Oprah, Literary Figures Celebrate Toni Morrison's Cultural Impact During Public Memorial

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Ta-Nehisi Coates, Fran Lebowitz and a litany of writers and musicians honored the late author's celebrated legacy and life during a two-hour ceremony in New York.

Oprah Winfrey, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Fran Lebowitz were among the long list of cultural and literary icons who gathered to remember Nobel Laureate and The Bluest Eye author Toni Morrison, who died over the summer, during a public memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Thursday.

The Right Reverend Clifton Daniel III, dean of the cathedral which had previously served as home to services for Duke Ellington and James Baldwin, opened the late afternoon memorial. He was followed by a litany of speakers within the realms of activism, academia, historic preservation, publishing and media, all of whom championed the esteemed writer and editor’s decades-long work.

“She believed it was a writer’s job to rip the veil off, to bore down to the truth. She took the canon; she broke it open,” Winfrey told memorial attendees. “Among her legacies were writers she paved the way for, many of them here in this beautiful space tonight, celebrating her.”

The ceremony, with its packed sitting audience and line of standing attendees that nearly stretched the entire length of the cathedral, also featured several artistic performances. Jazz singer and pianist Andy Bey, harpist Brandee Younger, folk and blues musician Toshi Reagon and jazz saxophonist David Murray offered moving and ethereal performances. Novelists Edwidge Danticat and Jesmyn Ward delivered powerful poetic tributes to the ways Morrison fortified the existence and worthiness of Black Americans within the literary and historical canons — and in the face of racism.

“Toni Morrison wrote to us, again and again, exhorting us of our beauty, making us grapple with our pain and reaffirming our humanity,” Ward said. “She loved us when we prayed and sang and danced. She loved us when we lied and sliced the throat of our children. ... She made us understand ourselves with kindness.”

Passionate, touching and humorous anecdotes were sprinkled throughout the tributes to the writer and former Princeton University professor, illuminating the bold visionary and moral voice Morrison ultimately was. Within their stories and eulogies, many emphasized the lasting impact Morrison’s work had on black writers, American culture and the literary canon.

One of the first people to speak was vice president and executive editor at Morrison’s former publisher Knopf Doubleday Erroll McDonald, who focused mainly on how Morrison’s prolific editing career cultivated a generation of black writers and transformed her desires as a reader and writer into the unprecedented visibility of black art that existed beyond the white and male gaze.

“She wanted to write about black people for black people in the language and various languages of black people,” McDonald said, “and this struck her as no less peculiar than Tolstoy who wrote in Russian, about Russians, for Russians.”

Author and political activist Angela Davis further expounded upon Morrison’s editing work as a form of advocacy and activism. Using Morrison’s own words, Davis acknowledged that the award-winning writer hadn’t marched or protested, but that through her job as an editor, she “could make sure there was a published record of those who did march.”

“Toni understood much better than anyone that deep radical change happens not so much because people put themselves on the line, however important this kind of activism may be,” Davis said. “But as we learn to collectively imagine ourselves on different terms with the world, to realize that we can change, along with the conditions of our lives.”

The nearly two-hour event celebrated Morrison for her many personal and professional roles — professor and essayist, mother and black history preservationist. Unsurprisingly, though, her writing was what was called upon most recurrently by speakers.

For Winfrey, that writing, particularly her essays, made Morrison “one of our most influential public intellectuals.”

“Her words don’t permit the reader to down them quickly and forget them. We know that,” Winfrey said. “They refuse to be skimmed. They will not be ignored. They can gut you, turn you upside down, make you think you just don’t get it. But when you finally do, when you finally do — and you always will — when you open yourself to what she is offering, you experience, as I have many times reading Toni Morrison, a kind of emancipation.”

For author and journalist Coates, it may have taken some time to understand what the award-winning writer bestowed upon him, but in her passing, it’s become more apparent.

“What I know is that Toni Morrison taught me the meaning of grown folks literature. The kind that, to paraphrase my sister Jesymn, is as merciless with characters and as merciless with us as life itself,” Coates said.

No speaker went without acknowledging the impact of Morrison’s essays and other award-winning writing like Beloved and Song of Solomon, a handful even reading passages from their favorite Morrison works. Yet, it was in the moments where her friends and fellow artists called upon the literary legend’s intellect, humor and friendship that had the most substantial vocal impact in the room.

Lebowitz, a friend of Morrison's for 40 years, called on the artist’s rejection of systems that govern a writer’s presumed success — chiefly, book reviews — both as a refusal to engage with racism or sexism and as a pillar of their friendship.

“A friend, [John Lennon] said, is someone who calls you to read you your bad reviews,” Lebowitz said to laughs. “Toni was the kind of friend who called me to read her bad reviews. But as Toni got older, she lost a grip on bad reviews and genuinely seemed to shrug them off. … So I assigned myself the task of holding Toni’s grudges for her. She found this extremely entertaining, but I was perfectly serious. And I still am.”

It was in these deeply personal, touching moments during the memorial that Morrison’s loss felt the greatest. “So many out in the world are mourning Toni Morrison, and proclaiming that she is not gone because her extraordinary work fills the void that was created by her passing,” Davis said. “But we who knew her, know her and certainly treasure her work — for us, it is the greatest challenge to our collective imagination to envision a world without the glorious laughter of our dear, dear Toni.”