Cherise Morris is a Detroit-based poet, multidisciplinary artist, ritualist and community healer born and raised in rural Virginia. Her work merges experimental writing, poetry and prayer with performance, movement, sound and ritual practices to open loving, audacious and transformative spaces that invite us to explore, imagine and continue the infinite work of our individual and collective healing journeys and new-world building. Her writing has previously appeared in The Iowa Review, Longreads, Black Warrior Review and elsewhere. Her essays have twice been recognized as notable works of literary nonfiction in The Best American Essays Series 2018 and 2019. Morris is a 2019 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow. She is currently at work on her ongoing project, “Visions of the Evolution: The Ritual-Performance Series,” and her accompanying debut manuscript.
You’re originally from Virginia, what led you to Detroit?
It was my sophomore year at Brown and I didn’t have anything to do for the summer. A friend of a friend was from Detroit and he was moving back after graduating that spring to start a job and he piloted this internship program where four people came with him to Detroit to do community-based internships at various nonprofits throughout the city. So my friend told me about it, at the time I was in Urban Studies and the program was a collaboration between Ben and the department and on a whim, I was like “yeah I’ll go to Detroit.” I was able con my school out of getting another summer internship grant (the rule was every student was eligible for one per their four years but I got two. Rules are meant to be bent.)
And I came in the summer of 2014, so right after the bankruptcy. Up until that point, the only other place I’d ever lived besides Esmont, VA was Providence. It was a really formative period for that reason as well, it was my first experience living somewhere on my own. And more than that, I had never seen people in community treating each other with such kindness, people who knew how to make what they had work. Admittedly I didn’t know anything about Detroit, besides what the talkative elderly gentleman who was flying back home from VA and happened to be seating next to me on the plane had told me. This was also my second time ever on a plane. I took 12 hour overnight trains and greyhounds back and forth to college cause it was cheap. But I wasn’t into doing research before an experience. I knew the outside world had a very limited view and understanding of Detroit so I wasn’t really interested in hearing about that. I just hopped on a plane and listened to this old man tell me all the things he loved about the place that raised him.
That summer, I saw people acting in ways that were not only beautiful but were r/evolutionary . I was living in Hamtramck, and I credit a lot of my learning to a woman named Marcia Lee who does a lot of spiritual and healing-based work around the city. Ben was trying to find housing for us and he found this craigslist ad Marcia had posted talking about living in an intentional community and I was like “oh I don’t know what the fuck that means but it sounds cool.” And being able to live with Marcia was an amazing experience. It shaped the ways I approached this city. That home also introduced me to a lot of community activists and organizers, she was close with Grace Lee Boggs and Charity Hicks and so many amazing, brilliant community leaders and I am so grateful to have learned from them. Marcia introduced me to the concept of mutual aid. She introduced me to the fact of being an outsider and the responsibility to come into a city and a pre-existing community in a way that was intentional and responsible to the people who were there before you. She’s a light and one of the most genuinely kind people I’ve ever met.
It was the spirit of the people of Detroit and this very land that captivated me. So remarkably beautiful. This land is the definition of tenacity. The way that Black joy overflows here (which was not present in the same way in Providence where I was living at the time for school) in the midst of such realities, it is a blessing to see Black people smiling and laughing and dancing and being together and the Black people of Detroit really exemplified Black joy in a way I had never seen before. Like I hate Independence Day but I love the fourth of July in Detroit.
People were talking about mutual aid networks, people pooling five, ten dollars a month together so that if anyone in the community had an issue there would always be funds there. I was fortunate enough to meet Myrtle Thompson who is a brilliant and fierce mother of the Black community here, and owns Freedom Freedom Growers and Olivia Hubert of Brother Nature Farms, and Nefertiti Harris of Texture by Nefertiti and these women hold this place is such profound ways. Just talking to them and seeing the ways they were opening community space was amazing. Like Myrtle, even though some of her neighbors weren’t always down with what she was doing, she was still always reaching out and inviting folks in to participate in living in a radical and loving community together, and I hadn’t seen anything like that since I was a little girl and hearing stories of the way things used to be back in the country. So it was that that really convinced me, it was just a feeling that this place is really special and that I have to be here. And more than that, a feeling of gratitude to Detroit, to Detroiters inviting me and embracing me and opening their home to me. Then I learned it was on top of a salt mine and was like “oh duh, of course.”
Can you speak on the ways the move to Detroit affected your creative practice?
