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An Appreciation

Just like in her writing, Toni Morrison’s memorial service made black women visible

Speakers from Oprah to Ta-Nehisi Coates remembered an ‘earthy and funny’ friend

With over 3,000 people gathered to celebrate the gallant life of Toni Morrison at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City Thursday, the attendance was evidence of what we lost in her death, but also proof of what she gave us with her life.

Though the makeup of the audience reflected Morrison’s limitless reach, it was the concentration of black women bedecked in their most elegant finery — posh without the pretension — that gave the room its juice. Accompanying many of them were young black girls — daughters, granddaughters, little sisters, cousins, nieces, and mentees. If this was a memorial for anyone, it was for the scores of black women and girls who weren’t seen until Morrison made them visible in her writing.

Toni Morrison

A person looks through the program before the start of the Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison on Nov. 21 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The speakers, including Oprah Winfrey, musicians Toshi Reagon and Andy Bey, and writers Jesmyn Ward and Ta-Nehisi Coates, reflected on the friend, mentor, mother, and woman who understood that a career, no matter how acclaimed, would never be a substitute for a full life.

“Everyone knows what kind of writer Toni was,” close friend and cultural critic Fran Lebowitz said at the memorial, “But not everyone knows what kind of friend Toni was.” Lebowitz recalled a time when Lebowitz received a bad review and Morrison reached out to her. Lebowitz said that Morrison was the type of friend who’d call you and read her bad reviews to you — not to dim your light or overshadow your pain with hers — but to remind you to shine in your own glory.

Much like what Lebowitz shared with us about what Morrison had done for her, it was in this same cathedral, at James Baldwin’s funeral, more than 30 years ago, that Morrison would share what Baldwin had done for her.

“Our crown has already been bought and paid for,” Morrison recalled Baldwin telling her, “all we have to do is wear it.” While it’s tempting to believe that Morrison’s wisdom was a means of her own invention, she was passing on what was given to her.

Lebowitz’s pivot from the public Morrison who the world read on the page to the private Morrison who few knew and loved — produced a wellspring of intimate insights and anecdotes from the other speakers that rivaled her fiction.

Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, talked about the time he went to the movies with Morrison and Angela Davis. “Whenever I tell this story, people always ask me: What movie did y’all see?” Young said to laughter, “The Five Heartbeats.” “Up close,” Young continued, “Morrison was earthy and funny.”

“I once rang Toni [Morrison] to see if she might write something for [The New Yorker],” editor David Remnick shared with the audience, “ ‘I can’t, honey,’ she said. ‘I’m baking a cake.’ ” As someone who only knew Morrison as a writer, I laughed because Remnick’s story made me aware of how much there was to know about her. Those who knew Morrison laughed, but for a different reason: They knew whatever she did was going to get her full attention.

“What I value most among all of her many gifts,” Davis remarked, “is how she demonstrated a way of being in the world. She was always here and there at the same time. Totally present with you but also creating new universes.”

Morrison, who died Aug. 5 at the age of 88, was the author of 11 novels, six children’s books, and a host of nonfiction works — from essay collections to anthologies. She’d cultivated, groomed and edited some of the most prominent voices of the Black Arts Movement in novelists such as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, boxing champion Muhammad Ali and activist Angela Davis.

She won the National Book Critics Circle award in fiction for her third novel, Song of Solomon, in 1977. Ten years later, she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her fifth novel, Beloved. In 1993, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. And, in 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Though these accomplishments suggest a life valued solely for Morrison’s artistic output, her ability to be present in multiple places, in multiple people’s lives at the same time speaks to the gift she gave so generously.

And it was that gift of herself that affirmed who was at the memorial and why. Even after the executive editor of Knopf Doubleday, Erroll McDonald, wished everyone a good night, many of the black women and girls stayed with one another, sharing why they knew Toni wasn’t gone.

Because they were still there.

Yahdon Israel is an educator, entrepreneur, editor, writer and founder of Literaryswag, a cultural movement that intersects literature and fashion to make books cool. He teaches creative writing at The New School and City College. He is the former editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Magazine. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, LitHub, Poets and Writers and Vanity Fair. And he hosts the Literaryswag Book Club, a Brooklyn-based subscription service and book club that meets every last Wednesday of the month.