On August 6, 2019, the world was hit with an overwhelming loss with the passing of Toni Morrison. The Nobel laureate was more than just an author; she was a literary mother to many of us and an inspiration for multiple generations of Black women writers. As writer Magogodi Makhene so aptly describes her, she was a “living ancestor.”
“For me, growing up in South Africa, seeing her as an example of someone who looked like me win a Nobel Prize [was inspiring],” she tells Unbothered. Makhene, who is also a social entrepreneur running a startup that helps women “jumpstart their creativity,” is one half of the dynamic duo behind Alive at 89 — a new annual Toni Morrison festival kicking off this year at the Brooklyn Museum on February 18 — Morrison’s birthday.
The other half is writer Cleyvis Natera, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic at 10 years old. “I definitely felt very isolated growing up,” she shares. “Toni Morrison has been an incredible source of strength and inspiration my entire life, and I think largely the reason I’m a writer today is because of her.”
While planning their festival, Makhene and Natera – whose love of writing brought them together at a mutual friend’s book launch party last year — asked themselves who society will be celebrating 200 years from now. “If you think about the way that we embrace Shakespeare as this 360-degree experience. If you think about Shakespeare in the Park and you think about what other groups do throughout the world, that’s really the mandate and the mission that we have for this festival,” says Makhene.
The festival, which will run for one day (the ladies plan to extend the festival’s duration in the future), will feature an array of interactive experiences from various writers and performers. The line-up includes Emmy Award-winning filmmaker & The Pieces I Am producer Sandra Guzman, Pulitzer-prize winning poet Tyehimba Jess, poet Mahogany L. Browne from PBS’ Brief But Spectacular, and more.
“We feel a sense of pride for her that’s very deep and our loss felt like it cut so deep as well. But we also felt this tremendous outpouring of gratitude for her work and her life,” says Makhene. “We wanted to celebrate that, and we didn’t want to do it with just the two of us with a bottle of wine. [Laughs] We wanted to do it in a grand fashion that is equal to who she was in our lives and in our communities' life. She touched so many people beyond just the two of us and that’s how this festival was born.”
Was this festival already in the works or was it inspired solely by Toni’s death?
CN: It was inspired by her death. When Magogodi and I were talking about “How do we carry this forward?” we spent a lot of time, as we were commiserating over the loss and the gratitude we felt, thinking about “Who are the true icons? Who are the people who have shaped culture, who have shifted language around creativity and around literature?” We really spent a lot of time thinking about Shakespeare and the impact he has made and how people celebrate Shakespeare in the Park, and we wanted to do that [for Toni].
We really pulled it together very quickly. We’re excited. It’s an annual festival and we do feel like there’s potential and there’s so much support. It’s been so humbling having these artists and these groups come together to help us celebrate. We feel like this is just the beginning of something we hope will get bigger and bigger every year.
In the email you initially sent, you also talked about the media landscape in general — how 79% of the publishing industry is white, less than 40% of print and digital bylines are women’s,and 4.8% of TV writers are Black. Why did you find it important to highlight the media landscape along with commemorating Toni’s life?
MM: I think a couple of reasons. When you look at Toni Morrison’s body of work and what she shifted in the culture, as Cleyvis has said, she was one of the very first – if not the first — artists to look at Black life as worthy, not through an external gaze, but worthy in and of itself. And when you think about her legacy on the global map, it’s significant not just for African Americans, but for Black people throughout the diaspora and also on the continent.
In my experience as a writer and also as a Black woman, I move in spaces that are extremely white. I find it challenging that a lot of issues that Toni Morrison faced when she was an editor many decades ago are still pervasive issues. All the statistics that you speak about, they haven’t really shifted that deeply from the time when Toni Morrison was an editor advocating for the likes of Angela Davis to write her work. We were very intentionally grounding this festival within the legacy of her work, both as a writer but also as an editor. As somebody who was an advocate of Black life on the page, an advocate of Black life being worthy of being celebrated, and also an advocate who understood that we can’t really expect to read different kinds of books until the people that are selecting those books — the people who are editing those books — look like the face of America today.
I’m not interested in only reading books written by Black women. Those are extremely important to me, but I would love to read books who have been written by a Syrian person who is transgender and what their experience has been. Until we get those types of voices represented in media, we’re not gonna see those books come out.
CN: In celebrating authenticity as writers, I think we all have to recognize that there is a disconnect between those in power and those of us who are interested in telling stories that don’t flow within the lines.
How long did it take to bring the festival together between her death and now? What was that process like?
CN: I think the biggest gift is the sisterhood because we really didn’t know each other a year ago [laughing], and planning this celebration has been incredibly taxing. Magogodi’s an entrepreneur, she’s an artist. We’re both working on books that we’re hoping to publish soon. I work full-time at an insurance company, I have young kids, and so it has been a labor of love.
Probably over the last four months, the biggest challenge for us was trying to find a location to house this, so we spent a lot of time early on in September and October just hustling trying to find space. Luckily for both of us, we are connected and we know artists who know other artists who love Toni Morrison. The part that felt effortless and like it was destined to be was the outpouring of support from other artists and creatives. Everybody’s been on. But it is a lot of work. We’re spending a lot of time before work, late at night, on the weekends just hustling to get it done. We’re really proud of how it’s coming out.
