restricted access Hope Alive: Writers at the Unconvention
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183 Hope Alive Writers at the Unconvention “Go on, Jesse!” Harvard philosopher Cornel West shouted from his bar seat, gesticulating at the television screen that showed Jesse Jackson speaking live before the Democratic Convention across town. West, the novelist Toni Morrison, and I were relaxing over drinks after our own event as part of the “Unconvention ,” a slate of more intimate venues arranged to complement the “big tent” show at Chicago’s United Center. Along with novelists Bharati Mukherjee and Richard Ford, playwright David Henry Hwang, and poet Sandra Cisneros, we’d been brought together by Senator Bill Bradley and the City of Chicago Human Relations Commission for “A Conversation: Race and the Creative Imagination.” Skinny as Oz’s scarecrow, his black hair brushed up in a moderate Afro, and wearing a natty, three-­ piece blue pinstripe suit, West was concentrating all the attention in the hotel bar, punctuating Jackson’s dramatic speech with musical, vocalized enthusiasm that worked like cymbal crashes and thumps from a bass drum: “That’s right, brother!” and “Uh-­ huh! You onnit” and “You know it’s right!” Jackson, of course, had been expected to endorse the current , quite centrist Democratic Party agenda, but, in a moment of high oratory, the old Rainbow Coalitionist could not resist invoking the party’s legacy of struggle and protest. “We serve a mighty God!” Jackson called, bringing his speech to its final crescendos of hyperbole and drama. “Jesse’s on to it now!” West proclaimed. He spun in his seat, nodded his head and smiled broadly at Morrison, the distinguished and divalike Nobel laureate in literature, seated in a 184 tulip chair next to him. She sipped her drink and laughed, saying , “Oh yeah, that Jesse!” That afternoon, the 1,200-­ seat theater at the Field Museum on the shore of Lake Michigan filled up completely with a predominately black audience that also included Asians, a few Latinos, and many white, most of them wearing delegate badges. I noticed opera soprano Jessye Norman sitting in the fifth row. Someone whispered that Illinois senator Carol Mosely Brown had arrived. Chinese American poet Li-­ Young Lee, black-­ nationalist poet Haki Madhubuti, and Chicano poet Luis Rodriguez took seats near the front. The seven of us—­ Sandra Cisneros had to drop out at the last minute—­ took the stage. Then Bradley addressed the audience. This was the man who had, in another life, shot down the Lakers’ hopes and boosted the Willis Reed-­ led Knicks to victory in the 1972 NBA Finals with two last-­ minute jumpers and a series of clutch free throws. I had watched these feats in complete misery in my dorm lounge at Pomona College. More recently, I had seen him on the day the Senate passed HR 442—­ the redress bill of 1988 that made an official apology and paid financial compensation to Japanese Americans evacuated and placed in concentration camps during World War II. I was in the Senate balcony that day and remember that he was one of the first in the chamber to congratulate Senators Spark Matsunaga and Daniel Inouye of Hawaiʻi, the bill’s initial sponsors. I also remember that Bradley was the first important congressional figure to speak out against Jesse Helms’s attacks on the NEA. Now, the senator spoke amiably about his growing up in a small town in Missouri, isolated from racial issues but not without compassion for his father, a disabled man who became the town’s banker. Bradley called for racial healing and an open dialogue on race, and then began with a question for Morrison and Hwang. “How did race figure as a motivation for you to begin to write?” Bradley asked. Morrison was silent for a moment, then answered by talking about her first novel, The Bluest Eye. She announced that part of her motivation behind writing it was to write for an audience of 185 young black women like herself. Nobody up until that time was addressing books to black women, she felt, and she wanted to do that specifically. Part of doing that involved creating a character Morrison hated completely, the blue-­ eyed antiheroine of the novel whom she made the embodiment of evil and the recipient of her social revenge. But she soon realized that she couldn’t do that, that art wasn’t the place to get her revenge. So Morrison began to create more multidimensional characters and moral complexities reflective of society’s ambiguities. Hwang, winner of a...


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