Growing up as a Black person in a rural environment shaped me indelibly. There was always focus on the condition of Black communities in urban environments, but when you go to the country where Black folks live you find that they might speak a little differently and live in different dwellings and the ways themes show up may look slightly different but you realize the conditions are very much the same. I always took that with me, so in a lot of ways the move from city to country was a natural progression, an ancestral knowing. And particularly as a small town girl, coming to Detroit had this familiarity to me– there was life, there was vegetation and plants everywhere, even in my neighborhood now as it’s being rapidly gentrified, there is so much of the natural world and such a signature of the Black south has been left in Detroit, arguably I would say in a way that I have not seen in any other U.S. city outside of the Black south. Place definitely shapes me and it la crucial to my work. The natural world of Detroit and as well the cultural legacy of this city have really opened my practices, both artistic and spiritual, to greater senses of expansiveness. To this day Detroit is still a huge inspiration for me, even the house that my partner and I ended up buying, the whole story behind it is so magical and grounds my work in really important ways. It’s an absolute overwhelming clusterfuck (my house) but it’s so important to how I understand myself, to my weirdness, to my authenticity, to the perspective I bring to the world and thus to my creative work. Detroit is funky. Detroit has soul. Detroit exists in this otherworldly liminality where shit that literally could not happen in any other city happens here. Detroit is innovative and experimental and (for lack of a better term) DIY and it’s no coincidence that since living more work has ventured so much farther into all of those territories.
What are you working on right now?
At the beginning of 2019, I was set on writing one of the best books of essays (craft and content-wise) that have ever been written. Then by October of last year, I realized I didn’t care about that at all. I would much rather win a Nobel Prize for Peace than a one for literature. I come from an oral tradition. Books are great, they’re just…. kinda disingenuous to me in a way. Poetics, narrative, storytelling, the mining of experience to extract some larger philosophical truth of existence — that’s my shit. Literature, not so much. Writing is one of my tools but it’s not my purpose. I realized what I was doing, what I enjoyed doing, didn’t fit into the literary world by and large. They weren’t interested in it. Publishers didn’t know what to fucking do with me. How do you market someone with no target audience? How do you sell something that is more about freedom and expansion then struggle and refinement? Literary agents, really big ones, hit me up and after talking to me literally had no idea what to say, no framework of how to approach my work. So it wasn’t just a book, it could never be just a book, it was a book as the basis for an ongoing body of public-facing ritualistic performances. And the industry that deals in books had no idea how to approach that and I think they could also tell that I was starting to care less and less about plotting out a single coherent story arc and more and more about building expansive, spacious, fluid, living, breathing, unique experiences. I realized writing a 300-some by itself page book would be incredibly tedious and boring for me because I actually have a really short attention span. My purpose and I’ve believed this since I was seven years old is to do work that pushes forward and supports r/evolutionary goals, aims and recreation. I had to adjust my goals to fit that. If if I wanted to do work in the midst of the r/evolution I believe in I had to realize people wouldn’t be rushing to Barnes and Noble to buy a 300 page memoir, people would be consumed in fighting the fucking power because revolting is all day everyday work and maybe a public event would be more useful, more practical in the future I personally dream of. I hope I don’t sound too crazy after these edits. You gotta prepare for the future you believe in and that’s the future I believe in , I want nothing short of a full on r/evolution. And not some antiquated outdated violent ass two sides shoot each other shit because the government will always have bigger guns. Some magical r/evolution where we’re healing together and literally learning to levitate over the structures and institutions of our oppression. We gotta think outside, around, and upside down the box and I guess this project is my attempt at doing that sort of out of this world thinking. It’s fun.
So to answer your question, I’m currently working on my ongoing series Visions of the Evolution: The Ritual Performance Series. Visions of the Evolution (VoE) is series of devised healing-based ritual-performances, inviting diverse publics into literature and healing in new and embodied ways, joining poetic verse and text-based inquiries with visual, performative representations, sonic resonance, spatial design, and inventive secular healing practices in an immersive experience that inspires and affirms individual introspection and collaborative reimagining. It’s a communal ritual performance, and so there are aspects that the audience participates in that are ritualistic, but not dependent on any particular set of traditions. I make up all the rituals myself. It’s about as secular as the spiritual can get. My attempt is to build a more encompassing experience around literature because the world that we’re living in is changing very quickly and I think traditional literature has been very resistant to that change.
