Lift Every Voice

Lift Every Voice /ˈlift ˈev-rē ˈvȯis/ phrase. – “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” is often referred to as the Black national anthem. Written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1900, then set to music by his bother John Rosamond Johnson in 1905, the song was chosen by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its official anthem in 1919. The song seeks optimism and freedom while acknowledging the suffering and obstacles of the past.

Interview with Morgan

Tell me about yourself. What’s your background?

Well, my name is Morgan and I am originally from the Midwest. Illinois, to be exact. And I’ve been living in New York, it’ll be like four years in August. That’s kinda where I’m at. I’m an actor, I’m an educator here in the city in New York.

When I was in church as a little girl, we always had to give speeches, you know, during Easter and Christmas. And I don’t think I was ever fully afraid to do it, I was just always like, Wow, that person is better at doing that than I am. And then I got to high school…in high school they were really good. Actually…in middle school I went to a Montessori school and the arts were mandatory. So, we did Macbeth in the fourth grade. And we did it word-for-word. Like it wasn’t an abridged version, it was the actual Shakespearian text, old English text. And our teacher made sure we could understand what it was and that we could articulate it. And, you know, also have fun, we were 10, 11 years old. And it was just fun to pretend and have imagination and be somebody that’s not like you or bigger in energy or bigger in emotions version of yourself.

And I guess from there I was always trying to do something else. Like I was a science, biology, major for like 46 hours in college. Like, literally. And that might be a stretch. It might’ve been like 29 hours. And I just…I do believe I could have done it, my heart just wasn’t in it.

And yeah, I’ve always loved performing and acting. And right now, where I’m at in life is, I really believe there’s a world in which theater and the arts and entertainment can act as a medium and be the intersection for activism and awareness and philanthropy. And that’s kinda like where I’m at now, as an artist.

How would you define beauty?

I think beauty for me is just an acceptance of who you are and whoever that is at the moment that you’re looking at yourself or looking at a thing. I think, for me, I’ve been the most inspired by people whose self-esteem just transcends what everything around them is saying. You know, it’s a lot harder to love yourself when everything around you is saying your self is not enough. There’s a beauty in…it’s a rebellious act to love yourself where like the world doesn’t say you’re worth loving. So I find beauty in unapologeticness. I find beauty in agency. I find beauty in taking up space. I find beauty in community. I find it in those lenses.

“I really believe there’s a world in which theater and the arts and entertainment can act as a medium and be the intersection for activism and awareness and philanthropy.”

How would you define Black beauty?

You know, we’re all this umbrella, but like every raindrop is different. And there’s just something amazing about people who put their own spin on something that could be so general. And I think that we are all so much more unique than just being “Black people”. Like I’m also a Black person. And it’s not monolithic. It’s not one thing. It’s nothing and everything all at once. And I can be all those things at the same time. So just watching people’s style and expression and the way people can move in and out of spaces… I say for me, it’s just amazing to watch people that embrace that and people who are authentic chameleons and they’re not changing for the sake of fitting into each space or each group that they’re in, but they actually are those people that can just relate to anyone, whose style transcends every room.

How do you describe Black culture?

I think about trendsetters. I think about people that create something that the world is a few steps behind on. And just the beauty in the narrative…in the specific sound and the specific fashion and the specific art form and the specific expression…that like we just hold true to and know that we understand and we will get it. And then watching the world catch up to it and try to co-opt it. I guess, for me there’s something so poetic and prosaic about Black art and Black culture and Black expression. Especially when it defies and it goes against whatever the world or mainstream media says is what a thing should be. We are the trendsetters. We are always taking the risks and then when it’s successful, we can always tell because everyone else is now trying to do it.

I love Janell Monae. Like, I remember driving home from Chicago to Illinois and just having not listened to Dirty Computer. And I remember chewing it in the car and I didn’t even realize that it was over because each track was speaking to me and each track was saying something specific. And the narrator is just so clear. And it’s a person who’s not talking about necessarily the world as it is now and how they view it, but also like how the world views them not too long ago before they were who they are right now. And to me…just that’s art. It’s not always this is what I bring to the world, but also like I’ve always been this person and this is how the world treated me is something easy to grasp onto and recognizable and is a familiar feeling, a familiar anchor in a Black experience, especially as a creative mind.

What societal pressures do you feel because of your race?

I guess it would have to be the extremes. And what I mean by extremes is that I am inexplicably weak or inexplicably strong and that those two things cannot exist in a Black woman’s body all at once. So, it’s trying to bring multidimensionality. Like bringing a real human being to what is sometimes one-dimensional work and the effort of someone making something that I’m supposed to do, but didn’t consult me in creating it and also doesn’t know anyone like me. So really just separating myself sometimes from the job and going, This is my job as an actor or a creator, and taking notes as to what I don’t want to do when I’m given the resources and opportunity to create so that I’m not repeating those mistakes, those blind spots.

