Thousands came to the magnificent cathedral of Saint John the Divine (where James Baldwin was laid to rest and Toni Morrison eulogized him) to remember and celebrate the life and legacy of the great American writer Toni Morrison. It was a true celebration with individual musical performances (harp, acoustic guitar, piano and even the saxophone) and bonafide literary and pop culture celebrities (yes, Oprah was there!). There was a long line around the block an hour and a half before the late afternoon memorial service started at 4:00 p.m.
Toni Morrison, the first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, passed away in August of this year at the age of 88. Among the nine speakers at today’s memorial were Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, Edwidge Danticat and the humorist Fran Lebowitz, who all paid tribute to the author of 11 novels such as Beloved and Song of Solomon.
The speakers told of their deep friendship, admiration and respect for this literary luminary who got up before sunrise every day to write and then went to her job as an editor at Random House and nurtured other writers all day. Angela Davis, who said she would never has written her autobiography were it not for Morrison’s mentorship, told the story of how she was staying with Morrison who would jot something down while making breakfast, and jot something else down in her trusty notebook when she got to a red light on the way driving into the city in her car when the light changed. She said that she later realized that Morrison was writing Song of Solomon that way and that she was amazed at how Morrison could be absolutely present, and away in another world at the same time.
Ta-Nehisi Coates said he didn’t realize how much he owed to Morrison until recently but remembered that her ground-breaking Black Book, which she had published when she was an editor at Random House, was one of his father’s treasured possessions when he was a kid. He didn’t even know that Morrison was the editor.
Oprah closed the service with love, reverence and humor. She explained that as far as she’s concerned “writers are rock stars,” so the first time she meet Morrison she was too overwhelmed to say anything, but it was also an event with the likes of Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis. Years later, when Oprah bought the film rights to Beloved (almost right after finishing reading it), she said she called Morrison and said that she was surprised that people had to read her books over and over again to understand them. Morrison told her “that, my dear, is reading.”
Oprah said that Morrison was the most-often selected author for her book club, and when readers would say that the books were too complicated, she would always think “that, my dear, is reading.” Oprah said that Morrison taught her how to really read.
The service closed with Andy Bey playing the piano and singing “Someone to Watch Over Me”