Great American writer Toni Morrison died earlier this month at the age of 88. Shortly after her death was announced early Monday morning August 5, in the way that happens when writers are as elegant, and precise, as prolific as Morrison was, people around the internet began digging up and sharing some of her best writing and commentary. One of the most notable is Morrison’s 1998 sit down with journalist Charlie Rose. During the interview, in which Morrison is promoting her book “Paradise,” she swiftly, gracefully bats down the question of whether she can write about things other than race: “The person who asks that question doesn’t see that he or she is also raced. So to ask me when I am going to stop or if I can is to ask a question that in a sense is its own answer,” she said. “Yes, I can write about white people, white people can write about black people, anything can happen in art; there are no boundaries there. Having to do it, or having to prove I can do it is what was embarrassing or insulting.”
There are few writers who could cut through the world’s bullshit as gracefully and with such precision as Toni Morrison. She will be missed. Here in Baltimore, the Black women’s writer’s group Zora’s Den will be hosting a number of local writers and thinkers to honor Morrison’s words. Among those who will be paying homage are writers and thinkers Cija Jefferson, Bilphena Yahwon, Abdu Ali, and Kondwani Fidel.
Victoria Kennedy, the group’s founder, answered our questions about why Morrison was so important and why she knew she had to honor her.
BB: You are a writer. Tell me about the kind of work that you do. How long have you been writing?
VK: Yes, I’m primarily a fiction writer. My work focuses on Black love, not always in the romantic sense, but to affirm our right to love against all odds. Black love is not always promoted and I feel compelled to advocate for that over the sometimes stale narrative of Black trauma. In the face of negativity, it is our saving grace.
I’ve been writing since childhood but I didn’t take it serious enough to study as a craft until about ten years ago.
BB: How long has Zora’s Den been around? What do you do there? What is your goal with this programming?
VK: Zora’s Den began in January 2017, as a social support group for Black women writers. It started a private Facebook group where we encourage each other at every stage of writing – from the conception of story ideas to editing resources to writing company in the wee hours. Our goal is to have solidarity among Black women writers and to build a sisterhood, a sense of community as opposed to competition.
We have grown outside Facebook to include a writing workshop in Baltimore, a writers’ circle, and as of February 2019, a monthly reading series titled, In Our Own Words.
BB: Why did you feel called to dedicate next week’s program to Toni Morrison?
VK: For many Black women writers, Toni Morrison is the standard to which we aspire, the voice that guides us in our authenticity to tell our stories as only we can. My idea to form this tribute was almost instantaneous. I knew other writers felt the same and I reached out to our community of writers. This includes male writers as well.
BB: How has Morrison influenced your work? Do you have a favorite quote or piece of work?
VK: Morrison’s work always intimidated me until I took a seminar in grad school on her work. It was life-changing for me as a writer because it influenced what I want to write about and what I want to say in that writing. I guess you could say, her writing has made me bolder and willing to take risks. Through her writing, she’s shown me that my voice matters.
One of my favorite quotes: “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
The event, Zora’s Den Remembers Toni Morrison, will be held this Thursday, August 15 from 6-8:30 p.m. at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center (847 N. Howard St, Baltimore).