toni morrison’s lessons for black artists

December 12, 2018
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I have never been the type of person that must be loved to be in love. For this, I am entirely indebted to Toni Morrison’s prose and her life. I’ve thought more about Ms. Morrison as I live in New York City longer, and my roots in working in Black media grow deeper. I’ve meditated deeply on Toni Morrison words at Portland State in 1975, when the great writer said, “The media originates nothing; it simply digests what exists. It can enlighten, and it can distort, but it does not initiate and it does not create.”

From Morrison’s quote, it’s easy for me to come to the conclusion that Black media is a kind of oxymoron. We know that media originates nothing, but Blackness originates everything. It’s well-documented that there is a lie of separation being told when we discuss American culture versus Black American culture. The truth is, the food we cook, the music we listen to, the politics we follow, and the technologies we benefit from, to name just a few examples, are all the results of Black ingenuity.

This means once Blackness and media meet, a tension is birthed between the two—one that creates a space for new ideas, for sharing information, and for celebrating beauty. Black media should be an opportunity for radicalism. Distinctive from all other media landscapes, Black media has the unique chance to create in the ways Morrison was imagining, as long as we understand the realities of our own power. Black power in media relies on prioritizing The Artist, while subverting our inclinations towards greed and power, which is often disguised as business (i.e. the exchange of goods and services for money). Often, in pursuit to be the biggest or the most viral, we do not practice business, but the acquisition of greed and power. This is bound to keep us attached to a mundane brand of hysteria that we are accustomed to that is more exhausting than useful.

And if we are practicing and prioritizing the acquisition of greed and power, we’re damn sure not practicing the sacred act of creation. Oprah’s career operates as an allegory for what can happen to a Black individual in media: Winfrey has been shunned, and embraced, deified and vilified, all while having to maintain a position of exceptionalism in order to not break her image. Even now, Oprah lives in a precarious place where the control she had over Black legacy once she dies is uncertain. If Oprah wants to be certain that her story and career is preserved as the multidimensional, pedagogical moment it is, she will have to depend on her own community resources, not on American Media.

As we’ve seen with Aretha Franklin—and even with Martin Luther King Jr.—the only thing mainstream media can do is flatten the Black life, while attempting to produce a version of it that is profitable and fits white sensibilities. Just like fish can’t grow in small ponds, Black life shouldn’t be expected to evolve or even be properly remembered in the tight tank that is American mainstream media. We are taught that, to exist in media as a Black person—living or deceased—is to explain oneself when questioned, commit to a performance of respectability and be at the intellectual service of curious white minds that may find your body or history interesting. This, too, is death. Yet, unlike physical death, this nothingness is avoidable and explained to us in that very same Morrison lecture from 1975: “That  is true of any art form that is a.) not imitated and b.) does not seek to justify or explain anything […] Artists—the Black artists—must do what all the other artists do: talk to each other.”

The biggest shame is greed and power are limited to your body, and once you die they’re gone. Whereas, true commitment to creativity births legacies. And a legacy is an organism only truly born out of democratizing the power you acquired on behalf of your community and observing public. This is the knowledge that makes me question what will happen with Oprah’s legacy. Surely with her amount of wealth and power, she could preserve her legacy in death, but to loosely quote one of her catchphrases: What I know for sure is there is no power or wealth imaginable to compete with the force of whiteness seeking to reimagine a Black person. The only true fight against these instances is having a Black media—not a platform, but a diverse ecosystem—that is our own. This can happen if we ensure the highest priority when we create, share, and interact with Black media: centering not the Black exceptionalism or the Black mule but the Black artist in us all.

The Black Artist is something that lives inside of us all, that curiosity and innovation. It’s important to recognize The Black Artist in yourself and in your subject and in your public. This produces content that is fulfilling to create, to consume, to engage with, or be covered by—and it is our own. It sounds romantic, but it’s important to be romantic and Black when you are in these industries. It is important to cling to the creative and generous utopia in our struggle towards a Black media with the priority of elevating and challenging, and even bringing that expectation into reality. Perhaps we can will our reality into the radical Black fantasy that the creators of FIRE!! originally imagined with their own ink.

This ideas about Black media and artistry rushed my mind because last night, Oprah Winfrey, honored Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, at a Manhattan dinner gala held by the nonprofit, The Center for Fiction. Oprah spoke about her longtime mentor and how she masterfully articulates the Black experience, “The pain of being a woman, the pain of being a young brown girl obsessed with having blue eyes, the pain of yearning to be someone you’re not, the pain of loving a man who’s not worth it, or losing a man who is. The pain of our history.” This pain Oprah names is only a pain that can be articulated when you are comfortable and you tell it straight because nobody is listening but you.

Morrison’s exceptional articulation of Blackness is produced by her practice of escaping the white gaze and having ongoing dialogue with herself—with us, not them—and letting that be the fire that refines her excellence. The vision that makes me most comfortable is if we can convince a whole generation in Black media to do the same.

Morrison did not attend this Manhattan dinner gala that was honoring her. It is not clear why, but it is poetic, and a great metaphor for her legacy in Black creation to that Morrison has acquired so much prestige and respect that she can refuse to not have to talk to herself (to us) on the page. When we look at the majority-white staff of The Center for Fiction, it’s warming to think of Morrison’s absence, and that even with as much prestige as she amassed, she is still centering something other than white people’s interpretation of her history or language.

Oprah continued musing about Morrison. According to Associated Press, she said, “Morrison is the empress supreme of doing language. And I’m here tonight simply to say … Long. May. She. Reign.”

What’s exhilarating is that my relationship with myself and language was changed so profoundly by a woman who just talked to herself. It gives me hope that perhaps we all will collectively strive to close the door and talk to ourselves without fear of punishment. Not because punishment may not come, but because we have a duty to do create despite that and if we do not the punishment we risk is ancestral and existential. There is no punishment like a Black life tamed.

I know because I’ve loved and will always love Toni Morrison, and that this kind of transformation and prioritization is possible by Black folks. Or I do not know and this is a prayer I must believe in if I am to survive and work. The prayer that Black people will close the door, dim the lights, and talk to one another when we create, even in tight spaces like Black media. And watch what follows, it may just be a little bit of empowerment.