Christopher Hitchens on Mortality

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“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

“One should try to write as if posthumously,”Christopher Hitchens (April 13, 1949–December 15, 2011) famously opined in a New York Public Library talk three days before his fatal cancer diagnosis. “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others,” he advised young contrarians years earlier. How striking, then, becomes the clash between his uncompromising ethos and the equally uncompromising realities of death, recorded inMortality (public library), his last published work, out this week — a gripping and lucid meditation on death as it was unfolding during Hitch’s last months of life. But what makes the book truly extraordinary is his profound oscillation between his characteristic, proud, almost stubborn self-awareness — that ability to look on with the eye of the critic rather than the experiencing self — and a vulnerability that is so clearly foreign to him, yet so breathlessly inevitable in dying. The ideological rigor with which he approaches his own finality, teasing apart religion and politics and other collective and thus impersonal facets of culture, cracks here and there, subtly at first, letting the discomfort of his brush with the unknown peek through, then gapes wide open to reveal the sheer human terror of ceasing to exist.

We begin by seeing Hitchens, a true contrarian himself, defy death’s common psychology:

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of ‘acceptance,’ hasn’t so far had much application to my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read — if not indeed to write — the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.

One coping mechanism is stoic wryness:

To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

As a bastion of semantic clarity, Hitch doesn’t miss the opportunity to dismember a number of the metaphors we use about and around death, echoingSusan Sontag’s classic and revolutionary Illness as Metaphor in discussing the “war-on-cancer” cliché:

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

Still, Hitchens uses his death as a vehicle for advancing his lifelong crusade against religion, which earned him a spot as one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism” — along with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris — and takes a number of clever stabs at religion’s paradoxes:

Many readers are familiar with the spirit and the letter of the definition of ‘prayer,’ as given by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary. It runs like this, and is extremely easy to comprehend:

Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy.

Everybody can see the joke that is lodged within this entry: The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right. Half-buried in the contradiction is the distressing idea that nobody is in charge, or nobody with any moral authority. The call to prayer is self-cancelling.

But, every once in a while, between the busting of clichés, the complacent edge of his self-awareness softens and gives way to the real and raw human terror of his experience:

It’s normally agreed that the question ‘How are you?’ doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, ‘A bit early to say.’ (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, ‘I seem to have cancer today.’) Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask… It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’thave a body, I am a body.

Indeed, this daily attrition of bodily dignity, which bleeds into an attrition of character, is hard even for Hitch to intellectualize, try as he might:

Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. And at times it threatened, and now threatens daily, to disappear altogether. I had just returned from giving a couple of speeches in California, where with the help of morphine and adrenaline I could still successfully ‘project’ my utterances, when I made an attempt to hail a taxi outside my home — and nothing happened. I stood, frozen, like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow. I used to be able to stop a New York cab at thirty paces. I could also, without the help of a microphone, reach the back row and gallery of a crowded debating hall. And it may be nothing to boast about, but people tell me that if their radio or television was on, even in the next room, they could always pick out my tones and know that I was ‘on’ too.

Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs. In common with everybody else, I have played versions of the youthful ‘Which would you rather?’ game, in which most usually it’s debated whether blindness or deafness would be the most oppressive. But I don’t ever recall speculating much about being struck dumb. (In the American vernacular, to say ‘I’d really hate to be dumb’ might in any case draw another snicker.) Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’

The final pages of Mortality feature Hitch’s fragmentary scribbles from the days immediately preceding his death, concluding, poignantly, with this:

From Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams; set in Berne in 1905:

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts… and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own… Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.

Ackman Says Student Loans Are the Biggest Risk in the Credit Market

College students in the U.S. that take out federal loans are likely to see interest rates jump — potentially by a percentage point or more — in the coming academic year.
Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
Bill Ackman says the biggest risk in the credit market is student loans.

“If you think about the trillion dollars of student loans we have outstanding, there’s no way students are going to pay it back,” Ackman, who runs $20 billion Pershing Square Capital Management, said today at 13D Monitor’s Active-Passive Investor Summit in New York.

The balance of student loans outstanding in the U.S. — also including private loans without government guarantees — swelled to $1.3 trillion as of the second quarter 2014, based on data released by the Federal Reserve in October. The rising level has prompted investors and government officials to draw parallels to the subprime mortgage market before housing collapsed starting in 2006.

About $100 billion of federal student loans are in default, 9 percent of outstanding balances, according to a Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee update on student lending trends released in November.

Ackman, 48, said “young people are the kind of people that protest” and predicted that one administration or another will forgive student debt.

The investor, who last year trounced other money managers with a 40 percent gain in his public fund, said at the conference he doesn’t like fixed income markets generally because of very low U.S. interest rates and that investors should be wary of aggressive lending terms.

Another panel at the event — an annual forum used by hedge fund managers to highlight campaigns to push companies for change — was interrupted by about 20 protesters chanting and carrying placards demanding fairer wages. Security intervened and managed to usher the noisy-but-peaceful protesters outside of the fourth-floor Broadway Ballroom.

The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison

At 84, she sits comfortably as one of the greatest authors in American history, even as her uncompromising dream for black literature seems farther away than ever.

By RACHEL KAADZI GHANSAH

Not too long ago, Toni Morrison sat in the small kitchen attached to the studio where she was recording the audiobook for her newest novel, “God Help the Child,” telling a roomful of strangers stories that I will never forget. The studio, a small, refurbished barn in Katonah, N.Y., was more than a hundred years old, but only a few rustic touches remained, like a sliding barn door and knotty pine floors. A solid kitchen table had been laid with fresh fruits, muffins and tins of jam. Beams of sunlight reflected off the blindingly white snow outside the glass window. A young woman from Random House kept mentioning her sunglasses, how it was bright enough to wear them inside. Everyone giggled at her nervous chatter, but they seemed to be mostly laughing at her brave attempt to make small talk in the presence of Toni Morrison.

The only person not bothered by the glare and the room’s awkward giddiness was Morrison herself, who sat at the head of the table, in a thin, black linen caftan, a wool beret and with a sizable diamond ring on one hand. Morrison wears her age like an Elizabethan regent or a descendant of Othello via Lorain, Ohio. Long before we met, I read that she could be impervious at times, coquettish at others. What was evident that day in Katonah was that had she so much as lifted a finger, every person in the room — the studio’s director and his engineer, her P.R. person from Knopf, her publisher and two young women from the audiobooks division of Random House — would have stopped what they were doing to ask if they could assist. Not because she required it, but because the unspoken consensus was that the person who produced the 11 novels that Morrison has written, the person those books came out of, was deserving of the fuss.

It takes a long time to record a book. Many authors use actors. But that’s not how Morrison hears her own sentences, so she does these tedious sessions herself. That day, she would go into a narrow, low-lit booth, carrying a small pillow for her back, sit down and read from her new book for hours. We followed along in the control room, listening to her barely-a-whisper voice read from a chapter called “Sweetness”: “It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened.”

The hours went by. “Toni,” the director said at one point through his microphone, “can you do that sentence over? Can you pronounce ‘tangerine’ with more emphasis on the ‘rine?’ ” Sometimes her voice dipped down too low to be heard. “Toni,” he would say, “let’s do that part over again.”

It was a long day. Some people can’t do it, can’t sit in that dimly lit sarcophagus-like space and read. Others who have recorded there have kept the door open because the booth was too confining. But Morrison was in absolute calm, as if this dark space and her own words were a nest of language and she was perfectly at home. Because of how she was positioned, I couldn’t see her; I could hear only her voice. Purring and soft. Dulcet. A faint noise coming from within the darkness.

