We Love Life If We Find a Way to It
Studio Check-In was born out of a desire to tell the stories of the people who work behind the scenes at different arts and cultural institutions. Institutions are defined by the people who work within them and the objects they steward, but they are also defined by the community members, artists, and audiences that intersect with and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive.
In this Studio Check-In, "We Love Life If We Find a Way to It," Ilk Yasha speaks with Novella Ford. Novella Ford is a granddaughter, sister, niece, explorer, cultural worker, and is currently the Associate Director for Public Programs and Exhibitions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Novella, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I always begin with a simple question to introduce our interviewee to our readers. Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?
Everything and every part of who I am is born out of the village of women who raised me. I say that not because there weren't men who raised me, but because there were a lot of sisters in my family. As I get older, I understand the power that kind of village has over you; having that kind of view of you that tells you without telling you that you can do anything and that [someone is] rooting for you. As a result, I've had the chance to follow the paths of my heart and curiosity.
I am now a cultural producer who has always loved culture in its many forms. Working at the Schomburg Center across disciplines is God's gift. I have always been and will continue to be both curious and interested in the cultural and intellectual production of Black people and how we are in community with others—as individuals, institutions, and global citizens.
Do you want to elaborate on any particular ancestors or familial voices who are your moral compass in times of difficulty or doubt?
For the sake of this conversation, I'll mention three people. One, my maternal grandmother, Mother Dear. My parents divorced, and my mom passed away when I was eleven years old. Mother Dear and her husband raised me and my younger brother from that point on. She went from the big city grandma who spoiled you to a suburban mother and disciplinarian.
I think in the summer I was heading to college, a neighbor and his mother were spreading gossip about me that Mother Dear got wind of and I was ready to go outside and tell off everyone. And she said, “You know, you don't always have to get people straight.” The logic of it stopped me cold. It is a refrain that has kept me out of certain kinds of situations, both professionally and personally, and I am grateful for her voice in my head.
Two, is my paternal grandmother. If I was never loved again in this world, I will have been loved a lifetime over. She was a leader who didn't lead with the loudest voice or the cushiest job title, but whose presence was felt and whose observations were sought after. She had a meticulousness about her that kept her affairs in order and her relationships true. I think about that, not because I'm all of those things, but because they are good guideposts to have in shaping a life.
The last person I'll mention is my Aunt Willa, who passed away last year, my father's sister, the oldest, the only girl of five. She was my favorite storyteller, and it was clear from when I was little that she was determined to be herself with no one else's expectations to bear No one's expectations of a girl child, no one's expectations of a Black woman, no one's expectations of an educated woman, any of those things. She was determined to just be herself.
Their examples offered a moral compass that had room for evolution, tenderness, and agency.
The Schomburg is imbued with a lot of art, like Houston Conwill’s cosmogram [Rivers] and the Aaron Douglas paintings. Do you have a personal favorite artwork at the center?
I do! A sculpture of Ira Aldridge as Othello by Italian sculptor Pietro Calvi. Aldridge was a thespian, born here in the United States, who moved to England because of racism. He became a renowned actor in Shakespearean plays.
The sculpture became available for auction in 1934 and Arturo Schomburg acquired it for the collections. You can see photos of the bust in the original 135th Street Library when it was housed in the main reading room before this Schomburg Center complex.
There's a great picture of Jean Blackwell Hutson and Langston Hughes, from the 1950s, standing in front of the bust. Currently, it's on view in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books division reading room.
Where do you like to spend time in the building?
I spend most of my time in my office, where I’m surrounded by a selection of reproductions from past exhibitions, many books from past and upcoming programs, knickknacks and notes, whiteboards, and of course emails taunting me. However, my space is also a generative space for ideas. If I had more time, I would sit in the reading room of either the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books division or the Moving Image Recorded Sound division. Being able to spend time in the archives and have someone recommend collections based on your interests or watch films and other archival video material that you didn't know existed is a practice I want to build into my workday.
You must have your fair share of stories from people you’ve met at the Schomburg Center. Who have you befriended over the years?
Walter Mosley and Sonia Sanchez. I never thought I would be someone who could email Walter Mosley and Walter emails me back. Sonia Sanchez is the same.
