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 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. Winfrey spoke of Morrison’s majestic, sometimes intimidating presence, and of the complexity of her work — books 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 Thursday at Manhattan’s historic Cathedral of St. John the Divine. “Who says that? Who even goes there?”
The setting was suitably grand for an author who may well stand as the essential American literary voice of her time, one who universalized the stories of black Americans. Attendees were young and old, of varied 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.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, not even born when Morrison published her debut novel “The Bluest Eyes,” 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.”
Coates, 44, best known for his prize-winning meditation on race and police violence “Between the World and Me,” called Morrison a challenge for other writers, the “queen of them all.” One of her messages was, he said, “black is beautiful, but it ain’t always pretty.”