“I am inexplicably weak or inexplicably strong and that those two things cannot exist in a Black woman’s body all at once.”

Have you ever experienced racism or discrimination? If so, any stories you would be willing to share?

I think in today’s day and age, especially in the arts, I don’t really recall too much racism as much as microaggressions because people are now a lot more coy, a lot more skilled in covering up their biases. Just little jabs, little pokes. And I have experienced a lot of that. And it has been my job to be able to pinpoint when someone is gaslighting me, which is making me feel like actually I’m wrong when they’re antagonizing me, when they’re excluding me, when they’re isolating me, and pinpointing those situations. The industry is heading more now towards diversity and inclusion, but sometimes there’s steps that are missing in a process before you invite people of color in the room, especially and particularly Black people. So, while I haven’t experienced a lot of blatant racism, I can definitely say microaggressiveness is now the new form of exclusion.

What do you feel you have accomplished in your life? What are you proud of?

I have been and am really working harder being less apologetic about asking for what I need and asking for what I deserve. I’m proud of that because everything around me tells me, You know, you have to have this accomplished in order to be like this, you have to have done this. And it’s like, no. You know, my mental health is so important. And maybe five or six years ago I would excuse my mental health or my self esteem. And I really am working towards self preservation. And I’ve seen the product. Like, I’ve seen what I can do when I do put myself first. And it’s amazing what I’m able to do when I take care of myself as a person and not just, a contributor to someone else’s vision. That I can be an artist and an activist and I can self preserve and I can take care of my mental health.

What are your personal dreams?

I want to be a writer. I want to continue to act, but I do ultimately want to be a writer.

What spurred your dream of wanting to be a writer?

I guess for me it would have to be speech. I hadn’t really considered, you know, who makes the scripts that I’m having to perform? And then if I am looking for a piece — that doesn’t exist — that is pertaining to someone being a woman and being Black, why is it so hard for me to find non-slavery, non-domestic violence pieces? So then, instead of complaining about the lack-thereof, I should be a contributor to there being a surplus of them. So I think that activity really did spur this intrigue of experimentation with writing and creating characters and stories.

What is one major problem minorities face that you would like to bring awareness to?

I think it’s self exploration, for me. And I think that really lies in the lack of power that Black people have in America. That in our households there becomes this hierarchy and it really can stifle children’s exploration, really stifles parent-child relationships. And it really is a cycle of… I won’t say it can’t be physical abuse, emotional abuse…but it’s also…because my parents haven’t felt that the world has welcomed them with open arms, that they have to prepare me to go out into a world that won’t welcome me with open arms. So they’re going to treat me that way. They’re going to tell me how to think, how to act, how to feel. And it really does stifle exploration and being unique in a way. Because if our parents don’t understand, then sometimes they insert their beliefs onto our ideas, our dreams, our goals. As an actor, I’m the only person in my family that is an artist in any form. And I won’t say that my dreams were met with, Yay! My kid’s an actor or wants to be an actor. I definitely was hit with the realities of what acting is, but sometimes just because you don’t understand does not mean it’s not worth exploring.

What are you dreams for society?

One day we just, after everyone gets their equity and reparations and you know all of that, that there won’t be labels. That because we have equalized the world, that we can all just be human and exist and not have to explain ourselves. And there’ll be so much more empathy. And until it’s done, until then, you know it’s survival.

How do we make progress on your dreams for society?

I think the industry is heading towards it…Like when it comes to auditioning, especially in musical theaters, some shows just have an audition for everyone all at once. And it really does kind of eliminate this binary competition that is women versus men, but it opens up the space and the floor to just instead of grabbing four men and four women, that you grabbed eight sets of whatever it is you were looking for. So just this idea that when you break down the binary and you just go, it’s too complex to even categorize, That actually invites me to be my unique self instead of trying to be the best woman for the part, I go and try to find out if I’m the best Morgan for the part which is completely different.

What advice would you give to other Black people?

I think it would be to always — as hard as it is — to try to lead with an open heart. Not stupidly, but with an open heart. And that until we die we are always learning and we are always growing and we are always redefining who we are. And to feel free to explore the complexities and the simplicities of what it means to be insert whatever your name is.

What advice would you give to non-Black individuals to help them understand the Black experiences?

That it is not an attack. That it is survival. It is a specific experience and it’s worth listening to. And it’s worth respecting and it’s worth being an ally to and an ally for. And that we’re all just trying to do the best that we can with the little power that we have. And if you believe in me when I side with you, then you should lend me your ear when you disagree with me as well.

Additional Information

Interview Date: January 28, 2019

Story posted on June 19, 2020

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