On June 15, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting presented the Marlon Brando Award to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, and Sonia Sanchez. But before the ceremony, Sanchez moderated her fellow honorees in a conversation on the intersection of art and social justice.
Sanchez is a past recipient of the Robert Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry and the Langston Hughes Poetry Award. She is the author of more than 20 books, including most recently Morning Haiku, and she is currently poet in residence at the Stella Adler Studio.
Coates writes on race and social justice for the Atlantic, where he published his seminal 2014 article “The Case for Reparations.” He is the author of the wildly acclaimed, National Book Award–winning Between the World and Me, on what it means to be black in America, and in 2015 he was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.
Morrison has won both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for her novels, which include Song of Solomon, Beloved, and, most recently, God Help the Child. She is widely considered to be one of the most important living American novelists.
Below are some of the highlights from their conversation, which covered topics ranging from Muhammad Ali to the Orlando shootings to what drives them to write.
The excerpts below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On why they started to write
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I never knew of it as any sort of choice. I grew up in a household surrounded by books. There were books everywhere. My dad was a publisher; he published books. My mother was a teacher. My mother taught me how to read and how to write. When I got in trouble my mother would force me to write essays about what I had done. But in spite of all that reading and writing, I was interested in doing all that outside the classroom. So if you put a teacher in front of me, sat me at a desk, put me in any sort of classroom, I would almost immediately cease to be interested in reading and writing. Reading and writing was something that belonged to me, that didn’t really belong to the classroom.
But the flip side of that was that it meant there weren’t really too many options for me besides writing. This is the thing that brought me the most joy. This is the thing that no matter what, when it wasn’t being published, when it is being published, and one day when I go back and it’s not being published; when it isn’t making money, when it makes a little now, and one day when it’s doesn’t make any money at all — I’ll still be doing it.
Toni Morrison: I began not because I wanted to write. It was because I wanted very, very much to read. I was a reader and always had been.
But from the time I was 3 years old, and my sister who was a year older taught me how to read, we would write on the sidewalks with those little stones. And then one day, we decided to develop our vocabulary. There was a word about 100 feet away on the side of a house. We decided to repeat it and write it.
So we began. We wrote F. Looked back. U. Made sure it was neat. Looked back. We were beginning with the C when my mother burst down the steps, screaming. “What do you think you’re doing? You go get some water. You go get a broom.” So we ran away, tears in our eyes, and got the materials to get rid of this language.
She never said the word. She never explained the word. We never knew what it was. But I knew that if I wrote, other people exploded.
I was 38 or 39 years old before I began to write a book. And that is when I remembered that exercise from when my sister and I were kids. But at the same time, more importantly at that time, I wanted to read that book that I did not think anybody had written. I read all the time, but I was never in those books. Or if I was, it was as a joke, or as some anecdote that explained something about the main character without the main character looking like me. So I decided that I would write the book that I really and truly wanted to read.
Morrison on beauty, otherism, and her novel The Bluest Eye
TM: It was the result of a conversation I had with my friend. I was 8, 9 years old, walking down the street with her, and she and I were having a very serious discussion about whether there was a God or not. I said there was. She said there wasn’t, and she had proof.
I said, “What is the proof?”
She said, “I have prayed for blue eyes for two years, and it hasn’t happened. He hasn’t delivered them to me.”
And I remember turning around and looking at her, and thinking two things at the same time. One, thank God he had not given her blue eyes, because she would look awful. And that was when I realized that what I was thinking was, as she was — she was a very, very dark-skinned girl with these beautiful cheekbones, you know, these high cheekbones and these great eyes — but I had never said or thought beautiful.
That’s not a word we would use as kids. We said cute or something else. But when I looked at her, for the first time, after I got rid of that awful notion of blue eyes and then looked at her, she was beautiful. Just beautiful. And that was a new thing for me: the word, and the association with another human being.
So later on — skip 30 years — I’m trying to write about essentially that. How awful it is, how really destructive it is, to believe that you’re ugly. How other people can destroy you. But if you take it in, it destroys you. And how complicit some of us are in rating people that way. And rating may be a little more or less complex than that now.
But I think even to this day we realize the damage, the real, serious damage we do when we other people. When we destroy them by not including them in the human race. When we decide that this is the level of beauty, or goodness, or health, or whatever it is, and shut the door and anything outside of that.
Coates on his impetus for writing “The Case for Reparations”
TNC: It was the only answer. It was just the only answer.
