More than 3,000 people gathered at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Thursday to celebrate Toni Morrison, a giant of American literature whose work won acclaim for its groundbreaking style and complex exploration of black American identity.
Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Edwidge Danticat and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among other speakers from the worlds of literature, journalism and the arts, shared memories of their time with Morrison and her impact on their work and lives.
“She took the canon and broke it open,” said Winfrey, who selected many of Morrison’s novels for her book club. Reading them, Winfrey said, she experienced “a kind of emancipation, a liberation, an ascension to another level of understanding.”
For Coates, author of the novel “The Water Dancer” and nonfiction that includes “Between the World and Me” and “We Were Eight Years in Power,” Morrison taught him that “Black is beautiful, but it ain’t always pretty,” he said, and that good work sometimes required ugliness.
Morrison, who died in August at 88, published 11 novels as well as children’s books and essay collections over her career. She was praised for her style, which sometimes contained a mythic quality, incorporating multiple voices and story lines and exploring the legacy of slavery in incandescent prose.
A number of Morrison’s early novels are now considered classics, including “The Bluest Eye” (1970), “Sula” (1973) and “Song of Solomon” (1977), for which she won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Morrison was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1993, and also received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for “Beloved,” widely considered her masterwork.
Winfrey recalled feeling star-struck when she first met Morrison. It was at Maya Angelou’s house in 1993, at a party to celebrate Morrison’s Nobel Prize. “My head and my heart were swirling,” Winfrey said. “Every time I looked at her I couldn’t even speak. I had to catch my breath.”
When Winfrey noticed Morrison trying to get the waiter’s attention for some water, she almost “tripped over myself trying to get up from the table to get it for her,” she said.
The commentator Fran Lebowitz, a longtime friend of Morrison’s, recounted times when Morrison would comfort her after a bad review. Morrison herself was impervious to criticism, Lebowitz said, so she “assigned myself the task of holding Toni’s grudges for her.”
[ Toni Morrison: a writer who “enlarged the American imagination in ways we are only beginning to understand.” Read our critic’s appraisal. ]
Born in Lorain, Ohio in 1931, Morrison was survived by her son Harold Ford Morrison and three grandchildren. Before she started writing her own books in her late 30s, she was an editor at Random House, working with such writers as Angela Davis, Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara.
“Editing was her job, but it was also her activism, her community work,” said David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker.
Davis echoed this idea, saying that though Morrison did not march or participate in protest, she wanted to “make sure there was a written record of those who did march and put themselves on the line.”
“So many of us feel that we had found ourselves through, because of and in relation to Toni and her work,” Davis said. For those who knew Morrison, she said, the greatest challenge is “to envision the world without the glorious laughter of our dear, dear Toni.”
St. John the Divine was filled to capacity by admirers of Morrison’s work. The mood was at times jovial, at times somber. Some attendees snapped their fingers and clapped their hands, while others bowed their heads.
The Rev. Thurselle C. Williams came from New Jersey for the event but said she would have traveled much farther. “When she passed, I knew wherever there was going to be a memorial, no matter where it was, I needed to be there,” she said. Morrison’s work, she added, “not only shaped the lives of African-Americans but helped them understand themselves even more.”
Waiting outside the church in a line that wrapped around the corner, Arielle Isack, a 21-year-old student at nearby Columbia University, said that through books like “Sula” and “Beloved,” Morrison had given her “access to a reality” she would not have been privy to otherwise. “You learn the history of black people in America, but I feel like she brought me there,” Isack said.
Another Columbia student, Delia Anderson-Colson, called it a historic event that she could not miss.
In a moving speech, the novelist and National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward recalled the horrors of slavery with detailed descriptions of Africans being stolen from their homes. “We wandering children heard Toni Morrison’s voice, and she saved us,” she said.
She did it by telling her readers, “You are worthy to be seen,” Ward said. “You are worthy to be heard. You are worthy to be sat with, to be walked beside.”