literary greats

Celebrating Toni Morrison With Oprah, Angela Davis, and Thousands of Her Readers

Activist and author Angela Davis eulogizes Toni Morrison. Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock

On an unusually mild afternoon in November, the line to get inside the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine stretched down the Gothic landmark’s steps and around the block. Inside, friends and colleagues of one of the giants of American literature prepared to mount the carved stone pulpit beneath the vaulted ceiling to offer intimate recollections of her life and sweeping assessments of her work. Oprah Winfrey was there, perched in the front row. So was Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Jesmyn Ward, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. “We have gathered in this house at this time to offer a collective praise song in celebration of Toni Morrison’s life,” said her publisher, Erroll McDonald. “Let’s all rejoice as we extol the richness of her personhood, the sublimity of her art, the exceptionalism of her stature, and the power of her moral imagination.”

Morrison, who died on August 5 at the age of 88, wrote 11 novels. She wrote children’s books, plays, an opera, essays. She managed the feat of writing for a black audience while producing universal literature, and was the first black writer to win the Nobel Prize. “What Morrison conjured up in her writing and her being is the magic of the daily and extraordinary enchantment of black life,” said the poet Kevin Young, who first heard her speak while he was a Harvard undergraduate taking a seminar on her work. “It is Morrison, more than anyone, who measures the trauma and triumph of the enslaved. Who creates, in her work, a living monument to our shared paths and our far-off future.”

The grand cathedral was a fitting setting for the tribute. It was there that, more than 30 years earlier, Morrison had eulogized James Baldwin. Addressing him directly, she’d said, “Like many of us left here I thought I knew you. Now I discover that in your company it is myself I know. You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.” This time, it was Morrison’s turn to be hailed as one of those writers who show us who we are. “Toni Morrison, regal and wreathed in smoke and flame, found us in the desert of the self,” Jesmyn Ward said softly, in a lyrical, mesmerizing speech that read like an allegory. “We wandering children heard Toni Morrison’s voice and she saved us … She called us forth in her pages and made us experience and understand ourselves with kindness.”

They praised her exquisite craft — “as intricately structured as an Ellington suite,” said David Remnick. “There’s this constant switching of the formal and colloquial, of perspective and vocabulary, so her stories feel gathered from everywhere,” mused Michael Ondaatje. “Where does this voice, this lingo come from? Is it American Homeric?” They spoke of the way her books balance light and dark, ugliness and beauty, terror and the sublime. As Ward put it, “She loved us when we prayed, and sang, and danced. She loved us when we lied, and sliced throats, and disowned our children. She loved us at our best and our broken.” Ta-Nehesi Coates’s first encounter with Morrison’s work was The Black Book, an Almanac of African-American history she published in 1974. He didn’t like it, he said, but was “arrested by it” — and spent hours flipping through its pages. Only years later has he come to understand it: “I think that the principle lesson is this: black is beautiful, but it ain’t always pretty. Indeed, for black to be beautiful, it must very often not be pretty. That beauty must ache. That beauty must sometimes repulse even as it enchants, even as it enthralls, even as it arrests.”

Thousands gathered at St. John the Divine to celebrate Morrison. Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock

As an editor at Random House for 19 years, Morrison shaped and inspired a generation of black writers, publishing Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Muhammad Ali, and many others. As she told The New Yorker writer Hilton Als for a 2003 profile, she did not take part in the marches or protests of that era, but saw her editing as a form of activism. “She was on a mission to open the U.S. publishing industry to black writers and activists,” said the activist Angela Davis, who was edited by Morrison, and who said she probably would not have written an autobiography for anyone else. “Toni also understood much better than anyone else, I believe, that deep, radical change happens not so much because people march and put themselves on the line, however important this kind of activism might be, but rather because we collectively learn to imagine ourselves on different terms with the world.”

Als, referenced in several speeches, sat a few rows from the front, in a navy sweater and sneakers, right beside the novelist Michael Chabon, who’d flown in from Los Angeles just for the occasion. Als said his back was “spasmy,” and he was cranky and sad, “but it’s to be expected” — the physical symptoms of grief. “I don’t want to be mournful,” he said, “because the activity of her mind is everywhere, but I’m selfishly sad for myself not to pick up the phone and call her and laugh about something.”

Sprinkled among the praise of her work were anecdotes about the woman Als used to call up — the funny, earthy friend and mother. Davis remembered that she was always “100 percent engaged,” even while busy cooking eggs and working on a manuscript that would turn out to be Song of Solomon. “She was never only partially paying attention,” Davis said. “This is why I think her vision was so extraordinary.”

“You drank vodka on a cold day, just the really good stuff, and smoked cigarettes at the Louvre,” said Edwidge Danticat, addressing Morrison directly, as Morrision had once addressed Baldwin. “You were the literary giant that is Toni Morrison, but you were also Chloe Wofford, and you allowed me to see them both, for which I will always be grateful.”

Unsurprisingly, Fran Leibowitz gave the solemn occasion a dash of humor and spice. “For more than 40 years, Toni was at least two of my four closest friends,” said Leibowitz. Years ago, when Leibowitz got a brutal book review in the New York Times, Morrison called her from Paris to cheer her up. “Don’t take it seriously,” Leibowitz remembered her saying. “Reviews aren’t important. Books are important. You have to learn to ignore these kind of reviews, like I do.” Leibowitz went on: “She then proceeded to quote word for word at least half a dozen of her bad reviews, none of which had she said mattered at all.” As Morrison got older and grew into her unassailable stature, she cared less and less about those bad reviews. “So I assigned myself the task of holding Toni’s grudges for her,” Leibowitz said. “She found this extremely entertaining, but I was perfectly serious, and I still am. So please, let’s keep that in mind.”

More than three thousand people were crowded into the cavernous space, overflowing the chairs, lining up along the stone walls. The publishers had tried to arrange for one of the Obamas to speak, but Morrison was the star draw — well, also Oprah. Ms. Winfrey spoke last, her earrings and glasses glittering in the Cathedral’s dim light. She remembered the first time they came face to face, in Maya Angelou’s backyard, at a celebration for Morrison’s Nobel Prize in 1993. It was “one of the great thrills of my life,” Oprah said. But they didn’t talk. Oprah (yes, Oprah) was “too bedazzled.”

To read Morrison, Oprah said, was to experience “a kind of emancipation, a liberation, an ascension to another level of understanding, because by taking us down there amid the pain, the shadows, she urges us to keep going, to keep feeling, to keep trying to figure it all out with her words and her stories as a guide and companion.”

She closed the evening with an excerpt from Song of Solomon, a passage about a man who “had come from out of nowhere, ignorant as a hammer and broke as a convict,” and built “a farm that colored their lives like a paintbrush and spoken to them like a sermon.” The excerpt that followed resounded like a sermon, a set of commands that address Solomon’s family but also his people, and beyond that all humanity.

 ‘You see?’ the farm said to them. ‘See? See what you can do? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,’ it said. ‘Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on — can you hear me? Pass it on!’”

Celebrating Toni Morrison With Thousands of Her Readers