Following Toni Morrison’s Lead in Embracing Black Art, Culture
By Melanie Carr
I was in for a battle due to impatient people on the subway, inclement weather, and sitting on a concrete curb for more than an hour, but I succeeded in hearing author Toni Morrison lecture on American politics, socio-economic maladies, and systematic racial inequalities at George Washington University.
The event, “An Evening with Toni Morrison,” was held in Sept. 21 in the Lisner Auditorium on the university’s Washington campus.
At the start of the event, Dr. Terri Harris Reed, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, recalled for the audience that racial segregation was institutionally practiced at Lisner as it was in the wider District of Columbia metropolitan area.
Forty years ago the auditorium opened its doors to people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, Reed said. Before segregation was struck down legally in the United States “the auditorium did not allow performances [before] mixed audiences.”
The event was a joint effort of the Toni Morrison Society and George Washington University as part of the society’s The Bench by the Road Project. The project is a memorial history and community outreach initiative launched Feb. 18, 2006 on the occasion of Morrison’s 75th birthday, according to the project’s official website.
The name “Bench by the Road” is taken from Morrison’s remarks in a 1989 interview with World Magazine, the website said, where she spoke of the absences of historical markers that help remember the lives of Africans who were enslaved and of how her fifth novel, Beloved, served this symbolic role.
“There is no place you can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby,” Morrison told the magazine in 1989, according to the official website. “There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn't exist … the book had to.”
More than 300 people attended the event, most appeared to be white college students and young professional his event with a few racial minorities sprinkled in the crowd.
“Rac-ism pains, it’s useful, and it works,” Morrison said. “Rac-ism has nothing to do with people’s feelings.”
This is true, the demographics in D.C. has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. There have been efforts from organizations and independent news/broadcast companies like Shaw Main Streets News, WPFW 89.3, Urban Artistry, and Restaurant owner, Andy Shallal Bus Boy’s and Poets to utilize their public platform as a catalyst to promote cultural equality.
But there may need to be a more proactive dialogue between individuals who have access to the wealth of knowledge and the communities that may have a disadvantage of receiving information to engage in this movement of cultural cohesion.
On Sept. 25, The National Book Festival began its two day event at The National Mall. I was surprised by the lack of cultural diversity for such a large occasion sponsored by the Library of Congress. Diversity was present, but not enough to go skipping in the sun. It was a historical moment to had seen Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove and had the chance to exchange dialogue about her new project, “Sonata Mullatica.”
Ms. Morrison had attended the event as well, since she was presented with the Library of Congress National Book Festival Creative Achievement Award. But, throughout their interviews and impromptu lectures, the crowd was immensely populated and represented by white attendees, very few people of color. Again, outreach needs to expand more than just staying within our comfort zones, but actually to branch out.
After spending countless hours hitting the pavements and sidewalks from Constitution Avenue up 7th St. N.W., I had come to an event, Art All Night (Nuit Blanche), presented by Shaw Main Streets. This event was based on a concept in Paris where Parisians could go outside and enjoy the atmosphere of engaging in art and their community.
This concept had been so successful in Montreal and Tel Aviv that it quickly became a noteworthy tool for D.C.-area artists to express themselves in a creative environment outside in the open streets and participate with all types of cultures inside and outside of the community to formulate a cohesive experience.
Urban Artistry dancer, Giovanni “1MoRound” Galleno said, “Culture is a community, and I am part of the culture, without a community, there is no culture.”
Since we are all part of the human-collective culture, we need to start going out into our own communities and beyond so that we can fully embrace each other. If we have the information to know about how to gain access, navigate, and implicate cultural empowerment throughout every city in this country and beyond, we can achieve unity, or at least take one step closer toward it.