By Aisha I. Jefferson
“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.” Toni Morrison, who celebrates her 82nd birthday today (Feb 18), wrote that immortal phrase 40 years ago about her sons Ford and Slade as part of the dedication of her acclaimed second novelSula. The same words came back eight novels, a Pulitzer Prize, a Nobel Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom later to wrap their arms around her in loving celebration of the legacy she’s since built.
That was exactly the purpose of “Sheer Good Fortune,” a two-day commemoration of Morrison’s body of work that took place at Virginia Tech. The event was created by her longtime friends and fellow literary powerhouses Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou’s desire to “throw a lot of love around Toni” following the December 2010 death of her son Slade, who co-authored children’s books with her.
The historic gathering was a Who’s Who of the literary world — Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, Kwame Alexander, Joanne V. Gabbin, Eugene Redmond, and many more came to mingle, laugh and reminisce with each other and the guest of honor.
Giovanni, 69, and Angelou, 84, joined these notables onstage for the event, reading from various Morrison works like Sula, The Bluest Eye,Song of Solomon, Beloved, Tar Baby, Home and her play,Desdemona. Grammy Award-winner India.Arie also paid homage with a song she wrote at 19 after reading The Bluest Eye.
Morrison glowed, blown away by the living tribute and enjoying one of the rare times she and Angelou have shared the stage publicly. But, she says, the sisterly gesture that her girlfriends demonstrated shouldn’t come as a surprise. Black women are, after all, the original girlfriends. “Black women have always been friends. I mean, if you didn’t have each other you had nothing,” Morrison says, referring to the close bond that Black women shared historically.
Giovanni and Angelou sat down with ESSENCE.com, sharing their thoughts on their friendship, the current state of Black women, whether we live in a post-racial society and Angelou’s contributions to the civil rights movement.
ESSENCE.com: The three of you have been friends for more than 40 years. How did you meet?
MAYA ANGELOU: Well, Nikki had been at Fisk and had been a student of John Killens, who started the Harlem Writers Guild. I had met John in California and he said come east and join the Harlem Writers Guild. So I came to New York and met Nikki and a group of would-be writers, actors, musicians and artists. We were a group and we belonged together. We all taught each other and learned from each other. It was the 50s and 60s.
I met Toni in that time frame. It was so that you could not help but meet each other. Her book Sula, which remains my favorite, came out a couple of years after my book [I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings], and I sent a note about Sula to her saying, “This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.” I remember Toni and I were in Wales together at some book fest at Hay-on-Wye. We were together and her mother was ill and my mother was too. And we were just two Black ladies who were missing our mothers. We spent time together and respected each other and supported each other.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I met Toni right after The Bluest Eye came out. We were all living in New York and she was working at Random House as an editor. I just read The Bluest Eye and it just blew me away. I just wanted to meet the person who had written it. So I called her and we had lunch and became friends. Back then there were just very few Black people in publishing. ESSENCE didn’t even exist during that period. We all knew each other and we were all very supportive.
ESSENCE.com: And voilà, here you are 40 years later. Now, Dr. Giovanni, you keep in touch with both women more than they may keep in contact with one another. Are you the glue that keeps everyone together?
GIOVANNI: I’m younger and am actually just shy of being daughter age to both. I have a lot of flexibility to go around and be a fan. And I’m a fan of both. When I heard Toni was having a play like she did withDesdemona, I was prepared to go to Berlin. I get to see people more than people get to see each other.
ESSENCE.com: There’s a lot to be said about the current state of Black women today. What do you think are our greatest victories and biggest challenges?
GIOVANNI: I think the challenge for women period is still to be ourselves. And I think that’s a decision that we should make. I don’t think other people should tell us what makes a woman. The only thing that Arnold Schwarzenegger ever said that made sense to me was that every child should know how to swim. For example, being a Black woman at my age, none of us can swim. The boys learned to swim because they could go to the creek or they could go to the river. Well, we couldn’t do that, we couldn’t go jump in there. We had issues of not having swimming pools because it was an era of segregation and we had issues of our hair. And we couldn’t afford to let our hair go back. Well, that’s ridiculous that you’re being controlled [in that way about your hair]. I think women have to make a decision, each of us, in our own way and for ourselves, who it is we are.