During her breaks, Morrison would take her place at the table, and within minutes she was surrounded. Did she want the heater closer? Did she want tea? As a defense against our smothering neediness, she tried to preserve herself, the private person inside the author, by telling us stories. My mention of New Orleans prompted her to tell a tale that she heard from a friend that must be passed along. It goes like this: There was once a man who lived in New Orleans. A city that is like no other place in this country. Now, this man’s name was Big Lunch, and folks called him that because he was known for always coming around midday and asking for whatever food people had to spare. He put that food in his pockets, in his coat, in his pants, and when that food went bad, he didn’t mind. You could smell this man coming around even when he was blocks away because he never bathed. And of course, over time all that food and dirt began to crust and that crust caked over his skin. Somehow or other, Big Lunch got into an accident, and when they got him to the hospital, they washed him. They washed all of his dirt and crust off. All of it. But as days passed, instead of getting better, Big Lunch began to get sicker, sicker, until finally one day he took his last breath and died. “Because,” she said, looking intently at me with a smile that had nothing to do with anything funny, “those people didn’t know that all of that crust was what had been keeping him alive.”

Morrison is a woman of guardrails and many boundaries; she keeps them up in order to do the work. The work “protects,” she told me. “It’s a serious protection: emotionally, even intellectually, from the world.” Journalists from Europe and elsewhere call these days, one after the other, and they try to be coy, but she can tell what they really want to know. “They are just calling to see when I’m going to die.” She laughed and said: “So I’ll play it up a bit and say, ‘Oh, today my arms hurt, my chest is sore.’ Because, me? I’m not going anywhere soon.”

She wasn’t too interested in her 84th birthday, she said, until President Obama’s office called the other day to plan a lunch. When she told us this, oohs and aahs went around the room. Someone asked her where she was going to have it. “Huh,” she said, as if this were the silliest question ever posed. “At their house! At the White House!” Of course. “Well, actually, it isn’t a lunch; it is a dinner, and they said, ‘Now, Toni, this will be very informal, don’t put yourself out, you can even wear jeans if you like.’ ” She paused and shook her head slightly, saying to no one in particular: “Jeans! I’ve never worn jeans in my life, and I’m certainly not going to wear them to the White House. I mean.” Then she sighed. As if she couldn’t even explain it all to us, because we wouldn’t get it. Like we wouldn’t get how far she had come.

In 1984, Morrison was a single mother and a novelist with four books to her name, three of which — “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” — are now considered classics. She had recently stopped working as an editor at Random House and published the essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” in an anthology. The essay in many ways articulated the terms that would define her writing. She noted that the novel “has always functioned for the class or the group that wrote it.” The novel that concerned itself with black Americans was remarkable and needed, she wrote, because it accomplished “certain very strong functions,” now that “we don’t live in places where we can hear those stories anymore” and “parents don’t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological archetypal stories that we heard years ago.” The black novel was important because it could “suggest what the conflicts are, what the problems are,” not necessarily as a means of solving them but as a way of recording and reflecting them.

For years, dozens upon dozens of prominent black writers — people like Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Jayne Cortez, Nikki Giovanni and John Edgar Wideman — were in orbit with one another. Some of these black writers had no formal affiliations, but many others organized themselves under efforts like Baraka’s Black Arts Movement, where they could share the duty of not only making art but also writing themselves into the world. They were not just producing poems, plays and novels, they were also considering the obligations of their specific genre — black literature — and its defining aspects and distinct functions. We no longer connect Morrison to that earlier, loosely defined constellation of black writing, but she was there, and she was there long before she was a novelist. During the years that she worked at Random House, she published books by Muhammad Ali, Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, whom she discovered in the 1970s. Jones’s manuscript was so impressive that when Morrison read it for the first time, uppermost in her mind, she once wrote, was “that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.” It was Morrison who helped promote Ali’s book and who once hired members of the Fruit of Islam to work security for him. She also reviewed a biography of Angela Davis for The New York Times in 1972, slamming the author for being “another simpatico white girl who felt she was privy to the secret of how black revolutionaries got that way.”

And when the poet Henry Dumas went to his death, the way so many black boys and men do, it was Morrison, who never had a chance to meet him and published his work posthumously, who sent around a book-party announcement that was part invitation, part consolation, which read: “In 1968, a young black man, Henry Dumas, went through a turnstile at a New York City subway station. A transit cop shot him in the chest and killed him. Circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Before that happened, however, he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read.”

Two years after Dumas’s death, Morrison published her first novel, at 39. In many ways, she had prepared the world for her voice and heralded her arrival with her own editorial work. And yet the story of Pecola Breedlove, a broken black girl who wants blue eyes, was a novel that no one saw coming. Morrison relished unexpectedness. The first edition of “The Bluest Eye” starts Pecola’s story on the cover: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”

Morrison’s work, since she published that first novel, has always delivered a heavy load. Her books are populated by both history and the people who are left out of history: a jealous, mentally ill hairdresser with a sharp knife (“Jazz,” 1992); a man who as a child suckled at his mother’s breast until those in the community found it odd (“Song of Solomon,” 1977); an enslaved woman, who would rather slice her own daughter’s neck than let captivity happen to her (“Beloved,” 1987); and a destitute little girl, belly swollen with her father’s child, holding a Shirley Temple cup, desperate to have Temple’s bright blue eyes (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970).

On one level, Morrison’s project is obvious: It is a history that stretches across 11 novels and just as many geographies and eras to tell a story that is hardly chronological but is thematically chained and somewhat continuous. This is the project most readily understood and accepted by even her least generous critics. But then there is the other mission, the less obvious one, the one in which Morrison often does the unthinkable as a minority, as a woman, as a former member of the working class: She democratically opens the door to all of her books only to say, “You can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I’m glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn’t built for you or by you.” Here, blackness isn’t a commodity; it isn’t inherently political; it is the race of a people who are varied and complicated. This is where her works become less of a history and more of a liturgy, still stretching across geographies and time, but now more pointedly, to capture and historicize: This is how we pray, this is how we escape, this is how we hurt, this is how we repent, this is how we move on. It is a project that, although ignored by many critics, evidences itself on the page. It has allowed Morrison to play with language, to take chances with how stories unravel and to consistently resist the demand to create an empirical understanding of black life in America. Instead, she makes black life — regular, quotidian black life, the kind that doesn’t sell out concert halls or sports stadiums — complex, fantastic and heroic, despite its devaluation. It is both aphorism and beyond aphorism, and a result has been pure possibility.

Often, in black literature, it seems as though the author is performing two roles: that of the explorer and the explainer. Morrison does not do this. Morrison writes stories that are more aesthetic than overtly political, better expressed in accurate Tolstoyan detail than in generalizing sentiments blunted with anger. Most important, she is an author who writes to tease and complicate her world, not to convince others it is valid.

“What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze,” she told me. “In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people — good, bad, indifferent, whatever — but that was, for me, the universe.”

In 1842, Charles Dickens, at the time one of the greatest authors writing in English, took a steamboat trip across Lake Erie. He was most excited to see Niagara Falls. While waiting for the boat in Sandusky, Ohio, he lamented that he wanted to be getting along with his trip and was apparently uninterested in passing through the next town, Vermilion, or seeing the small curve of land that would one day be Morrison’s birthplace, Lorain. Dickens concluded that “their demeanor in these country parts is invariably morose, sullen, clownish and repulsive. I should think there is not, on the face of the earth, a people so destitute of humor, vivacity or the capacity of enjoyment. It is most remarkable. I am quite serious when I say that I have not heard a hearty laugh these six weeks, except my own; nor have I seen a merry face on any shoulders but a black man’s.”

When I first read this, I wondered for days who this merry black man was who was so remarkably different from the other Ohioans that Dickens encountered. Did this merry man know his difference warranted a mention from Dickens himself? Did this merry man read? At the time of Dickens’s visit, 19 years before the Civil War, there were laws that prohibited black enslaved people from being taught to read or write. Was it even possible for Dickens to imagine that within a leap of a hundred years a girl would be born there who would become one the few people who could relate to his lofty position as one of the greatest writers ever to live? We will never know the thoughts of this particular merry man, but his appearance in Dicken’s travelogue almost presages the novels of Morrison, novels that have ensured that lives like his are no longer merely passing mentions in another man’s notes.

