heard them I thought, (1) how fitting, but also (2) this sense of “a call to action.” I am curious how you decided which artists were appropriate for your events’ mood and purpose.
MAGOGODI: It was a combination of fortune and what makes sense. And, going back to and what [Morrison] was inspired by and what we’ve learned through her and about her. My understanding is Toni Morrison is somebody who loved not just letters. There is good history of this. For example, in Princeton she gathered many different kinds of artists, not just writers, but also dancers, musicians, film producers to this salon that she had, and it was really dynamic. It was hot. I think that’s the word that she would use. It was really hot! And sexy! And she was. Like, oh my God! You know it’s really interesting because, she was 89, so old enough to be anyone of our grandmothers, right? But, damn! What a bad-ass. What. A. Bad-ass. I’d give anything to go through her wardrobe, give anything. That style, and that swagger, and that richness. I think it’s important to note that the depth of all those worlds that she was creating came from black life. I mean black life is so dynamic, like. There’s a reason why there are novels and novels dedicated. Because it’s so dynamic and it’s so rich and there’s this jazz, there’s this dance, there’s this abandon and love for life against everything that is happening, despite what’s real. So, we had the intention of that and being creatives we went to our nearest and dearest first people that we know and admire, and I think there was a hand in there that was hers, leading us to people who said yes very quickly and who are extremely lauded. Like Pulitzer Prize winners and Emmy-nominated, like these are not small time and they’ve got other things to do, but her hand was there, in the very easy and quick yeses.
The LOVE As A KIND of CURE events span dance, music, visual art, film, and of course writing. In a way, the series is a digital salon a la Toni Morrison herself. Like Morrison, your artists have highlighted important topics, including the environment, feminism, systemic oppression, and the disproportionate impact of COVID and other health crises on brown and black people. Why is now the time for this dialogue? What do you hope to achieve by making the « personal political”?
CLEYVIS: If we start with the acknowledgement that the brutal inequities that Covid-19 highlights are part of our everyday fabric as an American society, then it becomes of critical urgency that we address the root of why that is true and what forces keep it from changing. We believe artists are in a special position to affect change through love since that’s what artists do through whatever medium our art takes. We also believe, very deeply, that ordinary citizens are poised for action, desire a more equitable world, and if we can create forums for discussion, ideas, and action, then those who are poised to act, will. Our hope is simple – through our LOVE As A KIND of CURE campaign, we hope to dismantle oppression.
There is the well known Toni Morrison quote “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I wanted to hear from both of you; what is the book that you haven’t seen out there? What are your plans to put that literature forth?
CLEYVIS: I think we both tried purposefully to keep our writers’ life out of the festival, but it’s so integral to why we love Toni Morrison. You know, I am working on the novel that I’ve been too scared to write. It’s so funny because it’s like a galvanizing thing has happened to me since August, where I was on this path to try and finish the book and try to publish it. It’s been really remarkable since she died. I write before I work my full-time job, so I already had habits in place that I think echoed a lot of what I admire about her.
But anyway, my book Neruda on the Park, is looking at the corrosive impact of love. I want my book to be in direct conversation with Beloved. Because the heart of Beloved is, “If the world is such a terrible place, then there are times when some of us, depending on where we are in society, have to sacrifice what we love the most in order to save it,” right? So, the question my book is asking is, how can the corrosive ways in which love is felt sometimes be used to free an individual? It’s turning some of those concepts about patriarchy and white supremacy on its head. This is the book that I’ve been working on for over ten years, because I was pretty chicken before. It’s a difficult book to write, because it’s really about a character that becomes a monster because of the impact of society, but you know, we can’t be scared anymore. We have to carry the work forward, and I hope I will.
MAGOGODI: You will. So, the work that I’m really interested in is deeply tethered to this thing that Toni Morrison taught me, which is the sanctity of black life. I’m South-African, I’m black, I grew up in Soweto, I was born into apartheid.
You know this past week, we had a state of the union address, which is annual there too, and President Cyril Ramaphosa was giving his update, but invited and sitting in in Parliament was former President S.W. de Klerk. de Klerk was the last President of the apartheid state before we dismantled in ‘94. And ironically, he won the Nobel Prize with Nelson Mandela, right? He stands up in parliament this week, mind you, this is a packed parliament of now black [MPs] and he says that apartheid was not a crime against humanity. And he believes it. He’s since recanted because there was such an outrage. I mean people were so upset, rightfully, but why am I bringing this up? I’m bringing this up because the place I grew up, the culture, society, it starts in utero, this telling of who we are and the invisibility of our humanity, and the insistence that we are not human.
What I’m driving towards, and why I know that this work matters, is restoring humanity. It’s sacred work for me. If I do nothing else except help myself to see me and us as whole, I’ve done my work. Because we come from 400 plus years of sustained and ongoing—this isn’t something that is changing dramatically because people have found Jesus and they’re nice. We’ve been dehumanized in my particular context, and obviously here in American that’s mirrored too, and I see part of the work as restoring that humanity. And how? I learned from Toni Morrison, start writing the ordinary, the everyday, the people who don’t consider themselves the heroes of South Africa’s 400-year fight against apartheid and slavery and colonization. That’s what my song is about; singing their praise.
