This song was written shortly after seeing Toni Morrison in conversation with Hilton Als for the New Yorker Festival in October 2015.
(And when I say “shortly,” I mean I was humming and singing the first line on the walk back to the hotel.)
This was also written just a few months after the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, so there’s some of that in here, too.
There is a studio version of this song in the works that you may or may not ever hear on the forthcoming album Literary Reparations, which may or may not ever be released.
Toni reads the New York Times with a
pencil in hand and a poet’s eye
She picks through the language upon the pages
She kills some words quickly; some, she lets suffer.
She be laughing as she slashes through others
But the laughter is not fun.
It is agency.
She be laughing on the regular
At them that try to edit her.
All of their so-called improvements just be
They change her titles, even changed her name
They make it worse; she takes the blame.
So her laughter is not silly.
It is serious.
She finds yet another editor’s crime.
So Toni begins to fantasize
About the reprimand.
She say: “Y’all got some nerve to capitalize
The final word in Paradise
What part of my Nobel Prize
do you not understand?”
But Toni’s too cool to say it.
But don’t confuse cool with complacency.
Listen for her laughter.
It is agency.
Harper had an editor, too.
Wanted to edit her Daddy.
Wanted to edit the messenger too.
Wanted to end it happy.
Editor be like: “This is not fully conceived.
Don’t make him who he was
Make him who we need him to be.”
Harper say: “He was both of these men at once.”
Thus the Lord said unto Harper Lee
“Go, set a watchman to declare what he see.
Go, set a trap for 2015.”
Harper laughs and waits so patiently
Because laughter is an agency.