She wasn’t born Toni Morrison. She had to become that person. She was born Chloe Wofford in 1931. Her parents, Ramah and George Wofford, were Southerners who came to Ohio at the beginning of the 20th century. She grew up hearing about how her mother’s father, John Solomon Willis, a violinist, often had to leave his wife and family behind on a farm in Greenville, Ala., to go to Birmingham to make money. Morrison recalled that her grandmother, Ardelia Willis, realized as the months passed that the white boys in the area were “circling,” meaning her girls were getting toward that age. And when she saw white boys out in the yard, she knew what was up. This image and her grandmother’s way of speech have stayed with her: “I like the way she said ‘circling,’ ” Morrison told me. After sending a message to her husband that they could no longer stay put, Morrison’s grandmother took her children in the dead of the night and got on the first train they could find that would take them away.

When Morrison’s father was 14 or 15, two black businessmen who lived on his street were lynched in succession, and afterward, he left the South and by a circuitous route headed to Ohio. Morrison said: “He never told us that he’d seen bodies. But he had seen them. And that was too traumatic, I think, for him.”

One of the most important things she remembers about her father, she told me, is “how much he hated white people. Once I saw him throw a white man down the stairs, because he thought he was coming — I think the guy was drunk — but still he was coming up the stairs, and my father thought he was after his girls, so he picked him up and threw him down the stairs and threw our tricycle after him.” She wrote about this incident in an essay for this magazine in 1976, and concluded that even though she was very small when she witnessed it, it taught her something key: “that my father could win” and “that it was possible to win.”

But Morrison didn’t grow up, she said, “with that particular kind of alarm or fear or distrust of white people, personally.” She described Lorain as a place where “immigrants were everywhere, Italians and Polish people and Jewish people and black people. Some of them came down from Canada. So I never lived in a black neighborhood, and the schools were mixed, and there was one high school. And also we played together.”

The Woffords were not well off. They just worked hard. There was a railroad that ran through Lorain, and when she was little, her father used to take her and her sister, Lois, out to collect fallen bits of coal as the train trembled by. I didn’t tell her that when I once drove through Lorain, with the big sky looking, as she once wrote, “carnival” over the flat, Midwestern expanse, it seemed like a place perfect for an imaginative child — a keen observer, a relentless reader whose mind was full of her mother’s ghost stories, visions of Russian dachas from Tolstoy, and Moorish princes from Shakespeare and poor-orphan fairy tales from Dickens — to come up with characters of her own.

Life in Lorain taught Morrison a few things that were to set her apart when she went off to Washington, D.C., to study literature at Howard University. The first was that she never would be the sort of person who would be roped in by self-satisfied, self-segregating celebrations of blackness as something unimpeachable. Morrison was raised to compete on broader stages, with people from all walks of life, and she wasn’t used to thinking of white people as the estranged other. At Howard, she wanted to write a term paper on the role of black people in Shakespeare, but her professor thought it was “low-class” to read and research black life. It also made her uneasy and deeply disappointed that at Howard, skin color worked as a caste system. This was something she had only read about, and she found it off-putting and silly. But in Washington, she also encountered for the first time lunch counters she could not sit at, fountains she could not drink from and stores where her money was simply no good. The confines of the campus acted as a space of blessed comfort. She simply could not take segregation seriously. “I think it’s a theatrical thing,” she told me. “I always felt that everything else was the theater. They didn’t really mean that. How could they? It was too stupid.”

After college and graduate school at Cornell, Morrison eventually returned to Howard to teach. She married. She had a son, and then while she was months into her second pregnancy, her marriage fell apart. She decided to go back to Lorain to figure out what would come next. In the back pages of The New York Review of Books, she saw an editing position at the textbook division of Random House. She applied and got the job. With two young sons, Morrison moved to Syracuse and started to work in the completely foreign industry of editors, agents and writers.

The perplexing but wonderful thing about Morrison’s career is just how much her prominence was created not by the mainstream publishing world, but by Morrison herself, on her own terms, in spite of it. The French literary theorist Pascale Casanova suggests in her book “The World Republic of Letters” that all literature is a kind of a cultural battleground where dominant forces routinely crush the stories of those who are the underdog. “Literary space is not an immutable structure, fixed once and for all in its hierarchies and power relations,” Casanova writes, adding that “even if the unequal distribution of literary resources assures that such forms of domination will endure, it is also a source of incessant struggle of challenges to authority and legitimacy, of rebellions, insubordination and, ultimately, revolutions that alter the balance of literary power and rearrange existing hierarchies.”

In 1988, a collective of 48 black writers and intellectuals published and signed a statement in The New York Times, upbraiding the publishing industry for its “oversight and harmful whimsy” toward Morrison and James Baldwin. “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: She has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize,” they wrote. “It is a fact that James Baldwin, celebrated worldwide and posthumously designated as ‘immortal’ and as ‘the conscience of his generation,’ never received the honor of these keystones to the canon of American literature.” “Beloved,” they said, was Morrison’s most recent gift to our community, our country and our national conscience. They refused to stand by as it was snubbed by the National Book Awards. “Beloved,” they felt, had finally given expression to “a universe of complicated, sweetly desiring, fierce and deeply seductive human beings hitherto subsumed by, hitherto stifled by, that impenetrable nobody-noun: ‘the slave.’ ”

Two months later, Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. A few years after that, she won the Nobel Prize. She is still, 20 years later, the only living American laureate for literature. The last time one was awarded to an American-born writer was in 1962 to John Steinbeck. And yet in their act of defiance, these 48 black letter writers had observed a truth that the fact of Morrison’s awards cannot alter: that they were working within a culture that fundamentally wasn’t interested in them and they therefore had recognized what the establishment at large had refused to; that, now and then, writers of color must struggle to merely tread water in a sea of what another Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Junot Díaz, described to me as “the unbearable whiteness” of American literature.

This is a problem even for Morrison. She is often discussed in terms of her audience, the older black women who fan themselves with her book covers at her readings, the teenage girls who sigh on buses and trains while reading “Sula” for class, the young male rappers who have interpolated lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their songs. It is this audience that her critics dismiss derisively, suggesting that Morrison panders to them, with long, poetic sentences and stories about broken black women. It is also true that a sizable portion of her audience simply looks like her, in a world where black Americans, and people of color in general, are still perceived to be nonreaders. But of course Morrison, rather than feeling marginalized or slighted by that criticism, takes delight in it. In an interview for The Paris Review, she said: “I would like to write novels that were unmistakably mine but nevertheless fit first into African-American traditions and, second of all, this whole thing called literature.” She added: “It’s very important to me that my work be African-American. If it assimilates into a different or larger pool, so much the better. But I shouldn’t be asked to do that. Joyce is not asked to do that. Tolstoy is not. I mean, they can all be Russian, French, Irish or Catholic, they write out of where they come from, and I do too.” It is a reply that stumps her interviewer. First African-American, she asks her, as if Morrison had stuttered. Yes, Morrison replies. Rather than the whole of literature she asks. “Oh, yes,” Morrison replies.

This was a radical idea. Morrison wanted to not only broaden the tastes of the industry, she also wanted to change the fate of a literary culture that had to either diversify or die. She told me that the books she edited and wrote were her contribution to the civil rights movement. By publishing black geniuses, she was also forcing the ranks of the big publishing houses and the industry to become more hospitable to her point of view, to the idea that a black writer could write for a black audience first and still write literature. She was more humanist than nationalistic, more visionary than didactic, but to some extent her editorial work was political. “We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes,” Morrison said in her 1981 keynote address at the American Writers Congress. “We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.”

What we know now is that the inclusive, empowered revolution that Morrison raised a battle cry for has failed to come to pass. Over the last decade or so, a righteous assault on the hegemony that exists in American literature has come to the fore. Suddenly, the old guard’s oft-repeated line that people of color don’t read, that they don’t submit, that their work isn’t up to snuff was being widely and publicly debunked by workshops run by programs like Kimbilio, Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation and the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop. But what has remained more elusive is the part that Morrison figured out as an editor: What happens after the workshop and the head count? How do people change an establishment? How do people change an industry?

