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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

'We Do Language' Symposium: Honoring Toni Morrison Through Conversation

Two men stand next to each other.
Betty Smith
/
VPR

After author Toni Morrison died recently, one Vermont poet decided to honor her legacy by organizing a week-long series of meetings to talk about creativity, racism and the future of Vermont. 

Toni Morrison once wrote, “We do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” 

And from that line, Vermont poet and musician Toussaint St. Negritude felt inspired to create the We Do Language Symposium, inviting any and all to discuss Morrison’s life and work, admission- and reservation-free.

St. Negritude changed his name in the 1970s to pay homage to Haiti and other cultures of the Caribbean and the African diaspora. Originally from San Francisco, and he traveled widely before settling in the Northeast Kingdom.

Now he lives in Montpelier and mostly appreciates the quiet solitude Vermont has to offer.

But when Morrison died, St. Negritude wanted to talk about it with other artists of color.

"Being an artist of color here in Vermont, especially outside of Burlington, over the last ten years, I've definitely felt, you know, a certain lack of community." — Toussaint St. Negritude, We Do Language Symposium organizer

“Being an artist of color here in Vermont, especially outside of Burlington, over the last ten years, I’ve definitely felt, you know, a certain lack of community,” he said.

So St. Negritude organized the We Do Language Symposium. He designed some of the events to be large, but others were intended to be intimate.

One late afternoon, St. Negritude waited in a small, sunny room at the North Branch Café in Montpelier. He was hosting what he called a “Black Healing Workshop” to explore how to creatively, spiritually and socially thrive in Vermont.

Joining St. Negritude was Aidan Charles, a 22-year-old musician who was raised in Stowe and who has taken an interest in his Hispanic ancestry.

“I’m half Latino and I really have made an effort to reclaim like that part of my culture,” Charles said. “It just makes me really curious. And it’s even more fascinating when you allow yourself to accept it as part of your own culture.”

"I'm half Latino and I really have made an effort to reclaim like that part of my culture ... It just makes me really curious. And it's even more fascinating when you allow yourself to accept it as part of your own culture." — Aidan Charles, We Do Language Symposium participant

A second person called the Café for directions but never appeared.

So for the next two hours, and then some, conversation between Aidan Charles and Toussaint St. Negritude ranged from the legacy of Toni Morrison to what it was like to grow up in Stowe economically disadvantaged and socially stigmatized.

St. Negritude asked Charles, “What do you think, especially when you were a kid and suffering or struggling, what saved you?

“Community, “ Charles said. “And then becoming a musician, it was even another level of that.”

Charles added, “It was pretty rough, yeah, but then being able to drive and stuff when I was sixteen just like really opened up other places and other people and that was just such a saving grace. You know it really helped me see Vermont as the beautiful, welcoming state that it is. You know, it can be really isolating, hyper-isolating, and a very depressing place, but at the same time there’s so much beauty. There’s some amazing people.”

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