Scholars Farah Jasmine Griffin and Deb Willis are two people I met early in my career at the Schomburg and have been mentor-adjacent. Watching how they engage the world has been incredible. Derrick Adams. He was one of the first artists I met after I took this role. We had a conversation about the Patrick Kelly Archive and his plans to create from its materials. Seeing the results of his interests gave me an idea of how an artist in residence at Schomburg Center could work.
I'll mention this last person who is not someone I've befriended, but I'll say I'm proud to have brought to the Schomburg Center, which is Rakim, the rapper.
What a list! Speaking of Rakim, what's the last album you listened to from start to finish?
An actual album on a record player was Samora Pinderhughes’s GRIEF. The second album most recently was Rahsaan Patterson's Heroes & Gods.
You mentioned Walter Mosley, so are you into crime and mystery books‚ is that your go-to genre?
Not particularly, but I am a fiction girl. Funny, you should ask about crime and mystery, I’ve been watching a lot of Murder She Wrote, Columbo, and HBO’s Perry Mason was the chef’s kiss. You know, working for the Schomburg Center changed my reading habits; [it’s] a job steeped in intellectual interrogation, as well as other kinds of creatives of production. However, these new habits opened me up in this very interesting way.
I tell you, as a young adult I would read anything by Black authors. I would walk down the aisles of a bookstore, go to the African American section, check for the New York Times best sellers list, read the book jackets and select what seemed interesting to me.
Your answer makes me chuckle because it reminds me of the tote bag that y'all sell in your gift store, which is like “We’re celebrating Black history month, 365 days a year” So that's your answer. Yes—everything all Black!
All Black everything.
I will say, while my reading has deepened, it has also narrowed because I don’t have to visit bookstores like I used to (the books get sent to me!) and I'm not a commuter, so I’m no longer influenced by what other commuters are reading.
Still, I’m a sucker for a one to three-dollar used book stand, and stories set in small New England towns near water. You place a story in a beach town and I'm in, like, I don't even care who the characters are and whether it is a “good” read. I like the trip more than the destination.
So, there's an alternate world where Novella is in a beach town in the Northeast.
Yes! She's not in an alternate world. She exists. She exists.
You are deeply invested in the field of programming. What type of public programs do you like to attend on a personal level?
Listen, everything I get to do in this job is a reflection of what I liked attending before this job. I used to come to the Schomburg Center faithfully before I ever started working here.
For whatever reason, I never made the connection that there was somebody out there curating programs for me. It’s a godsend that I get to immerse myself in conversations and ideas. This job has allowed me to expand my interests in film and theater, understanding how scholarship functions on the ground and how to better present it to a general audience.
You’re a Harlem resident. Do you have a favorite street in Harlem?
I love Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard because of their wide expanse and how they connect to stories I’ve read about the Harlem Renaissance and in the work of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and many others.
138th Street is another one. That row has great brownstones and buildings. I love walking down a well-appointed block. I don't mean clean, I mean the housing is architecturally interesting. And finally, all the parks! We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to public parks in our community, and access to the water, which offers a tiny respite in this quote-unquote concrete jungle.
You recently guest edited for Pen + Brush's In Print No. 5. and focused on those who have experienced a shift in their persona, creative practice, principles, and/or actions. The pieces were responding to the question “How can I fit everything that I am now, into this place?” I'm flipping this question for you to answer.
The question was posed during quarantine and is a direct quote from Lovecraft Country. Pen & Brush’s mission serving women and nonbinary visual artists and writers, I was thinking about the ways we were all experiencing shifts in our daily routines, the skills being developed, and new ways of approaching our lives. How much was that going to carry over? Would we be brave enough to stand in our knowing?
I just had a birthday and I’m hyperaware of living in the second half of my life where I take all that has shaped me up until now and pour it into what remains. A refrain from one of my favorite poems is “We love life if we find a way to it.” Every day I’m intentionally finding my way to it.
Thank you. There's so much to that. I appreciate you. What is one thing you try to do every day to remember you're living? Because New York will make you feel like you're just doing and not living.
It will move you even if you do not want to move. You have to be very present. Running first thing in the morning used to get me in touch with my body and the world; it was an act of gratitude. I try to move intentionally, not in relation to work–simply stretching and placing my hands on my body in a loving way. The fact that I got up in the morning with the ability to move is its own praise song.
Awesome. Thank you so much. I wish you nothing but continued grace in your life journey.