ANGELOU: The great challenges remain. They have not been lessened by what we’ve achieved. We continue to lift ourselves up and lift each other up but we have not achieved any level of acceptance that has kept us above the survival level.
ESSENCE.com: Do you think we will ever get above that level?
ANGELOU: Of course we will! We are better than we were. But not by being careless and not by being forgiving and thinking we have nothing left to do. The struggle continues unabated. We have more women trying to be better, trying to be present than we ever have. We have more women trying to support other women. I think we’re better off than we were but this doesn’t mean we’re finished and cool and everything’s okay. Black women are heads of universities and colleges and senators and congresswomen and we’re still pushing and stretching ourselves and trying to support ourselves. I think we are doing so much better than we think we’re doing. And it’s not nearly enough, but it’s something. And we have to say that. You see if you don’t say that you make young people think, “Well, damn, with the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, we haven’t gotten any further?” That would be ridiculous! Then young people would say, “Well, damn, if that’s so, and those people are larger than life, then why should I even try?” So you can’t do that. You have to say we’ve made some outrageous and incredible strides. Not nearly enough, but we’ve made some.
ESSENCE.com: The term “post-racial” became popularized during President Obama’s first White House bid, with some believing his election signified an end to racism. Do you believe we will ever become a post-racial society where race no longer is a factor?
GIOVANNI: I don’t see the point of being post-racial. I see the point of being non-racist. And the answer to that is yes. If you didn’t have essentially the politicians driving that race bus we might have gotten beyond it by now. And even with Barack Obama, obviously he couldn’t be President of the United States unless a lot of white people voted for him. But in terms of do you think we won’t ever see [each other’s skin tone]… No, we’re going to see each other because we are different. We notice blondes and brunettes. We notice black and white and brown and yellow people. Why should I have to give up the color of my skin or the texture of my hair just so I won’t be discriminated against? You see the difference and I think I have the right to be different. The question is, do you decide that you’re going to be hateful?
ANGELOU: [Laughs] Yes, but a long time from now. And we have to work on it. But it’s certainly not here; it’s not now. It’s racial [now]. However, we have to work at it. I think that President Obama really meant that he thought that in three years he would bring the economy to its feet and to a level standard; however, he didn’t expect to have such opposition. But there are those people when he was voted in, who said no matter what he does, no matter the wisdom of his choice, no matter the decisions he makes, I will not support him. Even though it means a negative for my country, I will not support him. I don’t think President Obama expected that and yet that’s what he’s had: resistance and incredible obstruction. That’s just amazing. So, I think that he expected since we’re all Americans that we’d really be serious about making this country more than what James Baldwin called “these yet to be United States.” But it is not so. And racism is still alive and very unwell. I think we have to press and bring him in and try to do our best to bring him some support from those who will not support him necessarily because he’s Black. There it is.
ESSENCE.com: Dr. Angelou, what is your definition of post-racial society? What does that look like?
ANGELOU: Oh, I can’t imagine — it makes me so happy [to think of what it would be like]. It makes me come all over queer as the cockney says. Imagine if in our country we had an equal distribution of labor. Imagine in our country if we really had a level playing field for Blacks and Asians, and Spanish-speaking and poor whites? Imagine what on earth would we be like? Can you imagine how rich, what we would be? It won’t be easy. I don’t expect it to be soon. But I expect it.
ESSENCE.com: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. Dr. Angelou, you were very close with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and so many instrumental players. Please share your experiences with the movement.
ANGELOU: Bayard Rustin was the Southern Leadership Christian Conference Northern Representative, and some people felt that he brought a bad light to the Southern Leadership Christian Conference so he was asked to step down. Dr. King asked if I would step into the role and so I accepted. It was the late 50s or 60s, I think. Dr. King reminded me of my brother because they were the same height and both were so charismatic. I was happy to become the representative — which really meant that I was the fundraiser.
GIOVANNI: Doc, I’m not going to let you get away with that because what you did was incredible. Fundraising wasn’t easy and, of course, Doc was charismatic too. When you look at Doc’s circle, its influence — it’s a little bit more than what role. Because the influence was concentric, it keeps going out and out. We’ve talked about it before, so I don’t flatter Doc. Doc had international influence, so that was important. You weren’t just picked out of a hat.
