Why Morgan Harper Nichols Is the Voice We Need Right Now

by Sarah Morrison

In a time of social transformation, the power of voice cannot be overstated. The tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police has gripped our nation with grief, the likes of which have galvanized communities with valor, and empowered voices to demand change.

If the countless protests punctuating major cities like New York and Washington D.C. mean anything in the way of social change, it’s that activism and speech matter. Emboldened and frustrated by enduring racial inequity, citizens of all stripes are masterfully using speech as vehicles for rousing real change. The evidence? Take, for example, the recent wave of police reform acts, as well as historic apprehensions, passed to bring justice for the voices that were so violently silenced. In states like California and Connecticut, as well as uniquely-distraught cities like Minneapolis, government officials enacted policies that would prohibit the use of extreme police tactics against the public. And just this last week, following a four-month stretch of public outcry, the officers suspected in Ahmaud Armery’s death were indicted on murder charges. Justice long overdue, but justice nonetheless.

Truth be told, our country’s racial reckoning is a solemn reminder of the voices that have long fallen on deaf ears. It’s a reminder of the hard, yet necessary work for racial equity that we must all undertake and continue to advance. It’s a reminder, chiefly, of the many stories of adversity that continue to befall Black Americans, stifling social progress, and curbing economic prosperity in-kind.

Bringing the lived experiences, the learnings, and musings of Black Americans into the fore is a task more important now than ever before. Literature, with its sweeping and versatile appeal, is often the tool of choice for uncovering these learnings. And poetry, literature’s more digestible cousin, has made a resurgence in recent days — offering not just resourceful prose, but a sense of respite for a society grappling with grief.

It’s no secret that the Black community is brimming with talented artists, writers, designers, and the like. 30-year-old Morgan Harper Nichols, a writer, and an artist herself, is a fierce advocate of centering Black experience, a philosophy she’s held since her brand’s inception. In the confines of poetry and illustration, Nichols derives her creative inspiration from the stories of others — transforming their lived experiences into deftly-written poetry, set to the backdrop of her own mixed-media illustrations, often abstract and realist in nature.

In as little as a four-line stanza, bringing color to stories with vivid craft, Morgan Harper Nichols is more than just a millennial voice to know. For many, Nichols is an envoy of lived truth, and for our society, today, she’s a voice defining the awakening of our time.

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Engage in the long, faithful work. Surrender the need of striving to be the best or always right and focus instead on leaning into Light, that reveals all things. All that is good and all that stands to be corrected, and redirected. And as you lean into Light, be gentle with the word “darkness.” For more than it merely means wrong or bad, it is also the color of a full, starless night sky, and actual bodies of human beings who have been overlooked too many times. Many, many words hold more than one meaning. Language on “light” and “dark” may have its place, and this is also true, this very language has been used to say, “You are a threat. I am not. I am worth more than you.” It takes kindness to understand this, for even though kindness is a beautiful word. it does not mean that nothing gets disrupted. Sometimes a way of thinking must be interrupted in order for kindness to truly thrive. For as sure as kindness leans into what is good, it also speaks about what isn’t right. It is compassionate and gentle when long histories are pulled from mourning into morning. Engage in the long, faithful work of awakening with your heart and mind open to the possibility that things are more complex than they once seemed. And as hard as it is to hold all of this, you are still free to dream: you do not have to be who you used to be. You do not have to think the way you used to think. You are free to take hopeful, thoughtful action in pursuit of better things. So here’s to new beginnings, knowing it is impossible to ignore the long history, opening up to the mystery that grace still finds you here. And grace is unmerited favor but it might not always look the way you want it to. It will invite you out in the open and it will also reveal what has been broken. You might have to unlearn the way you thought things would be. You might find that being undone is the best way to move on, humbly, mindfully, wholly. For how liberating it is to pursue wholeness over perfection, finding that grace is more than a beautiful word, but a daily act of being undone, an awakening, a direction.

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“I’m out of answers, I’m out of breath About to lose the small hope I had left I’m tired of traveling, longing for home But it’s so far away, has it been too long? is this what It looks like when you’ve reached the end? Do I accept all my losses ‘cause there’s nothing to win? Or do I keep believing when I’m losing control there is still room to be still my soul Oh, oh, oh The water is tossing me further from shore I know I’m still breathing, But I’m desperate for more So I’ll keep my eyes turned to the sky that reminds me out here I’m seen by Light Cause I know what it feels like to reach the end Accept all my losses ‘cause I know I can’t win On my own, I know I’m losing control there is still room to be still my soul Take it one breath at a time Maybe I’ll, maybe I’ll be fine.” II Music plays an important role in the Black American church tradition I grew up in. Through hundreds of years of slavery, the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Of the many things this tradition has taught me is music makes room for pain and joy. It doesn’t look at pain and say, “I know there’s pain BUT.” It says, “I know there’s pain AND….we’re going to sing, anyway.” Out here, in the fields, let us sing. Out here, where the world doesn’t listen, let us sing. Of the MANY elements I could discuss here, I’ll turn a lens on the long history of repeated lines (which I have included in the song I’ve written and sung above), that as scholar Barbara A Holmes notes in her book ‘Joy Unspeakable’ is “the repetition allows individuals to fill in their own story silently or through cries of recognition that each and every member of the congregation shares the same angst over the troubles of the world and the need for reunion.” It doesn’t have to be “fixed” before we sing. We don’t have to understand before we sing. No step-by-step out of the valley is needed before we write the song that literally notes the suffering. And perhaps, all by grace, joy is right there in it.

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Shop Morgan Harper Nichols’ collection with Fringe Studio here

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Word Stylist. Fashion Aficionado. Human, above-all.

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