Morrison serves as a totem for so much of this energy. It is not just that her writing is singular; her efforts to change the lay of the land have also been singular. Junot Díaz recalled to me that seeing Toni Morrison on the cover of Time was revelatory for him as a young writer for this exact reason. “At that moment,” he said, “you could feel the demographic shift, you could feel in the ’90s what the future was going to be and when you look at the literary world now, and it’s almost like that future was never realized. The literary world has tripled down on its whiteness.” When I asked him to explain, he said: “Well, if you think about what the colors and faces and the backgrounds of our young people are in all of our public schools, and then you look at the writers who this society valorizes, the disconnect is intergalactic. It’s almost as if they saw the future in the Time cover and said, ‘Well, we’ve got to make sure to get Franzen on the cover as a prayer against, or an attempt to exorcise, that imminent future.’ ”

Later, at home, after having spent time with Morrison and rereading “Beloved” and “God Help the Child” back to back, an embarrassing thing happened to me: I felt a knot in my throat that then became heavy sadness. My tears disabled me, and I found them inscrutable. Something hurt. Slowly I recognized what was behind my crying: fear and worry. I was worried about what will happen to the stories. For decades Morrison has reflected back to us what it’s meant to be on the other side of this country’s approved history. When young white men again sing songs about lynching black men without being able recall who taught them those songs, and the hateful origins of the N-word are erased by a convenient amnesia to allow its constant use by outsiders, who will tell the stories we don’t tell ourselves? When we still have to assert that we matter, when African-Americans represent an estimated 1 percent of those working at the big publishing houses, when women and writers of color have to track how seldom they are given chances to tell their stories and when the publishing industry fails to support or encourage this generation’s writers of color in any real or meaningful way, a dangerous reality is possible. What will happen to the next generation of authors who are writing from the margins?

The lobby of Random House is full of old books displayed inside towering glass cases. There is a worn cookbook by Escoffier; “No Exit,” by Sartre; “Moby-Dick,” by Melville; “Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison. Prominently centered is an early edition of “Song of Solomon,” by Morrison. I had come to see Chris Jackson, the executive editor at Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, and one of the roughly five or six black senior editors in America with a position at a major publishing company.

Jackson’s office is full of books by the authors he has published: Victor LaValle’s acclaimed novels, Mat Johnson’s “Pym,” Eddie Huang’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.” Jackson is in his mid-40s, wears glasses with clear plastic frames and has a graying beard. He has the contemplative look of a person who has spent most of his life reading. His desk is cluttered with magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, marked drafts and a picture of his young son. Above his desk, I spied two copies of “The Black Book,” an anthology edited by Morrison and published in 1974 that was an iconoclastic, archival look at black life in America. Among all the books that Morrison championed and shepherded at Random House, “The Black Book” stands out as a strange and singular creation and one that vividly captures her notion of writing and publishing from within the black experience, without the white gaze. It is a book that works almost like a scrapbook of black life in America: a collection of photographs, illustrations, and essays. It contains quotes from the poet Henry Dumas and cartoons of sambos carrying watermelons, along with pictures of pretty black centerfolds and stories about runaways who made their break for freedom and found it.

I asked Jackson if he thought that “The Black Book” opened the parameters of people’s perception of what black literature would look like at Random House. He paused. “It’s hard to say, because I can’t speak authoritatively on the publishing scene in the 1970s,” he said. “But I think that at that time there weren’t, and today there aren’t, a lot of black editors. Editors were looking for black literature that felt like a commentary on black life, and she was doing books that were about the kind of internal experience of being black, just like the books she writes are.” He added, “I think white editors at that time, and even today, are mostly looking for black writers working in whatever mode happens to be selling at the time; either that, or writers who were writing out of protest,” he said.

As he spoke, I flipped through his first-edition copy of “The Black Book,” because I had never seen it before. He noticed my distraction and said: “ ‘The Black Book’ is not exactly a celebration of black life. It is a gathering together of artifacts. It’s a sort of way of witnessing black life, but, again, it does feel like it’s coming from the perspective within the black community. It’s not like an anthropological book at all. It’s almost a family history in a way. Again, I think that points to the difference in her perspective.”

Jackson is a diplomatic person, and I could see him thinking when I asked him about the biases of the industry. For example, how when Morrison became the first black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, there were those who asked if she deserved the award. “The literary community is not free of the prejudices of larger society, to put it nicely,” he said. “In some ways, it’s less representative of the racial diversity of America than almost any industry I know. I feel like black literature, black art, has always been put in a separate category. I think there’s always been a lot of surprising and enduring lack of full respect in certain quarters about the fact that Toni Morrison, with ‘Beloved,’ wrote the best American novel published probably in my lifetime, and it was written about a subject that Americans don’t like to talk about or are incapable of talking about in a lot of ways.

“But I do think the resentment, part of it, is that the self-conscious literary establishment is a clubby kind of world where everyone is like, ‘Well, this is not the person who’s my person, who represents me,’ and the literary world in America is filled with people who are represented by white men or white women. I mean, there are almost no people in literature represented by a black woman, right?” Right, I said. Right.

It was still winter, but the day had spring undertones, a good deal of sun and now a pink evening sky that I could see through the slots of the skyscrapers. Across the way, I could see a dance class that was in session, a row of arms in flight. Yellow taxis scuttled down below like beetles. The building directly adjacent to his office seemed to be a hotel, and someone was turning down the sheets. It was one of those moments in which New York feels timeless.

Jackson walked me out to the elevator and for some reason, as I passed the row of offices, I began to self-consciously whisper. It was the end of the workday, and the elevator stopped on almost every floor. A tired, older woman with frizzy gray hair got on and smiled. A middle-aged man held the door for his co-worker. They all looked like nice people, bookish people, people I might know in the city. Two younger women got on, holding tote bags full of books, as most young people in this scene do. They smiled at me too. I did not feel any different from them or think twice about myself, until I got to the lobby, where I realized that the only black or Latino people I had seen that afternoon besides Jackson were the security guards in the lobby. Unless, that is, you counted Toni, Ralph and Maya peering down at me from those glass cases, immortalized in what seemed like a distant past.

The last afternoon I spent with Toni Morrison was at her loft in TriBeCa. It was one of the biggest apartments I have seen in the city. Large, evocative, abstract paintings by her deceased son, Slade, hung on most of the walls. There were built-in white bookcases that stretched up to the ceilings, and here and there were solid but elegantly carved pieces of antique furniture: a drafting table in the foyer, a long table for dining. Set among the plush tan, white and cream sofas and chairs was an oak coffee table. It was a steel-gray winter Monday morning, and through the windows, the bridges in the distance looked as if they were held up by land masses made of sleet and ice. Morrison sat smoking with one of her closest friends, a petite white woman named Eileen. I bummed a cigarette, and the three of us sat over coffee, our smoke spinning in the air, up toward the view of Lower Manhattan.

Because Morrison is read the world over, she is perceived to be a known quantity. She has an audience, she has awards. She is a black woman who writes about black people. Many people cling to her for this, but just as many think she has written herself into a literary ghetto. In 2008, the novelist Charles Johnson, author of “Middle Passage,” said, “I don’t want to say she’s beating a dead horse, but she probably feels more comfortable writing about that period as opposed to something more contemporary.” But he added, “I do think clearly that slavery-era stories and segregation-era stories are stories about the past.”

Admittedly, the contemporary still scares her, Morrison told me, with a slight shudder. It is a pace that she doesn’t quite understand. That said, the criticism that she only writes about the distant past no longer flies. “Love” and “God Help the Child” are each set in the 20th century. The new book is a fable-like novel about a well-to-do beauty executive, Bride, who lives in a modern-day California. In it, Morrison asks the reader to consider what happens to children who can’t forget the torment of an excruciatingly painful childhood. Bride has to connect to others and see past the ways she has busied herself pointlessly with other people’s baggage in lieu of becoming something of her own making. Even though Bride has capitalized off her blackness and her beauty, to become complete, she has to go much deeper and lose all of the symbols and the trappings.

