President Barack Obama talks about how powerful art and expression are to Black American culture in a heartfelt tribute to prolific novelist Toni Morrison.
By YouTube Originals
President Barack Obama talks about how powerful art and expression are to Black American culture in a heartfelt tribute to prolific novelist Toni Morrison. He’s joined by Jason Reynolds, Desus & Mero, Nicole Byer, and more who highlight the power that comes from words in this Black Renaissance short. Watch the full show here: https://youtu.be/aGMVFnnXUpM
Transcript provided by YouTube:
– When you don’t have a voice,
art’s how you express yourself.
And that applies to all cultures,
but especially black American culture.
It’s been through art that our story’s been reflected–
the resilience, the setbacks, the joys, and the hopes.
– TONI MORRISON: My grandfather bragged all the time
that he had read the Bible through five times
And it was illegal in his life to read,
and it was illegal for white people
to teach black kids to read.
But ultimately I knew that words have power.
– OBAMA: I first picked up Toni Morrison’s novels
when I was just entering college.
She became one of my heroes, somebody who helped me
understand myself and the world around me.
I was lucky enough to get to know her later in her life.
This is where she was as much a poet as a prose writer,
and she brought an intensity to that world
even beneath obvious meaning
an extra force, an extra power.
How she worked that magic is something that
I can’t completely describe, because that’s what it was.
One of the lines that always stuck with me
was her belief that language arcs toward
the place where meaning might lie.
When she wrote a story, it seemed as if
she was tapping into something that went beyond
just the intellectual understanding
She was able to locate her stories
specifically to the African-American community,
and yet, as all the best writers do,
create universal meaning in those narratives,
and that’s what art at its best can do.
– When it comes to life-changing storytellers,
Frederick Douglass is definitely a cultural oak,
in an expanse of literary forest.
You see, he isn’t the beginning of our relationship
Whether it be the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt
or even the Adinkra symbols of the Akan people,
we have always used some form of written language
through letter or character to document our existence.
And over time, as we found ourselves
in places that work to deny our lives,
our written testament became one of our greatest weapons.
Though there were prominent black writers
in the early 1900s, nothing could prepare America
for what was coming in the 1920s.
This movement was as bustling as the city that birthed it
and would change literature forever.
There was a freedom in Harlem, and you know what you do
when you feel like you free?
But mostly, you tell the truth.
So, writers like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes
and Zora Neale Hurston began to write
the different versions of black life.
The good stuff, the not so good stuff.
You know, the human stuff.
And with each story, each poem, each play,
our voices grew bolder, bigger, braver.
We’d see this again during the black arts movement
of the ’60s and ’70s,
where “black power” became a refrain,
where poets shifted and shaped the new black stance
where the novelists and playwrights spun our world
onto pages and stages with precision
what’s precision, rebellion, and love without laughter?
What’s telling our stories
if we can’t make light of our struggles?
Not because our struggles are light,
but because there’s always light to be found there.
And so with the influx of all these poets
came the influx of all these comedians,
street philosophers who could turn reality
on its head for “ha ha” and “a-ha” moments.
So, yeah, we write stories.
Been writing. And we write jokes.
We write poems and we write plays.
We write shows, we write sermons,
and write ourselves into the world.
Sometimes punctuated, sometimes not.
Sometimes misspelled and messy,
sometimes in gorgeous calligraphy.
we write ourselves as un-erasable.
– DESUS: My favorite book growing up,
I can name it off the top ’cause I’ve read it
a million times, “Black Boy” by Richard Wright.
I read it and I didn’t think– I was like,
“This can’t be real. This isn’t what real life is.”
But by that age, I had already started having interactions
because of race, and that book was like
the first time other than my family,
I was like, yo, black people all over the country
are going through stuff and this is what we go through.
And it kinda connected me to my blackness.
– “I Don’t Want To Die Poor” by Michael Arceneaux
Is a dope collection of, you know, stories and essays and stuff like that.
He makes these, like, kind of like sad situations,
like, you know, student loan debt
and everyday problems and, like, finds humor in them.
– When I first started acting,
I discovered “A Raisin in the Sun”
There’s so many wonderful black playwrights.
I just really admire black women who are fearless.
I love those women for making a space for me.
I think the most powerful word in the English language
is the word “no” because
“no” is a full sentence
and it’s also one word.
We spend a lot of time trying to explain to people
why you’re saying no, but you don’t have to.
You can truly just say, “Mm, no,”
and that’s the end of the sentence.
– The word that has the most power
in the English language is “yes.”
– I think the word that has the most power
in the human language is “help.” It’s such a powerful word.
It’s one of the hardest words for people to say.
It’s hard because of pride and ’cause of certain situations
for people to ask for help.
– I think I realized how powerful words can be
when I said the word “bitch” in front of my mother
and she was like, “What did you say?”
And I was like, “Uh-oh! She mad at me!”
– I realized the power of words very early on with my jokes
and with my impressions and whatever.
My dad would make me get up, do impersonations of
all of my uncles in their various stages of drunkenness.
– Being funny can save your life sometimes
because I was in the Bronx House of Detention.
I was in a 40-man cell, and you know what?
Those people got the tightest two days of comedy
I ever done in my life, I tell you what,
because that’s what you gotta do.
We’re just sitting there, ain’t no TV.
So, I’m cracking jokes, and I just remember
people were just like, they were like,
“Yo, you’re funny, you’re funny.
I’ma keep my eye out for you.”
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention
I learned the power of words from, where? Hip-hop, hip-hop.
– Real hip-hop, you know what I’m saying?
You know that. Shout out to Nas.
First time I heard “Illmatic,” I was like, “Yo!”
– “Whoa!” [imitating explosion]
Yo. Whoa! – The lyrics.
This post was previously published on YouTube.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video