After the passing of Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison on August 5, 2019, Don Noble and I were invited by Dr. Donna Estill, Dean for Humanities and Social Sciences at Calhoun Community College, and Dr. Stephen Spencer, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Athens State University, to participate in a tribute to her. These are my comments from that event, slightly edited for this blog post.
Tribute to Toni Morrison
August 23, 2019, Alabama Center for the Arts, Decatur, Alabama
Thank you, Dr. Estill and Dr. Spencer, and thanks to the Alabama Center for the Arts.
I’m happy to be here as a representative of Alabama’s literary community, and honored to be a part of this tribute to Toni Morrison. When we honor a writer, we not only honor her individual words but assert the value of all writing, and the value of literature in our lives. Everyone here today believes that writing matters, that books matter, and that when a writer as fine as Morrison dies, we should mark her passing and celebrate all she gave us.
As someone who has worked in the world of magazine editing and book publishing, I’m going to talk a bit about Morrison’s work and influence in that world. For those of you who want to be writers, working for a literary magazine or a book publisher is, first, a wonderful way for an aspiring writer to gain insights into the different steps of the publishing process, how editors work and think, and what work is being read and published. And you don’t have to get stuck in either/or binaries about your work, either. An article in Slate.com discussed Morrison’s work at Random House as an editor, beginning in the mid-60s, and how she believed that writers need not compartmentalize themselves, saying, “I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.” Indeed, in addition to her novels and to her work as one of the first literary editors to champion and nurture black writers, she wrote many critical essays, including a collection titled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). She saw no reason to limit herself to one role in the literary world, but claimed all.
One of the things Morrison helped do was to erase the idea that writers should be limited by sub-categories, in a time—the sixties and into the seventies—when someone might be known as a good “woman writer” or a novel might be good within the circumscribed realm of “black writing”—that is, good within that limited range. Through her writing and her influence as an editor, she taught the world that all experience was sufficient experience for a great novel, that any kind of writer was simply that, a writer, and that if the material were rendered with skill and art, it could reach any reader.
Those fortunate enough to work with her as their editor recalled her range of vision when it came to other writers. Activist and writer Angela Davis, who worked with Morrison on Davis’s autobiography, said that “Toni was an absolutely phenomenal editor. She paid so much attention to detail yet did not insist on having a work become a reflection of her own ideas. She asked me questions that challenged my imagination—she asked me to remember differently. Our relationship was grounded in that editing relationship, which became a friendship as well.” (“8 Women Writers…”)
So many writers, beyond those she edited, were inspired by Morrison’s work, black women especially. Maya Angelou said: “In the midst of my misery, I wrote a letter to Toni Morrison. We hadn’t even met at the time, but I wrote a letter to her to say thank you. Thank you very much for not only seeing me … but seeing me as an African-American woman and loving me. This is what this woman has done through ten books: loving, respecting, appreciating the African-American woman and all that she goes through, whether it’s in Beloved, The Bluest Eye, whatever it is.” (“8 Women Writers…”)
Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, described the process of reading Beloved as feeling “contextualized,” truly seen, through eyes that understood her as kin, not as other. (“8 Women Writers…”)
Morrison’s work as an editor also fed into her writing. Working on a book titled The Black Book, published in 1974, a pictorial history of African American life, from slavery to the mid-twentieth-century, she studied what one writer listed as “things like the head braces that had once held slaves, bills of sale, photographs, sheet music, newspaper clippings, and other artifacts that she and the project editors accumulated over the course of putting the book together.” (“Women & Literature: Toni Morrison”)
The writer and critic Ismail Muhammed said of The Black Book that “It taught audiences new ways to think about black history, as something that could be studied from the ground up through the actions of black people themselves, rather than through the social forces that surrounded them.” In addition to that, for Morrison, all of those items she studied were material to inspire her own writing, taking, for instance, the story of the actual slave Margaret Garner, who would rather have killed her children than let them be taken back into slavery, and transmuting it beyond what she called “a lump of statistics” into the novel Beloved. (“Women & Literature: Toni Morrison”)
Morrison, was, of course, celebrated for the art of her fiction writing. As Alabama’s Poet Laureate, I am delighted to be able to share some of Toni Morrison’s poetry with you. She is known, in her novels, for her lyrical language, but was not known as a poet. Nevertheless, in[Black Mountain] institute’s work advancing freedom of expression.” These have been described as “Morrison’s first and only foray into verse” and I’m going to read three of them: “Eve Remembering,” “I Am Not Seaworthy,” and “It Comes Unadorned.”
(All five poems are at: https://believermag.com/five-poems-by-toni-morrison/)
The poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s first inauguration, said: “I can only gesture towards the holistic grandeur of [Morrison’s] vision, her consistent historical excellence, and her invention … The integrity that never flags and the profound love for black people in all of our complexity that animates the work. In encountering and imagining black people as infinitely fascinating and worthy of her sustained artistic attention, Morrison gives us a sterling example of how, while great art is great art, sometimes great art also ennobles a people.” (“8 Women Writers…”)
If you haven’t yet read any of Morrison’s work, I hope you will go directly to the library or a bookstore and find one of her books and read it. The best experience of an author is her words, and thankfully you have many to read. You will not soon run out.
“8 Women Writers on What Toni Morrison Meant To Them,” by Erica Schwiegershausen. Aug. 6, 2019, The Cut, https://www.thecut.com/2019/08/what-toni-morrison-meant-to-women-writers.html
“Five Poems by Toni Morrison,” The Believer, Aug. 6, 2019, https://believermag.com/five-poems-by-toni-morrison/
“Toni Morrison Was So Much More Than a Novelist,” by Ismail Muhammed, Aug. 6, 2019, Slate.com, https://slate.com/culture/2019/08/toni-morrison-criticism-editor-playing-in-the-dark.html
“Women & Literature: Toni Morrison,” by Daniel Donaghy, Sept. 5, 2006, OUP blog, https://blog.oup.com/2006/09/women_literatur/