At the point that I was at the Atlantic, there was a debate going on. This is an old debate. If you look at any socioeconomic statistic, black people are in general at the bottom or near the bottom. And there is this constant debate about how much of that is the responsibility of African Americans and formed habits and practices within the community, and how much of it is the responsibility of structures that are put in place by larger things like business, government, etc.
I was engaging in that debate, and once I began to look at the history of it in a really serious way, I began to understand that the suburbs that surrounded my town, Baltimore, the suburbs that surround Chicago, the massive segregation that you see there and basically any place that black people live in this country — this was not an accident. That the government was in fact deeply implicated in it. And I don’t mean this in any sort of conspiratorial way. You can actually Google it and see the maps.
It just seemed that when you are complicit in the extraction of resources out of a community, you should have to pay some of that back. This struck me as a pretty commonsense idea. And then when I began to look at the scale of it — we’re not talking about a little bit. If you want to understand how housing works in this country and why it looks the way it looks, you have to consult the history of racism. There’s just no way around that.
I began to understand the effects, the fact that for every nickel of wealth in an African-American household, a white household has a dollar. I began to understand the scale of it. We’ve entered into this era where people have phones and you can see the police do all these sorts of things that they’ve always done, but now we have the phones to record them. And so much of the analysis begins when the officer goes upside somebody’s head. There’s no analysis about why the neighborhood looks that way and why the officer was responding that way in the first place. You cannot extract that from any sort of understanding of how those neighborhoods were born in the first place.
There’s plenty of bad habits in the African-American community, but the question is: Are those habits worse than the habits in any other community? We all have those Zora Neale Hurston “oh, my people” moments. But are we actually any worse? It’s become clear to me over the past few years, as I’ve gotten to interact with people from what we might call a “higher socioeconomic level,” that you see the same form of culture there too. The difference is folks have the wealth to insulate themselves.
It became clear to me that this idea of reparations, that had been so pushed out of the mainstream, was actually the commonsense approach. And the people that considered themselves well within the center of the mainstream of American discourse were the ones that were actually self-deluded.
On Muhammad Ali, and boxing as writing
TNC: We are always, as African Americans, under some sort of pressure to conform ourselves in ways that won’t bring bodily harm to ourselves or to our children. Make sure your skin isn’t ashy, make sure your hair is straight and everything looks right. There’s a whole performance that we do to put on our best face. To see somebody so profoundly reject that is just the most powerful thing. To see someone say, “My image is my own. I don’t have to conform to you. If I want to say I’m the greatest, I’m gonna say I’m the greatest.”
And to see someone have a second act like that. To find within themselves that they’ve lost a little bit of their foot speed, a little bit of their hand speed, they can’t quite play the game like a younger man anymore, and to find within themselves an older man, is a great inspiration. Because you can’t write the same book over and over again.
Sonia Sanchez: You do.
TNC: No, no!
SS: I would never watch boxing. I was a baseball fan. But my father said to me one night, “You must watch Sugar Ray Robinson. He’s an artist. He’s not just hitting people. He dances, he moves. You like that poetry. He’s like a poet in the ring.” So I sat down and I would watch Sugar Ray fight. And then along comes Muhammad Ali, and I said, “I don’t watch boxing, it’s cruel.” And my father said to me, “You need to watch Muhammad Ali, because he’s like Sugar Ray Robinson. He is this dancer. He is this poet. He is clever. He’s a clever boxer.” And so I watched him and fell in love with him, what he did. Because, you see, not only was he boxing for himself, he was boxing for all of us.
TM: He understood instantly what other people needed and what other people wanted. He complained to me about how he couldn’t go to some book signing in New Jersey. [Morrison was the editor of Ali’s first book, The Greatest.]
And I said, “What do you mean, you can’t go? It’s already set up.”
“No, no, no. It costs too much.”
I said, “It doesn’t cost anything. What are you talking about? We’re paying. You just go and sign books and so on.”
He said, “It costs because people ask me for money.”
And I said, “You don’t have to give it to them.”
He said, “I’m the Champ. They hit me on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, Champ, give me a dollar.’ I can’t say I don’t have it! I can’t say no.”
So to everyone who asks him for money, he always gives it, and it costs.
I insisted that that was not a good enough reason for him to refuse to go to the signing. A woman was walking across the lobby as I was trying to dissuade him, a white lady, an older lady. She was coming very slowly toward him, and he said to me, “Tell this woman she can’t have my signature. You tell her.” So of course I couldn’t.
But he was correct in what the limitations were. It was less about the money, I think, and more about the fact that everybody who came in the line and who he spoke to or shook hands with hit him. They’d hit him on the shoulder and say, “Hey, Champ!” A thousand of those, and he’s not going to say anything.