The novel is an expression of all the ways that Morrison remains skeptical of quick fixes and easy answers. “Having been eliminated from the lists of urgent national priorities, from TV documentaries and the platitudes of editorials, black people have chosen, or been forced to seek, safety from the white man’s promise,” she wrote in the 1976 Times essay. “In the shambles of closing admissions, falling quotas, widening salary gaps and merging black-studies departments, builders and healers are quietly working among us.” That piece was written long ago, but Morrison still seems to be fighting for higher stakes, whether she admits it or not. She sees that my generation is ready to push back again, but she knows well that slogans don’t create change; she has written often about the emptiness of superficial reform and has said that “the killing of young black men has never changed all that much, with or without hoodies.”

In 1993, when Morrison received the Nobel, she told a folk tale that she has since told often. It is the story of an old female writer who is accosted by an angry mob of young people. Doubting her wisdom, they demand that she tell them something relevant. They ask her to tell them how to cope with being marginalized, while “having no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew, to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.”

Sitting in her apartment, I realized that every time we talked, I was just like one of those demanding young people. There was some part of me that wanted Morrison to play Moses and descend down the mountaintop and tell me what my generation should do next, how we might change these circumstances that we face. But for some reason Morrison would not to do this.

Which didn’t mean she wouldn’t speak her heart. She told me about the people she adores fiercely: her son, Harold Ford, and her granddaughters. And her sister, Lois, whose name she says like a prayer. (When I asked Morrison if she and Lois were close, I got an eye roll that was so sharp it chopped down the question and me. “My sister?” she finally said. “I need her.”) She told me about the unexpected thrills that can occur only late in one’s life, like changes in power that you never expected: Pope Francis, for example, or Michelle Obama. “Michelle,” she said with a smile that extended to places more important than just her face, “is one of the biggest brains in this country.”

“You think?” I asked her, not doubting her assessment but merely wanting a bit more. “Oh, I know,” she smiled, refusing to reveal a thing.

She marveled at the ways of being that people have let go of, that mystify her. When she found out that I had never slept on ironed sheets, her mouth hit the floor. “Do you make your bed every morning?” Rarely, I said. “Well, how do you get in it?” she asked. “I don’t know, I just straighten the duvet and get sort of comfortable in the tangle and climb in.” She groaned. I told her that my mother said there was nothing in the world like ironed sheets. “Your mother is right,” she said. “There is nothing in the world like ironed sheets.” She remembered a trip down South, when her host put her sheets out to dry on the jasmine bush — or was it a frangipani tree — and then ironed them. “Oh,” she said, inhaling deeply as if the sheets were still in her hands, “it was a sleep like no other. I’ve never had anything like it since.”

But when I asked her over and over what we could do to make sure our stories were not silenced, I didn’t get much. All she would tell me was that a good story is one that ends with what she called “the acquisition of knowledge.”

When I finally left Morrison’s apartment, she was about to get on the phone with Lois, to ask after her well being and her day in Lorain. Her sister had not been doing well, she was in the hospital, and I watched Morrison’s hands tremble as she took the call. Immediately I felt a deep shame. I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her, and yet for the first time I understood Morrison was a person with real human concerns. Suddenly I felt greedy and excused myself in a hurry. How silly of me to think that she should provide me with an answer to the old woman’s riddle, to not see all the ways Morrison has given of herself.

On my way out, she graciously said that I should call her if I had any more questions. And even though I later sent her clips of Kendrick Lamar through her assistant, because she got excited when I told her that his work reminded me of Joyce’s “Dubliners” but set in Compton, I never spoke to Morrison again.

From time to time though, I still think about her. Usually, what comes to mind during those moments is her last book, “Home.” In it, Morrison cemented the fact that her interest in history and looking back has hardly been a vain, nostalgic project. Instead, she mined what came before so it could be applied to the present, applied, perhaps, to the person who feels diminished or the readers who need to be reminded that they cannot easily turn their back on this country’s inherited history, and those who are not like them. “Who told you you was trash?” the old women of Lotus, Ga., asks the protagonist in “Home.” This is a question not just for her character but for anyone who has been listening to Morrison’s entire unforgettable liturgy: Who told you? And why did you believe?

National Library Week

I am and always have been an advocate of libraries. When I first came to America, I spent a lot of time in my school library either waiting for my sisters, hanging out with friends or simply being by myself reading. It is a space in which I was never uncomfortable. I was at peace. This is why when I see articles as The Future of Libraries Has Little to Do with Books, I am perplexed. Who actually thought that the public library was all about borrowing books? It was ALWAYS a cultural center at least for me. From Jr. High School in Queens, NY when this was the meeting place for everyone.It was where we met to decide on where to go next or for younger students who had to wait for their older siblings this was a safespace to wait and while there we met other students and we learned a lot. Yes “how” we read is different, but our interaction with each other has not changed. The library as a “cultural center” is not new at least not for ME.

 

Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series on view at MoMA

By Ula Ilnytzky Associated Press

Click photo to enlarge

This photo provided by the Museum of Modern Art courtesy of The Phillips Collection,… (AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — One hundred years ago, African-Americans began a mass exodus from the rural South, heading north in search of economic opportunity and social equality. The Museum of Modern Art is paying tribute to that movement in a rare exhibition of a series chronicling the phenomenon from artist Jacob Lawrence, himself the son of migrants.

His Great Migration series, featuring 60 poignant narrative paintings, is the centerpiece of the exhibition that runs through Sept. 7.

Lawrence, who died in 2000, was only 23 when he completed the works in 1941. The small tempera paintings depict various scenes of the multi-decade mass movement that began in 1915. Executed in bold colors, they portray scenes of life and death, work, home and hardships for the millions of African Americans who relocated North in pursuit of a better future.

The year they were finished, the paintings were exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan, marking the first time a black artist was represented by a New York gallery. Soon after, they entered the collections of MoMA and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., with each acquiring half.

The exhibition, “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North,” is the first time the entire series is on view at MoMA in 20 years. Phillips showed all 60 panels in 2008.

To put the paintings in historical context, the exhibition also includes video and audio recordings of performances by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday; photographs by Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks; and writings by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. A special interactive website allows people to explore zoomable high-resolution images of all 60 panels.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum will hold a panel discussion next week led by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, on the continuing legacy of Jim Crow — how it shapes issues of race, justice and public policy today. It also has commissioned 10 noted poets to create poetry based on Lawrence’s series.

“The migration series is not history set in the past, but rather an ongoing phenomenon,” said exhibition curator Leah Dickerman. “It’s contemporary history focused on the experience of ordinary people and he tells it in a contemporary, almost cinematic way.”

The series opens with an image of a chaotic crowd in a train station pushing toward three ticket windows marked Chicago, New York and St. Louis.

Lawrence was the son of migrants who moved to Harlem when he was 13. “He often spoke of hearing stories of people ‘coming up’ from friends and family,” said Dickerman. He spent months researching the Great Migration before embarking on the series, beginning by coming up with short captions for the scenes he planned.

In an image of a large group of migrants weighed down with heavy bags he simply states: “The migration gained momentum.” Another of a migrant worker with his tenant landlord says “tenant farmers received harsh treatment at the hands of planters.”

Among other reasons blacks left in droves were lynchings in the South and the freedom to vote in the North, Lawrence said in captions accompanying other pictures.

So many left, that “crops were left to dry and spoil … there was no one to tend to them,” he says for a painting of a withering field.

“The works we’ve gathered in the show … testify to the importance of the migration as an extraordinary agent of cultural innovation, bringing the sounds and tastes and language of the South into a new urban framework,” said Dickerman. “Out of this came new genres and scores of landmark works — the very foundation for what we think of as the culture of urban America.”

If the exhibition “sparks a conversation, we’ll have done one thing about keeping our attention on one of the greatest issues of today,” added museum Director Glenn Lowry.

In New York, Everywhere a Writing Nook

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The playwright Sharon Bridgforth in a common area at the New Dramatists building. CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

WORK and leisure don’t have to be enemies. The writing life is proof of it. New York’s coffee shops would be deserted if it weren’t for people scribbling and typing the day away. But when every seat is taken, the Wi-Fi is down and the only muffin left is bran, there are alternatives to being cooped up in the home office, and the city’s legion of playwrights know them well.