I’m getting a lot less self centered with age I think. I’m becoming a mother soon. My work beforehand had always been a way to see a larger, more universal context through my personal lived experience, but in the writing for VoE are taking a turn and shifting, and while my personal experience still influences them obviously, I’m writing and thinking from a more universal voice and place than just inside my own head and experiences. For me, the question became what’s more useful to have as a r/evolutionary archive: a recounted history of Cherise’s personal healing journey (what I originally intended the book to be) or an omnipresent retrospective of disembodied ancestral and future-speaking voices that are somehow both personal and present, ancestral and ancient, universal and infinite that time wraps and travels through past present and future and in that universal expansion is able to affect and touch a wide range of people while never abandoning its origins in the Afro-diasporic freedom struggles which are illustrative of the broader universal freedom struggle. When introduced to Black feminist theory I learn that if we accept, love and embrace the most vulnerable Black folks, if we co-create a world that accomodates their freedom, in that process life automatically gets better for everyone else. And it’s true.
So now I’m working on a book of verse, the pieces are much shorter, and it’s really supplemental to the ritual performance series which is my main project. It’s where I think I can make the most impact. I’m also currently planning for a summer/fall VoE 2021 tour.
What do you hope that the audience takes away from this work?
The first thing is accessibility. I also want to make the writings in this book accessible, no matter how exclusive the bulk of the literary world is. Like if these writings aren’t accessible to the masses, then what the fuck am I even doing? Growing up I didn’t have the money to buy book and there was no public library in my hometown. A lot of the people I’ve loved in my life have worked really long hours at really hard jobs and don’t have time or energy or disposable income to buy books. My partner is a visual artist and he thinks visually. Even I’m not really that into books. Like if I had to choose one book to take with me on a deserted island, I’d ask if I could pick something more useful for that than a book. And throughout my career, I’ve written things dedicated to and inspired by communities that would never have the access to pick up a copy of The Iowa Review. I don’t even have the disposable income to have a subscription to these literary mags and journals I’ve worked so hard to be recognized by. I realized that my family, even though they wouldn’t have access to the literary journals I was published in, were so touched by what I was writing. They fucking understood what I was writing ten thousand times more than the bougie white professor with the lit mag subscription because they felt that shit. So first and foremost VoE is my way of democratizing my writing. And it feels really fucking good.
I’ve said this for a long time, I’m still in the stages of figuring out exactly what it is myself, but I want people to engage with my work and I want them to feel touched. They can be like, “I don’t even know what the fuck just touched me but I feel it and I’m carrying that feeling forth with me.” I want them to feel an impulse to change, to be better, to think about the ways that they can hold themselves responsible to others and also their own betterment. I felt like kind of an asshole when I chose the title for the project, but it’s true, it’s called Visions of the Evolution: In Search of a New Humanity. As much as I’ve always felt called to language and to create, I’ve also felt an impulse to be an agent of tangible change within the communities that I hold close.
I want people walking away from a Visions of the Evolution experience with the voice of a barratone elder in their heads singing that spiritual “I know I’ve been changed.” I want you to have to think about this shit for hours after leaving the event days weeks before you get the level at which every aspect of it affect you. I want you to have to talk about with the friends you came with and the ones you didn’t and your fucking parents because it unearths inside of you some truths, some piece of your authenticity, some ripe ground in need of healing, some wound that you need to talk about with momma so y’all can both move forward. I have to constantly reaffirm that these are not just performances. These are legit rituals. In the liner notes of D’Angelo’s seminal album, Voodoo, poet and musician Saul Williams writes, “I personally believe in art as it exists in the context of the phrase ‘thou art God.’ In this phrase, art is the word that connects the individual (thou) to their higher self (God) or to that which is universal.” In his book, Ritual: Power, Healing and Community, Malidoma Patrice Somé, writes, “The focus here is not on ritual itself, but on opening up something in hearts and spirits that has been locked away so long that individuals can barely remember the source.” “Ritual,” he continues, “is called for because our soul communicates things to us that the body translates as need, or want, or absence.” Throughout indigenous African ontologies and across Afrodiasporic frameworks, the artist and the healer were viewed as one in the same. Art was always a healing practice. Healing was always an artistic medium. It is from this lineage that Visions of the Evolution was born. And it is within this framework, that Visions of the Evolution takes shape. This is NOT here just to entertain and captivate you. This is here to awaken you into taking the steps to make the changes you know you need to make in service of your highest good, which should be in service of all of our highest good. If we tear apart this world and we’re the same people we’rre just gonna build some bullshit in its place. Years of studying prison abolition taught me that. That was my biggest take away, that we all must completely change as people, to varying degrees depending on the person of course, but you gotta change, I gotta change. We cannot stay the same. The process of r/evolution in and of itself is one of transformation and the process of our transformation must precede and continue with our r/evolution.
When you speak about both making art, but also making tangible change, what are your thoughts on that divide? Can art create real, substantial change or is it just symbolic and performative?
