Oprah Winfrey speaks during the Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison.
In offering tribute to Toni Morrison, speakers from Oprah Winfrey to Fran Lebowitz on Thursday each shared a very different, but equally special portrait of the late Nobel laureate, who died in August at 88.
Angela Davis remembered a dear friend who as a Random House editor helped launch her writing career and would jot down notes for what became the classic "Song of Solomon” as she cooked eggs for her family.
Lebowitz marveled at Morrison’s seemingly photographic memory of the bad reviews she had received. Poet Kevin Young once went to the movies ("The Five Heartbeats”) with her and otherwise proudly sat at her feet. Winfrey spoke of Morrison’s majestic, sometimes intimidating presence, and of the complexity of her work, novels such as "Beloved” for which a single reading was not enough.
She also acknowledged that her heroine, so down to earth on some occasions, was well aware that she really was Toni Morrison.
"She told me once, ‘I’ve always known I was gallant,’” Winfrey confided to thousands gathered at sundown at Manhattan’s historic Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where more than 30 years earlier Morrison had been among those saying goodbye to James Baldwin. "Who says that? Who even goes there?”
With its massive rose window and nave ceiling reaching more than 100 feet, the cathedral was suitably grand for an author who may well endure as the essential American literary voice of her time, one who universalized the stories of black Americans and raised American prose to poetic heights.
Attendees were young and old, of diverse genders and races, members of the publishing world and longtime fans. They filled the front seats, and the back seats. Some sat quietly through the roughly 100-minute ceremony, others murmured, affirmed and cheered out loud.
Speakers stood in the cathedral’s pulpit and hailed the spirit of Morrison. Jesmyn Ward, a two-time National book Award winner, outlined the long history of how blacks had been robbed and usurped and called Morrison a kind of prophet who found a wandering people "in the desert of the self” and saved them, deeming them "worthy to be heard.”
Author Edwidge Danticat, fondly speaking of Morrison’s smoking a cigarette at the Louvre in Paris, noted her identities as a mother, grandmother, sister, editor and teacher, and now, in her passing, an ancestor.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, not even born when Morrison published her debut novel "The Bluest Eye,” acknowledged his jealousy that some got to know her so well.
Morrison’s impact on him was through her printed words. He spoke of being startled by the landmark "Black book,” a scrapbook of black American life that his father kept in the family’s bookstore in the 1970s. He praised the economy and poetry of her language, her sense of humor and the wisdom of what he called "grown folks literature.”
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