There is a place intended especially for them, for example — a former Lutheran mission on West 44th Street that has housed the nonprofit organization New Dramatists since 1969. Playwrights with one of the residencies that New Dramatists is best known for get private work space within the building, which is between Ninth and Tenth Avenues in the Clinton section. But Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the group’s library, which seats about 30 at chairs and a communal table, is open to the public. Free coffee and tea (and sometimes leftover snacks) included.

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The New Dramatists building in Clinton. CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

In the 1980s and ’90s the library was informally open to the neighborhood people on weekdays, according to Joel Ruark, the group’s executive director, but in 2001 the room was renovated, and with it came formal hours. Most of the writers there now are theater makers. Playwrights who have written in the library include August Wilson and James Baldwin. Lucy Thurber (“The Insurgents”) and Lucas Hnath (“The Christians”) still do. On a recent afternoon Lily Padilla, an actress and playwright, poured herself a mug of coffee and settled into a plush club chair facing walls of scripts. “It has a really good calming energy,” she said. “I have ample material to inspire me if I want to take a break from writing and read something by a masterful writer.”

But not all writers seek a place made for work. Some playwrights with new shows this spring opt for hotel bars, diners, parks, piers, hospitals, rooftops or trains. They recently shared their favorite under-the-radar spots where being creative comes cheap. Use them to inspire your own search.

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From left: Bess Wohl, Alexandra Collier and Chiara Atik.CreditFrom left: Patrick Adams, Lorenzo de Guia, Lisha Brown

Alexandra Collier

‘Underland’

59E59 Theaters

59 East 59th Street,

Upper East Side

Through April 25

I’m usually writing on the F train going from Midtown to the Seventh Avenue stop in Park Slope. It’s about 45 minutes. I get a lot done in a very short amount of time. I would say I get more creative output on the train than I do sitting at my desk. There’s a sense of urgency. The idea is rushing past and I have to grab hold of it. There’s something about getting those ideas down in that space that’s freeing. You could be playing Candy Crush but instead you’re grabbing hold of that moment.

Bess Wohl

‘Small Mouth Sounds’

Ars Nova

511 West 54th Street, Clinton

Through April 25

One place that’s great in the morning is Croque Monsieur on 13th Street. They play peppy pick-me-up music. They have a quote by Anaïs Nin — “Dreams are necessary to life” — which gets you in the mood. And they have good Wi-Fi. If you need the caffeine and sugar, you get the pain au chocolat and coffee. If you’re really hung over, you get the bacon, egg and cheese croque monsieur. It’s greasy and delicious. If you eat that thing you’re good until three in the afternoon. Once you buy your food downstairs and you go upstairs, you don’t get mean glares from employees wondering why you’re still there. It’s still small enough that you can get up and go to the bathroom without taking all your stuff and losing your spot. If somebody came and took your stuff, a person at another table would speak up … maybe.

Chiara Atik

‘Five Times in One Night’

Ensemble Studio Theater

549 West 52nd Street, Sixth Floor, Clinton

Through April 19

My preferred writing spot in the city is, weirdly, right in the middle of Times Square, the last place any sane New Yorker wants to spend quality time, and therefore perfect for uninterrupted writing. I always head to the lobby bar of the Hilton on 42nd Street, which is actually several floors up. It’s got plushy arm chairs right next to huge windows, and excellent bar snacks, if you don’t think bar snacks are gross. The other clientele tends to be hotel guests quietly killing time; no loud music, no fights over plugs, no getting distracted by other people’s conversation. It’s close to the theater district, which allows for undisturbed writing time right up to a 7 or 8 o’clock curtain. And you never, ever run into anyone you know.

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From left: Laura Eason, Michael Weller and Mac Rogers.CreditFrom left: Chad Batka for The New York Times, Lia Chang, Deborah Alexander

Laura Eason

‘The Undeniable Sound of Right Now’

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

224 Waverly Place, at 11th Street,

Greenwich Village

Through May 2

One place I found that’s good is the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. The third floor has a music and art room where there are these great tables. The Wi-Fi there is the perfect amount of weak so that you can’t be on the web much. You can look stuff up but you can’t procrastinate. You’re surrounded by humanity that I find inspirational and beautiful and sad and complicated.

Michael Weller

‘Doctor Zhivago’

Broadway Theater

1681 Broadway, between 52nd and 53rd Streets

Opens April 21

I tend to write on subways. It changes with each play. With “Zhivago” it was mostly on the red line, the 2 or the 3. I’d ride from one end of the line to the other. There’s a stop called Gun Hill Road. For some reason I looked up, around the time when I was trying to figure out the opening of “Zhivago.” I thought, ah, gun. That’s how we begin the show.

Mac Rogers

‘Rational Choice’

Here

45 Avenue of the Americas, at Dominick Street, South Village

Through Saturday

I have a day job that involves writing ad copy. I write plays by nights and on weekends. But I also work on plays at lunch. I work in Greenpoint [Brooklyn], along the river, and next to the building is a park, the WNYC Transmitter Park, that looks across at Manhattan. What I’ve discovered is that I can’t get the thoughts to come when I’m sitting in a chair. So I go down to the park with a spiral notebook and write standing up in the wind, which is not easy to do, and try to write as many pages as I can. It’s my crisis spot when I know I’ve got to get some pages out.

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From left: Jenny Schwartz, Ben Rimalower and Emily Schwend.CreditFrom left: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times, Benjamin Norman for The New York Times, Second Stage Theater

Jenny Schwartz

‘Iowa’ (with Todd Almond)

Playwrights Horizons

416 West 42nd Street, Clinton

Opens April 13

One time when I was writing my play “God’s Ear” I was stuck. I couldn’t figure out a part. So I went to La Guardia Airport and I wrote there. One of the characters in it spends a lot of time traveling. I thought I might overhear something, or that I might get outside myself to watch people traveling. I also learned that at Weill Cornell hospital, at 70th and York, there are these rooms that are waiting rooms where you can plug in your computer and work. They are very private. There tend to be no one in them. I spent time there when I was with a relative. But then I realized you could go there anytime you want.

Ben Rimalower

‘Bad With Money’ and ‘Patti Issues’

The Duplex

61 Christopher Street, at Seventh Avenue, Greenwich Village

In repertory through June 21

I’ve done a lot of my writing on these two pieces on the Williamsburg waterfront, near where I live. One spot is in Williamsburg at the North Side pier at North Sixth Street. I can see the ferries coming in and the condos and all the people. It’s the most fertile place for inspiration. I also like the new Bushwick Inlet Park, where there’s this weird sloping man-made hill. It’s actually the roof of a new building. The roof is diagonal to the ground and has these terrace levels. At the top of that there are a few benches. It’s a really spectacular view. It’s sketchy to sit there sometimes because that’s where teenage hoodlums go to smoke, so I can’t always establish my turf.

Emily Schwend

‘The Other Thing’

Second Stage Uptown

2162 Broadway, at 76th Street

Previews start May 12

I wrote some of it in Prospect Park [in Brooklyn]. I have problems writing in public on my laptop because I feel I’m on display. I go there when I can’t sit in my apartment any longer but I don’t want to be seen publicly writing. It feels so performative, like here I am writing my play. That’s all in my head because nobody cares in the park. I write by hand sometimes so it’s conducive to that. I usually go by the huge lake on the south side. I’ll walk until I find an empty area in the sun. Sometimes I bring my cat. Yes I’m that crazy person.

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From left: Kristoffer Diaz, Marianne Driscoll and Dan Lauria.CreditFrom Left: Steve Mack/Getty Images, Sherry Burbes, Annie I. Bang/Invision/AP

Kristoffer Diaz

‘The Upstairs Concierge’

Goodman Theater (Chicago)

Through April 26

When I was single I used to write in bars a lot. Writing is lonely. Being in a bar made it feel a little less lonely sometimes. Now I’m married and I have a 3-year-old and I don’t write at night anymore. I spent a lot of time writing and rewriting at the Farm on Adderley [in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn]. Before the evening rush it’s usually a pretty nice, quiet, relaxing place to work. They wouldn’t kick you out. They have something called chocolate bread, which is this bread with chocolate baked through, and sea salt on top. It’s a good thing to be eating while you’re beating yourself up for not being better at writing.

