Black Renaissance: The Power of Words

Black Renaissance: The Power of Words

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President Barack Obama talks about how powerful art and expression are to Black American culture in a heartfelt tribute to prolific novelist Toni Morrison.

By YouTube Originals

The Power of Words

President Barack Obama talks about how powerful art and expression are to Black American culture in a heartfelt tribute to prolific novelist Toni Morrison. He’s joined by Jason Reynolds, Desus & Mero, Nicole Byer, and more who highlight the power that comes from words in this Black Renaissance short. Watch the full show here: https://youtu.be/aGMVFnnXUpM​

Transcript provided by YouTube:

00:04

– When you don’t have a voice,

00:06

art’s how you express yourself.

00:09

And that applies to all cultures,

00:10

but especially black American culture.

00:14

It’s been through art that our story’s been reflected–

00:19

the resilience, the setbacks, the joys, and the hopes.

00:24

– TONI MORRISON: My grandfather bragged all the time

00:27

that he had read the Bible through five times

00:33

And it was illegal in his life to read,

00:37

and it was illegal for white people

00:39

to teach black kids to read.

00:42

But ultimately I knew that words have power.

00:49

– OBAMA: I first picked up Toni Morrison’s novels

00:52

when I was just entering college.

00:56

She became one of my heroes, somebody who helped me

01:01

understand myself and the world around me.

01:04

I was lucky enough to get to know her later in her life.

01:07

This is where she was as much a poet as a prose writer,

01:12

and she brought an intensity to that world

01:17

even beneath obvious meaning

01:23

an extra force, an extra power.

01:26

How she worked that magic is something that

01:30

I can’t completely describe, because that’s what it was.

01:34

One of the lines that always stuck with me

01:37

was her belief that language arcs toward

01:41

the place where meaning might lie.

01:44

When she wrote a story, it seemed as if

01:48

she was tapping into something that went beyond

01:53

just the intellectual understanding

02:00

She was able to locate her stories

02:04

specifically to the African-American community,

02:07

and yet, as all the best writers do,

02:11

create universal meaning in those narratives,

02:16

and that’s what art at its best can do.

02:21

– When it comes to life-changing storytellers,

02:24

Frederick Douglass is definitely a cultural oak,

02:30

in an expanse of literary forest.

02:31

You see, he isn’t the beginning of our relationship

02:36

Whether it be the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt

02:38

or even the Adinkra symbols of the Akan people,

02:41

we have always used some form of written language

02:44

through letter or character to document our existence.

02:49

And over time, as we found ourselves

02:51

in places that work to deny our lives,

02:54

our written testament became one of our greatest weapons.

02:59

Though there were prominent black writers

03:00

in the early 1900s, nothing could prepare America

03:04

for what was coming in the 1920s.

03:08

This movement was as bustling as the city that birthed it

03:12

and would change literature forever.

03:14

There was a freedom in Harlem, and you know what you do

03:18

when you feel like you free?

03:21

But mostly, you tell the truth.

03:24

So, writers like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes

03:27

and Zora Neale Hurston began to write

03:29

the different versions of black life.

03:31

The good stuff, the not so good stuff.

03:35

You know, the human stuff.

03:38

And with each story, each poem, each play,

03:41

our voices grew bolder, bigger, braver.

03:45

We’d see this again during the black arts movement

03:48

of the ’60s and ’70s,

03:50

where “black power” became a refrain,

03:53

where poets shifted and shaped the new black stance

03:58

where the novelists and playwrights spun our world

04:01

onto pages and stages with precision

04:11

what’s precision, rebellion, and love without laughter?

04:14

What’s telling our stories

04:16

if we can’t make light of our struggles?

04:18

Not because our struggles are light,

04:20

but because there’s always light to be found there.

04:23

And so with the influx of all these poets

04:26

came the influx of all these comedians,

04:29

street philosophers who could turn reality

04:32

on its head for “ha ha” and “a-ha” moments.

04:35

So, yeah, we write stories.

04:38

Been writing. And we write jokes.

04:43

We write poems and we write plays.

04:47

We write shows, we write sermons,

04:52

and write ourselves into the world.

04:55

Sometimes punctuated, sometimes not.

04:58

Sometimes misspelled and messy,

05:01

sometimes in gorgeous calligraphy.

05:05

we write ourselves as un-erasable.

05:11

– DESUS: My favorite book growing up,

05:12

I can name it off the top ’cause I’ve read it

05:13

a million times, “Black Boy” by Richard Wright.

05:16

I read it and I didn’t think– I was like,

05:18

“This can’t be real. This isn’t what real life is.”

05:20

But by that age, I had already started having interactions

05:23

because of race, and that book was like

05:25

the first time other than my family,

05:26

I was like, yo, black people all over the country

05:29

are going through stuff and this is what we go through.

05:31

And it kinda connected me to my blackness.

05:33

– “I Don’t Want To Die Poor” by Michael Arceneaux

05:36

Is a dope collection of, you know, stories and essays and stuff like that.

05:40

He makes these, like, kind of like sad situations,

05:43

like, you know, student loan debt

05:45

and everyday problems and, like, finds humor in them.

05:47

– When I first started acting,

05:50

I discovered “A Raisin in the Sun”

05:54

There’s so many wonderful black playwrights.

05:57

I just really admire black women who are fearless.

06:02

I love those women for making a space for me.

06:05

I think the most powerful word in the English language

06:08

is the word “no” because

06:11

“no” is a full sentence

06:12

and it’s also one word.

06:14

We spend a lot of time trying to explain to people

06:17

why you’re saying no, but you don’t have to.

06:19

You can truly just say, “Mm, no,”

06:22

and that’s the end of the sentence.

06:24

– The word that has the most power

06:25

in the English language is “yes.”

06:28

– I think the word that has the most power

06:30

in the human language is “help.” It’s such a powerful word.

06:32

It’s one of the hardest words for people to say.

06:34

It’s hard because of pride and ’cause of certain situations

06:37

for people to ask for help.

06:39

– I think I realized how powerful words can be

06:44

when I said the word “bitch” in front of my mother

06:47

and she was like, “What did you say?”

06:49

And I was like, “Uh-oh! She mad at me!”

06:50

– I realized the power of words very early on with my jokes

06:55

and with my impressions and whatever.

06:56

My dad would make me get up, do impersonations of

06:59

all of my uncles in their various stages of drunkenness.

07:03

– Being funny can save your life sometimes

07:05

because I was in the Bronx House of Detention.

07:06

I was in a 40-man cell, and you know what?

07:09

Those people got the tightest two days of comedy

07:12

I ever done in my life, I tell you what,

07:14

because that’s what you gotta do.

07:15

We’re just sitting there, ain’t no TV.

07:17

So, I’m cracking jokes, and I just remember

07:18

people were just like, they were like,

07:20

“Yo, you’re funny, you’re funny.

07:21

I’ma keep my eye out for you.”

07:22

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention

07:24

I learned the power of words from, where? Hip-hop, hip-hop.

07:26

– Real hip-hop, you know what I’m saying?

07:28

You know that. Shout out to Nas.

07:30

First time I heard “Illmatic,” I was like, “Yo!”

07:32

– “Whoa!” [imitating explosion]

07:34

Yo. Whoa! – The lyrics.

Black Renaissance: The Power of Words


Photo credit: Screenshot from video

This post was previously published on YouTube

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