I sincerely look forward to reading both of your works. I think it also speaks to this idea of writing truth. I commend both you on doing that work because it’s not easy.
So, Morrison’s birthday, February 18th, falls during Black History Month. I think maybe God planned it that way, but in that, what does it really mean to have a legacy, in this day and age, as a human being, but also as a black artist? What does it mean for Morrison to have a legacy and for us to celebrate that legacy?
MAGOGODI: I think you’re right, God planned it that way. I think, because I don’t come from the states, I wasn’t born here, I find some of the language around blackness really worth revisiting. To me, and this is not to take away the importance of having Black History Month, but what resonates with me even more, is black history 365. And what I think is really necessary, and this so beyond due, is a correction and recognition of black history as American history, an understanding of how black people built this country from before it was a country. When I’m talking about A Mercy, I mean, I’m not talking just about literary imaginative fiction. I’m talking about, there are hundreds of bodies, possibly thousands, that are buried below Wall Street, you can go and visit them now. There’s a burial ground. These folks built Wall Street with their bare hands, from stone. I think it’s really important to be clear when we are talking about black history that there’s something in there that is a fiction. It’s not black history, it’s American history. I mean, it’s not like they were building Wall Street on some fake Disney mock up. It was in New York. I think it’s incredibly important to understand Toni Morrison and her entire legacy as African American history in that context. Cleyvis?
CLEYVIS: Yea, I think that’s really powerful. There’s a clip of Toni Morrison. We played a video that is a montage of her throughout her life, and the way the video opens is with her saying that it is constantly a shocker to her that Americans are not dead because of the brutality that they have experienced. And also for those of us that are black outside of the United States, that are a part of a Black Diaspora, who are descendants of African people that come from a myriad of [backgrounds], you know to me it’s really interesting how people that look like us, throughout the globe, I mean this is something MM talk about a lot, that is Blackness in a global context. I think legacy to me means that we are seen and that we are seeing each other. And those of us that are standing today, we are standing because our ancestors were warriors. They survived. They survived against every odd. And when I think about Toni Morrison, like she survived in corporate America, and a publishing house, and she survived in the South with her parents, the horrors they survived, what she survived as a writer.
When I think about the fact that she wasn’t lauded for a long time; I mean there were critics that challenged her, like “Why are you wasting your talents talking about black people?” To me the legacy, what we carry forward as writers, as artists, what the festival carries forward, is making sure that we are creating a space where we see each other. Where we create spaces and platforms where we celebrate our creativity and the beauty that is what we are. If we are going to transform society, because I believe there are people that will come along with us on this side of the journey, there’s an alternative that exists today in the United States and that alternative is brutality. I don’t think anyone can be awake today, looking at what’s happening at the border, looking at what’s happening with children in cages, looking at what’s happening with children in cages, and mass incarceration and not realized that there is an alternative choice that is being put forward, which is about extinction, again of us, and so to me legacy of Toni Morrison is the legacy of survival. And we are going to survive, we are going to thrive! And we are going to thrive through our generosity, our creativity, and our love. (MAGOGODI: and our joy!)
On April 26th, you are having your finale for LOVE As A KIND of CURE, a blowout brunch, as you’ve described it. What do you envision for that event? What do you hope people take away?
CLEYVIS: When we came together, we had Toni Morrison’s words guiding us. We believe that breakthroughs can happen when you move people with love, and Love As a Kind of Cure did just that. We brought together amazing poets, filmmakers, musicians and troublemakers from everywhere to share their light and love with our audience. Sunday with be our grand finale. We will laugh, and learn how to take control of narratives that shape our individual lives as well as the constructs around us that help us see the world anew. And we wouldn’t be honoring Toni Morrison’s legacy if there wasn’t a real party, with infectious music and movement, to ground us in joy. Our hope is that people who join us for Sunday’s closing blowout brunch take away a greater sense of how their imagination can create a new world post-COVID lockdown. Collectively, we can create a kinder and less unequal place.
What else might we expect from the Toni Morrison festival in the future?
CLEYVIS: Each Toni Morrison Festival event we create is about keeping this iconic Nobel Laureate’s words and legacy alive for the next generation of young and new readers. As two black women writers, we know our work distrupts white supremacy and patriarchy in our human canon. Of 116 Nobel Laureates awarded for literature, only 15 have ever gone to women. And only 1 has ever been awarded to a black woman. These numbers tell a damning story about representation—whose stories get published, whose work is celebrated and whose words deserve Shakespearean stature. A quick look at the media landscape today does not bode well for an inclusive future—79% of the publishing industry is white, less than 40% of print and digital bylines are women’s; and a paltry 4.8% of TV writers are black. Living in the thick of this stew, we understand that the festival challenges assumptions about who gets celebrated in our human canon, alongside Shakespeare. And why? To us, the on-going work of our Festival means reimagining our literary heritage today by centering Toni Morrison as one of many diverse thinkers our descendants hundreds of years forward may point to as their Shakespeare.