Marianne Driscoll

‘The Biscuit Club’

Cell Theater

338 West 23rd Street, Chelsea

Through April 25

My play takes place in a doggy boardinghouse. It’s comedy inspired by “The Breakfast Club.” It’s about what happens when dogs who don’t know each other are locked up alone in a boardinghouse overnight. I started hanging out at a dog park in Tompkins Square Park. We’d go down with the cast and I’d say, “You are such a poodle!” I started seeing people as the dog they would be. I had my own dog and I would bring him there and sit with my laptop.

Dan Lauria

‘Dinner With the Boys’

Acorn Theater

CONTINUE READING THE MAIN STORYWRITE A COMMENT

410 West 42nd Street, Clinton

Opens May 4

All the rewrites on my play were done sitting at the Westway Diner in a booth late at night. It’s 24 hours. I get all the coffee I want. I’m always at the Westway for a roll and egg and bacon in the morning. I write very blue collar people. There are mostly blue collar people in that diner.

How Do You Know You Exist? A Mind-Bending Animated Homage to Descartes Exploring the Conundrum of Reality

by

“When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t.”

“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” wrote Douglas Rushkoff, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” But what is the thing we call reality, exactly, and how are we even sure it is in the first place? Long before Philip K. Dick proclaimed that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” and E.F. Schumacher considered how we know what we know, the great French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) tussled with these questions in his foundational 1641 treatise Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) — a quest to shake and uproot all beliefs not grounded in what is known with absolute certainty, and to advance a framework for what we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt.

This pleasantly mind-bending animation from James Zucker and TED-Ed turns our most fundamental sense of certainty on its head by directing Descartes’s inquiry at the most seemingly solid bastion of reality — the self: How do you know you’re real?

When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t — so you can’t prove you aren’t dreaming. Maybe the body you perceive yourself to have isn’t really there. Maybe all of reality, even its abstract concepts like time, shape, color, and number are false.

Complement with Alan Watts on what we really mean by “reality”, Mark Strand’s poetic ode to dreams, and a wonderful animated take on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which remains humanity’s greatest parable about the nature of reality, then find a necessary counterpoint in astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s beautiful case for living with mystery in a culture obsessed with certitude.

Previous TED-Ed primers have explored how melancholy enhances our creativity, why we love repetition in music, how to detect lies, and why bees build perfect hexagons.

Bill Nye, TV’s ‘The Science Guy’; Earl Lewis, Academic and Philanthropic Leader; Bryan Stevenson, Attorney Specializing in Capital Defendants; New Jersey’s Jon Bon Jovi Comprise Rutgers’ Lineup of Speakers at Commencement

Speakers will be joined by CUNY professor and social activist Frances Fox Piven as honorary degree recipients

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Rutgers University has chosen multitalented educators and entertainers as commencement speakers for its May ceremonies in New Brunswick/Piscataway, Newark and Camden, N.J.

William S. “Bill” Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, but best known as television’s “Bill Nye, The Science Guy,” will speak Sunday, May 17 (12:30 p.m.) at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s commencement at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway.

Earl Lewis, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a highly regarded historian and author and co-editor of seven books, as well as the 11-volume The Young Oxford History of African Americans, will address graduates Monday, May 18 (9 a.m.), at Rutgers University-Newark’s ceremony at the Prudential Center.

Bryan A. Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who is recognized for representing capital defendants and death row prisoners in the Deep South, and a professor of clinical law at the New York University School of Law, will deliver remarks Thursday, May 21 (9 a.m.) during the Rutgers University-Camden convocation and graduate student commencement at the Susquehanna Bank Center. Famed musician and native New Jerseyan Jon Bon Jovi – widely known for his roles as singer, songwriter, actor and philanthropist – will also deliver remarks.

The four also will receive honorary degrees: Nye, a Doctor of Science; Lewis, a Doctor of Humane Letters; Stevenson, a Doctor of Laws; and Bon Jovi, a Doctor of Letters. Additionally, Rutgers will award an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in New Brunswick to Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of political science and sociology, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Bill Nye
Bill Nye

Nye is a scientist, engineer, comedian, author and inventor, and a man with a mission: to help foster a scientifically literate society. Upon graduating from Cornell (where he later taught) with a degree in mechanical engineering, he went to work at Boeing in Seattle, and eventually developed a hydraulic resonance suppressor that is still used in Boeing 747 aircraft. There, he won a Steve Martin look-alike contest and became a stand-up comic and comedy writer, eventually leaving Boeing.In Seattle, “Bill Nye, The Science Guy,” came to TV, and from 1993 to 1998, Nye won seven Emmy Awards for writing, performing and producing. The show won 18 Emmys in five years. An accomplished author, he has written children’s and general audience books about science, including evolution, and on energy and climate change.

Nye’s current day job is as CEO of the Planetary Society, the world’s largest nongovernmental space interest organization. The society was founded by Nye’s astronomy professor at Cornell, Carl Sagan, among others. Nye and fellow members of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.

Lewis, who holds master and doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota, is a renowned historian and one of the nation’s leading scholars of African American studies. The son of a school teacher in the Jim Crow South, he overcame pervasive disadvantages of being educated in segregated elementary and middle schools. A member of the cohort that integrated his high school in Chesapeake, Va., he earned a National Merit Scholarship for Minority Students and attended Concordia (Minn.) College, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and psychology.

Well known for his leadership in higher education at the national level, Lewis is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on the boards of directors of the Educational Testing Service and the National Academies Board of Higher Education Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs Committee. He has also served on the boards of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Research Libraries and on many higher education task forces. He was a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

During his academic career, Lewis has held faculty appointments at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan and Emory University. At Michigan, he ultimately served as vice provost for academic affairs/graduate studies and dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. At Emory, he became provost and the executive vice president for academic affairs.

As president of The Mellon Foundation, Lewis oversees one of the world’s largest foundations, with more than $6 billion in assets. The foundation makes grants in five primary areas: higher education and scholarship in the humanities; scholarly communications; diversity; arts and cultural heritage; international and higher education and strategic projects.

Stevenson is a 1985 graduate of Harvard University, with both a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government and a Doctor of Laws from Harvard Law School. Since 1989, he has been executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a private, nonprofit law organization he founded that focuses on social justice and human rights in the context of criminal justice reform in the U.S. EJI litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged, poor people denied effective representation and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.

Bryan A. Stevenson
Photo credit: Robert Fouts
Bryan A. Stevenson

Stevenson’s work has won him national acclaim. In 1995, he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. He is also a 1989 recipient of the Reebock Human Rights Award, the 1991 American Civil Liberties Union National Medal of Liberty, and in 1996, he was named the Public Interest Lawyer of the Year by the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers. In 2000, Stevenson received the Olof Palme Prize in Stockholm, for international human rights, and in 2004, he received the Award for Courageous Advocacy from the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Lawyer for the People Award from the National Lawyers Guild.In 2006, NYU presented Stevenson with its Distinguished Teaching Award. He has served as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School. He has published several widely disseminated manuals on capital litigation and has written extensively on criminal justice, capital punishment and civil rights issues. He is also the author of The New York Times best-seller and multiaward-winning Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Jon Bon Jovi is the founder and frontman of one of the world’s best-selling musical acts, Bon Jovi, which has sold more than 130 million albums worldwide. The band’s last two consecutive world tours became the top-grossing tour in the world on each respective outing. As an actor, he has appeared in numerous feature films and television series and as a songwriter, he is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame who earned a Golden Globe for Best Original Song (1991) and a nomination for Best Original Song in 2012.

Frequently using his spotlight for good throughout his career, Bon Jovi’s charitable efforts have always focused on helping those who help themselves. As these efforts grew to focus on affordable housing and hunger, he formally launched the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation (2006), which combats the issues that force families and individuals into economic despair. Through the funding and creation of programs and partnerships, the foundation supports innovative community efforts to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

In 2011, Bon Jovi opened the JBJ Soul Kitchen, a community restaurant in Red Bank, N.J., where patrons either pay a minimum donation or volunteer in exchange for their meals. In February 2015, the foundation provided financial backing for a second community restaurant, Spoon Full of Hope, in Superstorm Sandy-ravaged Union Beach, N.J.

