“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
These are powerful words spoken by the late Toni Morrison, a prolific essayist, novelist, book editor, college professor, and the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. It is only fitting that Morrison’s legacy will lay the foundation for a new program at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) that will inspire students to uncover their talents and hone their skills as they learn to understand and craft the creative works across various literary genres.
“Prairie View A&M University aims to educate its students to become change leaders in an increasingly more diverse globally interconnected world,” said Emma Joahanne Thomas-Smith, Ed.D., PVAMU provost emerita. Thomas-Smith is overseeing the new Toni Morrison Writing Program at PVAMU, which officially launches on September 27.
“Toni Morrison, for whom the Writing Program is named, was the exemplar of an intellectual whose sensibilities were superbly cultivated by her childhood experiences; professional experiences in teaching and editing; and her ability to interpret attitudes, behaviors, and life circumstances of not only African American people but people across the spectrum of race, ethnicity and social class. Reading critically, thinking deeply, dreaming imaginatively, reflecting incisively and then writing compellingly is the very essence of what it means to give power to voice.”
Training by a ‘Living Legend’
Organizationally housed in PVAMU’s Marvin D. and June Samuel Brailsford College of Arts and Sciences, the program features an annual writer-in-residence. The writer-in-residence is a “top-tier literary artist with a very substantial body of known work, prominent standing in the literary community and beyond, and a genuine interest in inspiring and guiding other writers, especially students and faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs),” the program website states. The writer-in-residence will offer public readings, master classes, lectures, class visitations, and critiques of students’ works.
In August, PVAMU announced one of the most celebrated African-American poets, Nikki Giovanni, would be its inaugural writer-in-residence through 2022. The appointment of Giovanni, a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech University, officially begins with this week’s virtual series. She will host a public reading and lecture on September 27 and a master class on September 29.
“The opportunity for students to develop their voices as writers, thinkers, and leaders is immeasurably enhanced by having the tutelage of such a noted, gifted, caring and literary notable, such as Nikki Giovanni,” Thomas-Smith said.
As one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends,” Giovanni’s diverse body of work includes poetry anthologies, poetry recordings, nonfiction essays, and children’s literature. Her early work gained attention as part of the Black Arts Movement; she was called the “Poet of the Black Revolution” because of her forceful and passionate writing about civil rights. Her varied activism has included providing support for other African American women writers. In addition, Giovanni has received seven NAACP Image Awards and is the recipient of the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award and the Langston Hughes Medal for Outstanding Poetry. “In short, Nikki Giovanni is a national treasure,” Thomas-Smith said.
Teaching New Generations
The Toni Morrison Writing Program will also deliver summer writing workshops, informal book discussions with prominent authors, a scholarship program, contests, and, eventually, a full curriculum, supporting a degree program in creative writing and other linguistic expressions.
In keeping with the PVAMU’s land-grant mission, the university will include an outreach component where area high schools and elementary schools will become Toni Morrison Writing Program partners. PVAMU has established 17 Texas schools in its first cohort of K-12 Partners. They include Houston’s Aldine, Booker T. Washington, Eisenhower, George Washington Carver, Jack Yates, Mirabeau B. Lamar, Nimitz, North Forest, Westbury Senior, and Wheatley High Schools. Other local schools include Cypress Springs, Hempstead, Waller, Klein Forest, and Royal High Schools, along with H.T. Jones Elementary in Prairie View and David W. Carter High School of Dallas.
“Faculty and staff of both the University and area high schools will share in the activities of the program and benefit from the Writer-in-Residence and other artists representing the full range of literary genres,” Thomas-Smith said.
Threads that Bind: A Program and a Center
A most prominent partner to the Toni Morrison Writing Program is the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice. According to Thomas-Smith, not only is the Toni Morrison Writing Program about exploring and developing the craft of writing, but it is also about using the tool of writing to address the manifestation of social injustice through all areas of life.
“Laws, policies, rules, regulations, procedures, behaviors, and attitudes that have a disparate impact on the quality of life and pursuit of liberty and happiness of an individual or group issue a clarion call for redress,” Thomas-Smith said. “Marginalized populations worldwide, and in America, particularly suffer from unequal opportunities to develop their talent and pursued their dreams despite pronouncements to the contrary. The writing program will offer fertile content for writers and thinkers as it examines social justice issues, especially those pertinent to the experiences of African Americans.”
Furthermore, the writing program will eventually host a forum featuring well-respected thinkers, writers, and performers, who will address race and social justice from their areas of expertise. “Nikki Giovanni will take the lead in drawing the thread of social justice long denied but in candidacy for repair,” Thomas-Smith said.
A Humble Beginning
The Toni Morrison Writing Program at PVAMU was made possible via a substantial gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott in early 2021. Scott was a student of Morrison’s during her time at Princeton and attributes much of her development as an author to Morrison’s mentorship.
In a recent article by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, President Ruth J. Simmons said Scott didn’t want any buildings or centers named after her. So PVAMU decided to establish the writing program after Scott’s former teacher.
“That’s as far as we could go in demonstrating our gratitude for her generosity,” Simmons said during the interview.
“Clearly, Scott learned more from Morrison than the craft of writing,” Thomas-Smith said. “Her extravagant generosity for which she sought nothing in return is evidence that she learned from Morrison to put people, humanity first. Using her resources to elevate opportunities for the next generation, especially those at HBCUs, speaks volumes. Her humility is palpable. We appreciate her and are pleased to have this Toni Morrison Writing Program honor the name of her esteemed mentor and teacher.”
To register for the first virtual event of the Toni Morrison Writing Program at PVAMU on September 27 at 6 p.m., click this link.