ANGELOU: I didn’t mean to suggest that, but sometimes we are made to seem more important by the titles. But another fundamental truth is what I did — I raised money and I thumped the drum and I did have some charisma and that was good. And that was true.
GIOVANNI: And you had a great deal to do with how some of the African countries looked at the movement and that support was important because it was a back-and-forth. And of course Black Americans are very close to Ghana.
ANGELOU: And also Cuba was very important at the time. I was very blessed to speak Spanish and to be accepted as a writer in Cuba. That was a good thing.
ESSENCE.com: Dr. Giovanni, what about your involvement?
GIOVANNI: I just did the regular picketing. I was just a foot soldier. I was just a kid. My grandmother volunteered me the first time that I picketed. When you look at my generation — and that’s why invariably I refer to it as a generational thing — I think all of us did our jobs. I’m just a writer and I picketed. I didn’t do anything extraordinary.
ESSENCE.com: You all are very successful women with countless honorary degrees and awards. Is there anything that’s surprised you about the life you’ve led?
ANGELOU: I’m grateful to be alive and to be of use. The producer of a program I had on Oprah’s satellite program, the woman called and said that I had 3 million, almost 4 million friends, on Facebook. That’s a blessing. I’m grateful I’ll be of use. I will not be misused, I will not be abused — I will not stand for that. I don’t [know] any better place to be than to be of use to my people — and all people, because all people are my people.
GIOVANNI: I’ve enjoyed my life and I’m enjoying it. I think I’m a pretty decent writer and I like my production hat when I put it on. What I want to start here at Virginia Tech is a legacy series. And I want to reach out to artists 65 and older who are in a legacy position, as we’ve done with Toni and Maya. I want to reach out so the youngsters who don’t get to know them can begin to see what these people have done. There are so many wonderful people out there. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a Sidney Poitier on our campus and have some of the younger men and women who are actors and actresses come in and read a little bit from some of his movies? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
ESSENCE.com: As I noted, you have lived extraordinary experiences. What makes you happiest at this point in your life?
ANGELOU: Hmm…I’m pleased to see young women and men respecting themselves. I was very pleased, maybe inordinately, to see President Obama and Mrs. Obama dance at the inaugural ceremony. When they danced to the song at least, because so few people have any image of romance in the African-American community; many people seem to think that White people make love and Black people just have sex. When President Obama and Mrs. Obama danced, the romance was almost tangible between them. It’s so important to see that. We are a romantic people. I wept when I saw them dance because we need to be reminded that we are romantic people. .And young Black men have to be reminded that it’s not given to us for our Black men to leave our women. And Black women have to be reminded that we haven’t come this far by being left by our men, ignored and abused by them, called out of our names by them, and we don’t have to take that.
GIOVANNI: I’m a pretty even-keeled person. I like to travel and I’m enjoying my life. I recommend my 60s. It’s just been wonderful and it’s been a whole other door opened up. People always make you think you’re going to get old. One day, for whatever “old” means because I don’t know what “old” means exactly. If I’m lucky I’ll be 80 or 90, and maybe at that point I’ll slow down or whatever it is that people do. I’m enjoying exploring and I’m enjoying taking chances. And I like to share. I always did. I think it’s important to give back and I’m comfortable in that the air I breathe and the water I ingest, I think I’m giving something back for it.
ESSENCE.com: “Sheer Good Fortune” featured tremendous talents who creatively presented Ms. Morrison’s works, especially the newbies. Are there any young standouts that we should know about?
GIOVANNI: The ESSENCE.com audience knows about one of the best writers in America, and that would be Edwidge Danticat. Oh my, she’s an incredible writer — a beautiful writer and good historian. And I like Martha Southgate, author of Third Girl from the Left and The Fall of Rome.
ANGELOU: Yes, yes, I don’t want to call them out, though, because I’ll leave somebody out and it’s too dangerous. I’m always afraid of things like that and I’ll mention somebody and I’ll leave somebody out and that’s too scary. But the new young writers, there are some who’ll knock your socks off. I’m pleased and grateful.
Happy birthday, Toni Morrison!