It better be able to make tangible change or I’m in the wrong game. That’s the only reason I do this art shit. Symbolic shit is cute and all but I’m a Capricorn rising and the tangible matters profoundly to me. But that comes with the caveat that I think it’s the duty of the artist [trying to do that kind of work] to think outside of the parameters that exist currently in our society, within your industry. You can’t really be anti-capitalist if you are constantly reducing yourself to a “brand.” You can’t really reach Black communities if your work lives inside institutions that Black communities never go to, that are not welcoming to Black communities. Everything we do, every decision we make is incredibly important, especially in this historic moment. You can’t just do shit the same way and expect things to change, and that goes for artists. If you’re trying to create substantial change and you’re only showing your shit in the Met for predominantly white, rich consumption, if you’re trying to actually create change and do artwork that serves Black communities, then put that shit in Black communities for the people that you are trying to serve. Bring your shit to the people, to the cause, to the movement. That’s another really important aspect of VoE for me, democratization. Like this work will be seen and accessed by folks no matter who you are, where you studied, how you feel, what you do. The only thing that matters to me is if you’re down with the r/evolution. If you’re not, you can’t come. But it’s free and it’s public and it will always be that way. No one’s societal privilege will ever get them any extra access to this project. And if I am ever offered a show at the Met, we sending buses to the hood to pick my people up and they will flood that museum. It’ll be the Blackest day the Met has ever seen.
In the process of developing Visions of the Evolution, the ritual performance series, I did a lot of research into anthropological studies on the traditional role of ritual, because there are many different ways of holding ritual–lynching in the early to mid 20th century was a form of ritual. What we are seeing now with the continued police murders of Black people is a form of ritual that this state maintains. We have to return to our own forms of ritual, progressive, freeing, r/evolutionary ritual, to combat the rituals of subjugation, exploitation and oppression that define daily in this country. And ritual, whether the intentions are positive or negative, is what grounds people in a sense of community, and then reflects on their sense of individuality.
Recently, I was writing a little bit about how in my studies and in the development of my abolitionist politic, oftentimes people would ask me, “what if someone got raped, what if someone got murdered and there were no police to step in, what would we do?” and my response became, “in my abolitionist future no one would get raped and no one would get murdered and I believe that is a possibility. It takes shifting the entire culture and thinking inward and realizing we have no claim over anyone’s body, ever. We do not have the right to take anyone’s life away, ever. And so within the realm and framing of ritual as a practice, I think that also opens the space for that individual reflection in conversation with the larger collective group reflection, but the individual reflection of where our wounds are, where our traumas are, where our healing needs to happen so that we don’t bring the memories and the defense mechanisms created by those wounds or traumas into our future.
A large part of me shifting to this work, I was as I was going through my own really wild and crazy spiritual awakening, and I was also at the time deeply engaged in critical, on the ground organizing work, and I understand that that sort of person to person mobilization is the only way we can manifest a different future, but I also understand that along with that we need to be setting up the systems and practices so that we can take care of ourselves so that we are able to continue that work and not only continue it but keep improving upon it and ourselves. I see community ritual as a space of restoration and as a space where we can refuel, even though we are confronting really intense wounds most of the time. Being a ritualist, a healer, a spiritual mentor is as much my calling if not more than writing or creating or imagining. Marie Laveau and Cecil Fatiman are as a big an inspiration to me as Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.
It’s interesting because in talking afterwards to people who saw the show, different things came up for everyone but in some ways all of those different experiences that everyone was going through were all connected at this indescribable core. I think ritual is a way of reaffirming that connection we have human to human, which I think is a huge part of the problem–when people say “Black Lives Matter” they are asserting that there is that connection between us across the differences of social constructs that have been placed over our lives. And that really I think is the power and potential of ritual.
I think no matter who we are there are common themes that call us to this crazy fucked up world. They manifest wildly differently. But this question of freedom, this question of authenticity, the question of love, the question of who am I really and/or who will I become, where will I end up — these questions, they connect everyone, even if everyone is not willingly or knowingly conscious of it in those terms. That’s part of being alive. I think that opening that space allowed people to open themselves to a place of vulnerability, which the structures around us work really hard to deny. Our vulnerability is our emotional connectivity, it is, I believe the better part of our soul, the thing that makes us us and the structures of this world work so hard to deny us the right to be vulnerable to everyone, especially for those communities that WRH (white racial hierarchy) have relegated to the margins. Ritual in general, positive ritual, creates that space for that vulnerability. That vulnerability creates space for our healing, our coming (back) into wholeness, and our healing substantiates our r/evolution, our transformation, our creation of the world and the lives we deserve., manifest.
For more info on Morris’ practice, follower her Instagram @_cherise_morris_ , and you can find more of her work at cherisemorris.com.