On conflicts between the police and the black community
TNC: When something catastrophic happens, we like to analyze it at the point of conflict. Take Orlando right now. What we’re saying is, “Assault weapons ban”; that’s where we’re at right now. Things that really are insufficient measures to correct the problem begin to seem like radical steps. An assault weapons ban would not be enough; it wouldn’t even be close to enough.
In a situation like Ferguson, you get bogged down into this place: What happened with the officer and Mike Brown? And all of the analysis happens right there. None of the analysis goes into, what is the relationship between the police department, historically, and this community? Why are the cops there in the first place? Why are folks so hostile to the police in the first place?
One of the great things this Justice Department did was that in addition to putting out that report on Michael Brown’s death, they put out that report that demonstrated that the city of Ferguson was basically using the black community as a kind of slush fund. There’s really no other way to put it. They were literally robbing the community in a kind of legal theft.
This is not a problem that is a rarity in the relationships between black people and their governments across history. But to get to that level of analysis is really hard. We’re so bogged down in the initial confrontations because they seem so exciting, they seem so shocking. Video has this very provocative appeal. But getting people to dial back, getting people to think about housing, getting people to think about why these communities were constructed the way they were in the first place, getting people to— we don’t take the time to dial back and say, “Okay, what is the broader thing that we’re dealing with here?” and I think part of that is we’re just scared of the work.
It’s going to be a lot of really hard work, and we might not win. And yet we have to commit ourselves to the struggle, because there’s nothing else to do. There’s nothing else besides struggle. There is no land beyond and no giving up.
We have to get past the place of, “How do we get these officers convicted in a court of law?” and get to a place of, “How did this happen in the first place?” At the point you’re dependent on the courts, at the point you’re dependent on the very system that sent those police officers there in the first place, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to get to the level of policy first.
TM: There are white kids in Vermont and upper Massachusetts who are OD’ing on drugs. And guess what? They found a little piece of medicine that you can inject to make sure that somebody does not die of OD. And also all of these houses where you can freely be rehabilitated. All of a sudden it’s a problem that we can handle and not send those little white children in Vermont to jail. So policy, you’re right, Ta-Nehisi.
On the writing process
TNC: When I was in my 20s I used to write and drink Jack Daniels. There’s no way I could do that now. I think it was possible because it wasn’t very good, but it eventually became clear that I could not do that.
Mine is catch as catch can. I’m impulsive, in the sense that I don’t know how I get anything done, but somehow I do. I think at some point I realized that if I don’t get it out, I’m not going to be a good person. I’m not going to be nice to be around, so it’s got to get done.
I’m at a point right now where I think I’m going to have to impose more discipline. When I die, there will be ideas that I have in my head. I’m going to die, and everything is not going to get out. And I’ve got to get out as much as I can.
TM: Ta-Nehisi, no!
SS: I believe that when we die, those ideas do not die.
TNC: I want to say it.
SS: You should! You should get it out. But those ideas go out and they’re picked up by someone else.
TNC: Who’ll get the credit! [Laughter] I’m 40.
TM: I’ll cut you some slack, then, if you’re 40.
SS: You write early?
TM: I write when the sun comes up, because I am very smart at that time of day. It’s just that. After 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, now, it goes down. But the energy and the creativity for me is early. It’s not a thing that I decided for athletic reasons or aesthetic reasons or discipline or anything. It’s just when you know. I write like you, Sonia, on yellow legal pads, and go back and scratch things out and do things over. And that process is important to me. I don’t think so well and I don’t invent so well if I do it straight on a computer.
When I was teaching at Princeton, I always could recognize students’ work that was created on the computer. It was okay, but they said too much. Just a little too much, two words when you only needed one. And it looked good: the print, the lineup, the organization. But it didn’t feel writerly to me. Now, that may be something I’ve invented for myself. But in creating from the beginning on the computer, the tendency is to write a whole lot, and it looks overdone to me. The act of writing is fluid and personal. For me it was very tactile.
On the dangers of art
TM: I want to remind us all that art is dangerous. I want to remind you of the history of artists who have been murdered, slaughtered, imprisoned, chopped up, refused entrance. The history of art, whether it’s in music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans.
And those people are artists. They’re the ones that sing the truth. And that is something that society has got to protect. But when you enter that field, no matter whether that’s Sonia’s poetry or Ta-Nehisi’s rather startlingly clear prose, it’s a dangerous pursuit. Somebody’s out to get you. You have to know it before you start, and do it under those circumstances, because it is one of the most important things that human beings do.