Morrison, Reagon and Sanchez to Discuss ‘Black Women in the Arts in the 21st Century’

Toni Morrison
Bernice Johnson Reagon
Sonia Sanchez

AMHERST, Mass. – Three prominent African-American artists — Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, singer and social activist Bernice Johnson Reagon and poet and playwright Sonia Sanchez — will share the stage in a public conversation about “Black Women in the Arts in the 21st Century” on Thursday, Feb. 13 from 7-9:30 p.m. in the Mullins Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Hosted by the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst, the event is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:15 p.m.

The program, which is part of the annual celebration of Black History Month, will feature the three women sharing their views and thoughts on topics such as the importance of the artist in society, the changing role of the black female artist and the contribution of the artist in defining what it means to be human in the 21st century.

The evening’s program also will include musical selections by The New Africa House Ensemble, the Voices of New Africa Choir directed by Evelyn Harris, and a guest performance by composer and saxophonist Frederick Tillis, director emeritus of the UMass Fine Arts Center.

Toni Morrison, is the author of 10 novels including most recently “Home” (2012) and “A Mercy” (2008). In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for “Beloved,” which was adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. In 2006, The New York Times named “Beloved” the best American novel of the previous 25 years. The earlier novels that established Morrison as a major figure in American literature include “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” “Jazz,” and “The Song of Solomon.” A native of Lorain, Ohio, Morrison is a graduate of Howard University and holds an M.A. in English from Cornell University. During her long career, she has been a book editor, children’s author, playwright and the author of “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” an insightful commentary on American culture. She taught at several universities and colleges, including Rutgers, the State University of New York, and Princeton from which she retired in 2006. She has received numerous other awards and honorary degrees. In 2012, Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

Bernice Johnson Reagon grew up in Georgia and attended Albany State College, where she became active in the local NAACP chapter and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). After her expulsion because of an arrest for civil rights activism, she briefly attended Spelman College, then joined the Freedom Singers, a choral group that toured the country to raise money for SNCC’s civil rights campaign. She completed her undergraduate degree at Spelman College in 1970 and a Ph.D. in history at Howard University in 1975. Reagon formed Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-African-American women’s a cappella group in 1973. The ensemble earned an international reputation for its sophisticated harmonies, socially conscious repertoire and captivating performances. Reagon’s voice can be heard on several solo CDs as well as those of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagon retired from the group in 2004. Beginning in 1974, Reagon also worked for 20 years at the Smithsonian Institution, first as a cultural historian and later as a curator at the National Museum of American History. In 1989, she was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. She later produced  “Wade in the Water,” a 26-hour, Peabody Award-winning radio series sponsored by the Smithsonian and National Public Radio that was later issued on four CDs. She was appointed to the faculty of American University in 1993 and retired in 2003. Reagon is the author of “We’ll Understand it Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers,” “If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: the African American Sacred Song Tradition,” and “We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock…Still on the Journey.”

Poet, playwright, professor, activist and one of the leaders of the Black Arts and Black studies movements, Sonia Sanchez was born in Alabama, but raised in Harlem by her schoolteacher father. She earned a B.A. from Hunter College and attended graduate school at New York University. At San Francisco State College, she developed one of the first courses on African-American women’s literature. In 1969, Sanchez published her first book of poetry for adults, “Homecoming.” She followed that up with “We a BaddDDD People,” which especially focused on African-American vernacular as a poetic medium. At about the same time her first plays, “Sister Son/ji” and The Bronx Is Next, were being produced or published. In 1971, she published her first work for children, “It’s A New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs. The author of 17 books of poetry, Sanchez has also edited collections of poetry and short stories. In 1985, “Homegirls and Handgrenades” won the American Book Award. Sanchez taught at Manhattan Community College, Amherst College where she was instrumental in establishing the major in black studies, and Temple University, where she was the first Presidential Fellow. Her honors and awards include the PEN Writing Award, the American Book Award for Poetry, the National Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the National Education Association Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Arts Foundation as well as numerous honorary degrees. From 2011-13, Sanchez served as the first poet laureate of the City of Philadelphia. She is the co-editor with UMass Amherst professors John H. Bracey and James Smethurst of “‘SOS Calling All Black People’: A Black Arts Movement Reader” forthcoming from UMass Press in May, and the subject of the “Sonia Sanchez Reader,” edited by Bracey and Jacqueline Wood of the University of Missouri, Kansas City to be published by Duke University Press.

The program is supported by UMass Amherst’s Chancellor’s Office, College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success, Union Programming Council, Student Activities and Involvement, Residential Life, Black Student Union, Black Mass Communication Project, Student Government Association and the History Department.