Drexel’s Main Auditorium hosted three renowned poets and authors Nov. 6. In “Conversation and Song: Walking the Laureate Road,” Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Toni Morrison, U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, and Pew Fellow in the Arts Sonia Sanchez discussed their works and lives in front of an eager audience. They were joined by vocalist and composer Ruth Naomi Floyd; the mezzo-soprano performed between segments. The evening was organized by First Person Arts and held in partnership with Drexel’s Department of Africana Studies, Dance Africa Philadelphia, and the office of City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
The poets received an extensive introduction befitting of their artistic stature. It required several people, including College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Alexander Friedlander, just to list a summary of the accolades that each artist has received. Blackwell extended the list, presenting Liberty Bell replicas that Dove and Morrison accepted, but Sanchez gracefully declined, saying that she had thought “not another.” Floyd was also honored for her work. After the awards, Floyd sang a haunting, mournful song, including the repeated lyric, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long way from home.” This was a fitting opening to the discussion of Dove’s, Sanchez’s and Morrison’s works, most of which prominently feature themes of racism and sexism. What followed might best be described as a highbrow episode of “The View.” The three poets sat on the stage in comfortable chairs, and the atmosphere was jovial. Sanchez jokingly pointed out that her short stature did not allow her feet to reach the ground, which was met with laughter from the audience. This did not detract from the seriousness of the night, however, as the authors soon began asking probing questions regarding each other’s work. While responding to a question from Sanchez, Morrison got on the topic of politics. She made a poignant statement about the way politics are conducted today: “The language is, in itself, a lie. … Rhetoric used to be substance with art.” The audience nodded and hummed approvingly. She recalled talking to a friend, to whom she said that the political situation “paralyzed” her. Her friend replied that “this is precisely the moment when artists go to work.” Though she and Sanchez were prominent in the Black Arts movement during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Morrison cautioned against focusing on racial pride in response to the discrimination that African Americans faced during that era. “There are no races. … [Races are] just socially constructed power plays.” Notably, Dove described her experience in college and her connection to Morrison’s work. “I couldn’t say I was born poor and in the South,” she said, describing her childhood in Ohio and her search for identity as an African American. She did not feel confirmed until, as a student at the University of Iowa, she happened upon “The Bluest Eye.” This novel, written by Morrison, describes a black girl’s troubled life in Lorain, Ohio — Morrison’s hometown. After a discussion of rape, a theme in “The Bluest Eye” that is also common throughout the literary trio’s works, Sanchez posed an interesting question: “Is it more difficult as a female to write in a male or a female voice?” There was some discussion on this topic, but Dove concluded that “writing from a male point of view is like a shield: it feels safer.” At the conclusion of the authors’ discussion, the audience was invited to ask questions. The evening provided a deep and engaging look into African-American literature at the highest level. If any literary novices in attendance felt the need to lengthen their required reading list, the event provided ample material. Most memorable, perhaps, was an anecdote by Morrison. She talked about a letter she received, which drew laughter and cheers from the audience. “The Texas prison system banned ‘Paradise’ … because it might start a revolution!”