Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 12, 2014

Black Women & the Arts: A Conversation with Toni Morrison, Bernice Johnson Reagon, & Sonia Sanchez

Last night the Mullins Center at UMass-Amherst rang with a saxophone solo by Frederick Tillis and the Voices of New Africa choir singing “Wade in the Water,” before introductions by John Bracey of the sponsoring W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies to three brilliant women who clearly cherished each other. Poet Sonia Sanchez took the role of asking the others questions, which provoked novelist Toni Morrison to ponder, while singer and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon sometimes replied by bursting into song, often inviting the audience to sing along. She spoke of coming from a church tradition in which one person started a line, which others took up, changed, or developed. Bernice Reagon shaped songs sung by slaves into more contemporary freedom songs and reshaped present day stories; for instance, in the 1970s, after over-hearing men making jokes about a woman who was assaulted and killed in self defense, she wrote a song in which many found common ground in the story of Joan Little.

Sonia Sanchez, who as a visiting writer at Amherst College years ago, helped found the Black Studies Department, asked probing questions, quoted poetry, and sometimes chanted and sang, too. Toni Morrison did not sing, but she spoke of her love for the sound of language, the way her family told stories, and changed them, and the ways she hopes readers will participate in the words she writes, to bring themselves into the text as they would to a song. Readers change the meanings she sometimes creates by invoking ancestors. The theme of memory came up often, as it does in Morrison’s novels, including Beloved. She distinguished between memory as a sense of what you believe happened, while re-memory is digging to discover more, to cloak or shape what might have happened with language. While speaking, she twisted her hands as if she were trying to rearrange a sentence  between them, getting closer to “the picture you’re trying so hard to reveal.”


“Who do you write for?” Sonia Sanchez asked. Toni Morrison replied,  “First of all, the people in the texts.” She said she needs to know her characters’ names before she can step inside them, and then “they will tell you everything,” while, she, as author selects, for often “they’re not interested in anything but themselves.” She mentioned that Pilot in Song of Solomon might have taken over the whole book. Her first challenge with that novel was trying to write about men, after having written two novels focused on the lives of women. Her father, whom she’d adored, had recently died, and she asked herself: I wonder what my father knew about these men. That question brought her some peace and confidence that grew into the novel. Which, like her other books, achieves what she says art should do, combining what’s “unquestioningly political with irrevocable beauty.”

It was one of those nights when you smile at strangers in the parking lot. Unforgettable.



  1. Yes, it was definitely one of those nights—a historic event, in the best tradition of UMass Amherst. Terrific overview of a evening whose words and music—one and the same here—will resound in my ears for for many years to come.

    • Thanks for stopping by to comment, and I agree: so much love on that stage and in the crowd, too. A beautiful combination of words and music.

  2. Oh, lord, Jeannine, thank you for this!! Wish I could have been there!

    • Sarah you would have been nodding and smiling. Really a beautiful night.

  3. >>> memory as a sense of what you believe happened, while re-memory is digging to discover more <<<

    Wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing the evening with us, Jeannine!

    • I’m thinking you won’t be surprised when I tell you that my mind & heart took in the whole of this post, but I breathed deep the significance of that phrase, too. Especially.

    • Amy, yes, it was fascinating to hear speak about the way stories change, and how she’s willing to let them, starting with small things and imagining what’s behind that pale eye or wash of forgiveness or moment of rage.

      Melodye, glad you could take some particular from the post. And the word “witness” came up more than once!

  4. Love hearing these voices, Jeannine… lots to think about. (I’m especially thinking about that political/beauty quote.) Thank you!

  5. Sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. I could spend the rest of the evening ruminating over these lines:
    “She distinguished between memory as a sense of what you believe happened, while re-memory is digging to discover more, to cloak or shape what might have happened with language.”
    It sounds like a fabulous, rich evening. And I love that sense of parking lot solidarity after – truly the mark of a wonderful evening.

    • Oh, yes, so interesting how all of these women reshaped history, with both humility and strength filling in cracks. I’m looking at those lines now and hope I didn’t get the quote wrong, as she played with the words or near-words. Was it re-memory or remembering? I hope if it made you ponder from the present, we are in the right realm.

  7. I wish I could have been in the audience.

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