Frances Fox Piven
Frances Fox Piven

Piven is an expert in the development of the welfare state, political movements, urban politics, voting and electoral politics. She has been politically engaged with improving the lives of America’s poor since the 1960s. She has taught at universities in the U.S. and Europe, and among her many books are the best-selling Regulating the Poor (1971); Poor People’s Movements (1977); Why Americans Don’t Vote (1989); Why Americans Still Don’t Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way (2000), co-authored with Richard A. Cloward; and Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (2006).Piven, who holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago, has received broad public recognition and numerous academic and community service awards for her work. As a co-founder of HumanSERVE, her work on voter registration reform prompted the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (known as the “motor voter” law). She is a past president of the American Sociological Association (2007), and the Society for the Study of Social Problems (1980), has served on the national board of the ACLU and was a founding board chair of The New Press.

Who Gets To Dance In ‘Swan Lake’? The Answer Is Changing

Misty Copeland (left) and Brooklyn Mack play Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried in this year's Washington Ballet production of Swan Lake. It is the first time ever that two black dancers star in Swan Lake in a major American production.

Misty Copeland (left) and Brooklyn Mack play Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried in this year’s Washington Ballet production of Swan Lake. It is the first time ever that two black dancers star in Swan Lake in a major American production.

Emily Jan/NPR

Something rare is happening in the world of ballet: At the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., two African-American dancers will be the leads in The Washington Ballet’s production of Swan Lake: Misty Copeland, soloist with American Ballet Theatre, will dance the dual role of Odette and Odile, while Brooklyn Mack of The Washington Ballet will dance Prince Siegfried.

Copeland and Mack have something in common that is also rare for young African-Americans: teachers who saw their potential early on and broke the unwritten rule that all ballet dancers must look alike.

Septime Webre, The Washington Ballet‘s longtime artistic director, says that ten years ago he often was asked why there were no African-Americans in his company.

“My response was that, that would remain the case until the great training grounds, the great ballet schools of America become welcoming places for 9-year-old black girls,” says Webre. “Families need to feel that their daughter or son of color is welcomed in these big ballet academies.”

But Webre didn’t wait around for that to happen: The Washington Ballet started giving classes in Anacostia — a poor, mostly black part of Washington — at an arts center called THEARC. One of the center’s students, Simone Newman, 19, says Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack give her hope.

“By them doing something that, probably, they didn’t think they would be able to accomplish, that really sets the tone for other people,” says Newman.

Both Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack endured plenty of skeptics to get to this point. It’s hard for any ballet dancer to succeed, regardless of race, but a black dancer is up against a centuries-old aesthetic — the idea, for example, that the swan must be feather-weight and snow white, and so does her prince.

“The prince has to be 6 feet-tall, blonde with blue-eyed,” says Radenko Pavlovich, artistic director of Columbia Classical Ballet in South Carolina, and Brooklyn Mack’s first teacher. “You know, we were all taught that — that’s how it is.”

When he was 12, Brooklyn Mack convinced his mom to take him to the Columbia Classical Ballet in South Carolina. He won a scholarship and was the only black dancer at the school. This year, Mack stars as Prince Siegfried in The Washington Ballet's production of Swan Lake.

When he was 12, Brooklyn Mack convinced his mom to take him to the Columbia Classical Ballet in South Carolina. He won a scholarship and was the only black dancer at the school. This year, Mack stars as Prince Siegfried in The Washington Ballet’s production of Swan Lake.

Emily Jan/NPR

Mack grew up in nearby Elgin, S.C. When he was 12, he went on a field trip to see Pavlovich’s company perform. Wowed by the athleticism, he told his mom he’d like to try dance. Mack says she was thrilled — and fearless when she took her son to meet Pavlovich at his school.

“She went right up to the director and said ‘I want you to give my son a scholarship,’ ” says Mack. “And he said ‘we don’t even give scholarships.’ ”

Pavlovich was taken aback, but agreed to take a look at what Mack could do.

“I was given what’s called a barre, and obviously I had no idea what I was doing,” says Mack. Pavlovich says Mack had “beautiful turn-out and flexibility, but his, um, his feet were not quite up to the part.” As Mack remembers it, he told his mom “his legs are okay but his feet are terrible.”

“The only way I will do this: if Brooklyn takes classes every day,” Pavlovich says he told them.

“I don’t know what possessed me to agree to that, but I said ‘OK,’ ” says Mack.

There were no other black dancers at the school. Pavlovich says some of his colleagues told him not to waste his time with Brooklyn Mack; Pavlovich not only gave Mack a scholarship, he couldn’t wait to teach him.

“There was this something about his eyes that was telling me that this kid is so … I don’t know, determined … that he will do whatever he puts his mind to,’ ” says Pavlovich.

After about four years of working with Pavlovich, Mack went on to study with the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., apprenticed with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, and won medals at competitions around the world. Mack says he couldn’t have done it without Pavlovich’s support.

This is the first year that two African-American dancers will star in The Washington Ballet's production of Swan Lake: Misty Copeland, soloist with American Ballet Theatre, dances the dual role of Odette and Odile; Brooklyn Mack of The Washington Ballet is Prince Siegfried.

This is the first year that two African-American dancers will star in The Washington Ballet’s production of Swan Lake: Misty Copeland, soloist with American Ballet Theatre, dances the dual role of Odette and Odile; Brooklyn Mack of The Washington Ballet is Prince Siegfried.

Emily Jan/NPR

“He’s kind of like a father to me actually, and coach,” says Mack. “I still go and train with him whenever I can.”

All that training has led to his role as the prince in Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center. Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem, says it’s about time.

“I’ve known Brooklyn for a very long time — from when he was a young boy who really, you know, knew that he was a prince, you know, knewthat he was Siegfried, and was constantly being told ‘well, you know, you should do this, or you could do that,’ or ‘contemporary looks so good on you,’ ” says Johnson. “But he had the temperament of Siegfried!”

In Swan Lake Prince Siegfried falls in love with the white swan, who will be danced byAmerican Ballet Theatre‘s Misty Copeland. Her career is a Cinderella story of its own.

Centuries old aesthetics dictate that the swan in Swan Lake has to be feather-weight and snow white, as does the Prince. This year's stars, Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland, break the unwritten rule that all ballet dancers look alike.

Centuries old aesthetics dictate that the swan in Swan Lake has to be feather-weight and snow white, as does the Prince. This year’s stars, Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland, break the unwritten rule that all ballet dancers look alike.

Emily Jan/NPR

Copeland took her first ballet class at a Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif. — a free class being taught by Cindy Bradley, co-founder of The San Pedro City Ballet. The story goes that Bradley coaxed the petite 13-year-old Copeland down from the bleachers to join the class.

“She was extremely shy and very quiet,” says Bradley, but the girl’s physique — and feet — were perfect for ballet.

At the time, Copeland’s family was living in a motel. Her mother was struggling to make ends meet. In an interview with NPR last year, Copeland said Bradley took her under her wing immediately.

“She saw talent that she’d never experienced before, as well as just me, coming from the background I did and not having the best family situation and home,” Copeland recalled. “And I think that she saw that ballet was going to create this amazing life for me. So Cynthia brought me into her school on a full scholarship, and she also brought me into her home.”

Bradley is in awe of Copeland’s talent and work ethic. Reflecting on her rise from that Boys & Girls Club to becoming a soloist with ABT, Bradley says “I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

Students at THEARC in Washington recently were invited to watch a dress rehearsal of this new rendition of Swan Lake, starring Mack and Copeland.

Sydney Campbell, 13, says that she’s been taking classes here since she was five, and that she wants to join a professional company someday. As an African-American, she says Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland are making that a possibility for her.

“Now it’s showing that people are actually accepting us — accepting all kinds,” says Sydney.

As Brooklyn Mack put it, meaningful change always takes time.

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