Speaking on stage at Broadway's Ambassador Theatre, Ta-Nehisi Coates remembered studying at Howard University and being mesmerized by a few lines from the poem "Personal Letter No. 3."
"We are what we are what we never think we are."
The poet, 81-year-old Sonia Sanchez, was seated on one side of Coates on Wednesday night. On the other side sat a Nobel laureate and one of Howard's most celebrated graduates, 85-year-old Toni Morrison.
"I'm a little overwhelmed," confided the 40-year-old Baltimore native and author of the award-winning best-seller about race and police violence "Between the World and Me," who joined his revered elders and a capacity audience for an event titled "Art and Social Justice."
The Ambassador Theatre is usually the venue for the musical "Chicago," but on Wednesday the theater was handed over to some of the country's most celebrated writers. Presented by the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and hosted with characteristic passion by Sanchez, the studio's poet laureate, "Art and Social Justice" was a 90-minute exploration of everything from segregation to Muhammad Ali to the massacre in Orlando. Sanchez recited tributes to her fellow writers, told jokes, chanted and exhorted. Morrison shared stories of being an editor at Random House in the 1960s and 1970s and of her daily writing routine. She called the act of writing a "dangerous pursuit."
"Somebody's out to get you," she said.
Coates, praised by Sanchez as "a witness man," emphasized the need to learn from history. Referring to Orlando and to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, he observed that people too often were caught up in current issues. The killing in Orlando was about far more than gun control, he said, the death of Brown was about more than whether or not he had grabbed the policeman's gun.
"When something catastrophic happens, we like to analyze at the point of what's causing it," he said. "And none of the analysis goes to the broader questions. What is the relationship, historically, between this community and the cops? Why are the cops there in the first place? Why are folks so hostile to the police in the first place?"
All three offered thoughts on Ali, who died June 3. Coates, the only one on stage who didn't have a personal relationship with Ali, said that he was inspired by how the boxer let no one else define him.
"We are always, as African Americans, under some sort of pressure to conform ourselves, in ways that won't either bring bodily harm to ourselves or to our children," he said. "There's a whole sort of performance that we do to put on our best face.
"And to see somebody so profoundly reject that, it's the most powerful thing."
Sanchez not only met Ali, she appeared on a stage with him in New Orleans and can still hear the crowd calling out "Ali! Ali! Ali!" She became friendly enough with him that he invited her and her children to his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. First, he clowned around with the kids and pretended they had knocked him out.
"And then they put me up there," Sanchez said. "Well he picked me up and threw me up in the air. His timing was so perfect and I was so scared."
"That was my one and only time in the ring."
Morrison knew Ali through her time at Random House: She edited his first book, called, of course, "The Greatest," which was published in 1975. Their relationship began awkwardly. Morrison recalled a meeting with Ali, his entourage and some Random House sales officials. Whenever Morrison asked a question, Ali would turn and give his answer to one of the men in the room.
"I'm female, of no consequence. And he knows where the power lies," she explained.
Morrison soon figured out how to get his attention. She had read a newspaper article about Ali's sending money to an elderly woman facing eviction. Nearly 11 years older than Ali, Morrison realized that he might ignore a woman close to his age, but that he would respond differently to an older woman, an authority figure — a mother.
"So I go in there (the room) and I cross my arms and I look at him and I said, 'Ali, get up from there!'"
"He stood up," Morrison said to much laughter. "I never had another problem with him."
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.