Who are some of the people you worked with to bring this all together?
MM: Really it's been a partnership between Cleyvis and I from the very beginning. We work extremely closely. We’re on WhatsApp all the time, and we’ve had tremendous support from the Brooklyn Museum where this is going to happen. They’ve been fantastic hosts, they’re providing space for us. It's been just a love shower for Toni Morrison. It feels like standing in a stream that is much bigger than the two of us and feeling a tremendous amount of humility, but also being called to do what’s right because all of these fantastic artists who we respect as creatives are entrusting us to do right by her. They’re not going to lend their name to something that is not equal to somebody that they revere so deeply.
How did you land on Brooklyn Museum as the location for the event?
CN: Our dream was to find a location that would fit the grandiosity of what Toni Morrison means. We reached out to a lot of museums and spaces that were grand around the city. We did hear from a few venues that were interested, but from the beginning it seemed like Brooklyn Museum was really in line with letting us come forward with our plan and our program. And when the two of us walked through that space; the auditorium where it will take place, coming in through the front of that wonderful light-filled lobby. It really fit a space that would match her impact.
It sounds like it essentially matched her being and who she was for all of us.
CN: One of my favorite things about Toni Morrison’s work is as you make your way through her books, there’s this way in which it’s really about all of the arts. It is about the human body. It is about music. She had this way in which she could distill moments like a painting, so there’s something so beautiful about having this event in a museum, in a place that is really about the celebration of creativity in all its different forms. And to have it in Brooklyn, which is such a dynamic place to us, just felt like the best fit.
And that seems to be the inspiration behind your lineup. There’s music, there’s dancing and so many different things going on.
CN: Because we feel like she’s multifaceted. If you think about her opera, I remember going to the first opera she put on. I went to see it, what was that, like 20 years ago? I tracked her speeches. That Nobel Prize speech gives me chills to this day. There’s a way in which her work and her words just transcend time and they transcend the experience. To us, we wanted to try to replicate in the festival her body of work.
How do you hope to expand the festival in the future? What’s your vision?
MM: We do have quite a beautiful vision. We’re really excited about keeping Toni Morrison’s work alive for future generations of readers. I think that’s one of the galvanizing missions and visions that we have — making it something that isn’t just esoteric and intellectual, but making especially new and young readers feel that high art in the literary space is part of their heritage. We’re really excited about launching the Toni Morrison Church, which is essentially a book club/Sunday church testimonial. Come with your Sunday hat and everything. [Laughs] The idea is “How do we keep this fresh and how do we keep us reading her work in a way that is engaged with what's current?”
One of the things that’s really glorious about Toni Morrison’s work is you think of The Bluest Eye — I’m here in South Africa, and not that long ago we had a huge storm in the media about young Black women wearing their hair natural. Our work through the Toni Morrison Church is teasing out those themes and making them accessible and not so threatening for young people to see themselves in the literature and also connect it to what’s real in their lives and what they care about. It’s a periodical meeting. Our first will probably be some time in the spring. We’ll announce that at the festival, and that’s something that we’ll be doing in between the festivals.
CN: Into the future, I can see us thinking of different ways to engage the readers and to engage the members of our church. We really want it to feel like something that is alive. The festival itself should be alive and should react to the parts of its body. We want it to be really dynamic, and we’re thinking about different ways to have it grow beyond even the two of us and our own thoughts of how we want it to manifest itself.
How exactly did you two meet? I know writing brought you two together, but can you walk me through the story of how you came together?
MM: We’re very lucky. We have a mutual friend in common. There’s an amazing writer De’Shawn Charles Winslow and his book came out last year, if I’m not mistaken. Beautiful debut. We were both at his launch party. We both were at his book launch supporting. It was basically love at first sight, to be quite honest.
CN: It was! We happened to go to a bar afterwards to toast to De’Shawn and I came and sat purposely next to Magogodi because she had this laughter which reminded me of myself. We both laugh really loud. [Laughs] Being writers and being in a lot of these spaces, you don’t really get to connect with other Black women, and I felt very drawn to Magogodi. I think it was a mutual thing. We laughed that whole night and we ended up going to get ice cream a month later, and we just started developing a friendship. I think that it was at the beginning of last summer that we met, maybe around May or June. So then in August when [Toni’s death] happened, it really kind of cemented our friendship and our purpose in a way that I’m very grateful for.
MM: Me too. I have tingles just thinking about this and saying it out loud: in Cleyvis and I working together and in bringing this to the world, it felt and continues to feel like this tremendous purposeful gift that Toni Morrison is still giving — that sisterhood. It’s an alive way of experiencing that sisterhood.
The words "Black History Month" often evoke stories of luminaries like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While their legacies will always be crucial to the culture, this year, we're going beyond. Roots is R29Unbothered's Black History Month series that delves into the tangled history of Black identity, beauty and contributions to the culture. Follow along as we shine light on Black history and Black present throughout February and beyond — because Black history is made every day.