When Nikki Giovanni and Joanne Gabbin call them to assemble, the stars of the African-American literary community and their fans gather. And when these two poets choreograph the stars, they sparkle, dance, and sing like never before.
It was my sheer good fortune to participate in an event organized by Giovanni and Gabbin that I will not soon forget. Zora Neale Hurston might have described it as a meeting of the literati and the glitterati; it was that and so much more.
No words I can think of could replace the experience of being in the audience. So I invite you to find two hours and stream this video from the event itself. If you have read any of Toni Morrison’s books, you will understand them better after experiencing the joy and pain that only the love of another “sister writer” can express.
And it seemed all of them were there! Rita Dove, Angela Davis, Mari Evans, Sonia Sanchez, and the biggest star of all, the honorary host of the event, Maya Angelou.
Musicians also made this a stellar night: Mount Saint Michael Academy Choir, India Arie, Virginia Tech Chamber Singers. Between groupings of readings, notes of song would pierce the air. Choric readings blended the rhythm of the prose with the rhythms of speech.
What are some of the images I’ll take away?
- Wheelchairs like chariots of fire. The excitement in the crowd in the Atrium when everyone knew the two stars of the show, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, would arrive. Not everyone knew that they would both be wheeled in, however. So the excitement only mounted as one was rolled in from one side of the room and the other from the opposite side. Those rolling chairs were more Regal than Buicks.
- Toni and Maya, the “two sister writers” holding hands as they listened to Lisa Winn’s voice offering soar over the crowd.
- The memorial to the fallen students from the 2007 tragic shootings on this campus. All the more poignant because both Nikki Giovanni and Lucinda Roy had reported the troubling behavior of the student. And because Nikki Giovanni demonstrated the healing power of poetry at the memorial.
- The cranes in the sky hovering over the new $94 million Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech. An amazing building on its way to completion in 2013. A former college president knows how much planning, fundraising, and politicking goes into such an enormous project. Both Virginia Tech and James Madison University are aiming for world-class programs and facilities in the arts. I’m blessed to live here.
- The beauty of a multicultural, diverse, audience and presenters. It makes the soul soar. And for a little while we in the audience experienced true integration, so hard to come by in this country.
- Morrison didn’t speak long, but she said one thing I had never thought of before. Unlike America’s black male writers, who felt compelled to confront the oppressor, black female writers learned “once you get the white men out of your book, the whole world opens up. You can think about real things, write about real things, not constructs.” (Quote taken from event coverage in the Roanoke newspaper which you can find here.)
- Any beautiful language becomes performance poetry or theatre when readers learn it by heart or act it out or sing it. For two hours our bodies united along with our hearts and our minds from words which came out of the body, mind, and heart of Toni Morrison. Embodied words. So much more powerful than words that go from brain to page to brain. To read a text out loud, lovingly, is to breathe life into it.
- We sent flowers while these women were living. They and all of us were well aware of their advanced age (and many of us in the audience are feeling time rushing on also). Their overflowing gratitude for the tribute was a joy to witness. All of us were a bit more immortal because we know these words will live on. Hallelujah.
The quote from Sula from which Nikki Giovanni and Joanne Gabbin named the evening is this:“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”
As we rose to cheer and clap at the end of the program, we were already missing Toni Morrison. And it was just as she said; it was our “sheer good fortune.”