Toni Morrison’s Memorial Service: Oprah Winfrey, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, Others Pay Tribute
At a public memorial service on Thursday for Toni Morrison—who passed away in August at age 88—Oprah Winfrey and Ta-Nehisi Coates were among the many prominent speakers. During her speech, Oprah shared: “For me, there is no greater writer.” Ahead, you can watch the full live stream of the celebration of Morrison’s life. The line to enter Manhattan’s St. John the Divine church on Thursday, November 21 stretched down the block.
Within the chapel, members of the public intermingled with luminaries and literary figures like Oprah, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Angela Davis. Under the blanket of organ music, they gathered together in that magnificent chapel to pay their respects to one person who touched so many individual lives and so radically changed American culture: Toni Morrison
Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Morrison passed away on August 5, 2019 at the age of 88. In her lifetime, Morrison published 11 novels, five children’s books, nine non-fiction books, and two plays. Her last book, The Source of Self-Regard, was a collection of essays and speeches.
“She was our conscience, our seer, our truth-teller. She was a magician with language who understood the power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them,” Oprah, who spoke at the event, wrote in an Instagram tribute after Morrison’s death. “For me, there is no one else,” she said in a later interview with Variety.
In a similar vein to Oprah’s sentiment, the memorial ceremony at St. John the Divine was a moving blend of astonishment at Morrison’s impact, and bewilderment at her loss.
Morrison’s books spoke specifically to the Black American experience. In his eulogy, New Yorker editor David Remnick contextualized the cultural importance of Morrison’s fiction.
“She wanted to write about Black people, for Black people, in the various language of Black people,” Remnick said, noting that Morrison saw a glaring absence of Black people in the novels of the so-called American Renaissance. “She was there to assert the primacy, specificity of African Americans…and not go around explaining it all the time to everyone else.”
As a result, her books had a tremendous impact on the Black community. The eulogizers—many of them African American writers—spoke about how Morrison gave them the freedom to write and embrace their voices.
“We found ourself through, because of, and in relation to Toni and her work,” Angela Davis, a lifelong friend of Morrison’s, said during her eulogy.
“Her work helped me accent my own Black and writerly self,” writer Kevin Young said during his emotional tribute, which detailed his time meeting Morrison as a college student. “She gave us permission to work, rather than argue about whether we could write or agree to exist at all.”
“It has taken me some time to understand how much I owe to Toni Morrison,” Ta-Nehisi Coates said, opening up about how he’s been re-reading her writing since her passing. “Toni Morrison has been bestowing lessons on me my entire life. The principle lesson was this: Black is beautiful but it ain’t always pretty. Remember, this is not a fairy tale. This is grown folk’s literature.”
Oprah agrees with the sentiment. “For me, there is no greater writer, there is no one who has been able to affect and have the impact, particularly on my life, and I think on African American culture the way she did,” Oprah said to Variety.
Morrison also played a role in the editorial direction of Oprah’s Book Club. In her eulogy, Oprah recalled the time she asked Morrison if it was true that people had to re-read her books to understand them. “‘That, my dear, is called reading,'” Oprah recalls Morrison saying. “I was embarrassed,” Oprah admitted at the memorial, but it gave her the permission to challenge the readers in her book club by picking Morrison’s books, which “refuse to be skimmed.” Oprah would go on to choose more of Morrison’s books than any other author.
“By taking us down to the pain and shadows, she urges us to keep going, to keep trying to figure it out. With her words as guide and companion. She asks us to follow our own pain. To reckon with it. To transcend it,” Oprah said on the transcendent experience of reading Morrison’s books.
Other speakers included writer Jesmyn Ward, editor Erroll McDonald, writer Michael Ondaatje, and Reverend Clifton Daniel III. Punctuated between eulogies were musical interludes by saxophonist David Murray, singer Toshi Reagon, harpist Brandee Younger, and jazz pianist and singer Andy Bey, who delivered a touching rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Morrison’s time as an editor was also remembered during the ceremony. Before becoming a writer of seismic impact, Morrison worked to champion a generation of Black voices as an editor at Random House.
While Morrison’s wide-reaching impact lives on in her work, the eulogies—many of them delivered from the people who knew her closely—also illustrate the loss of the living, breathing woman.
The woman who woke early to write Song of Solomon, before driving her sons to school and completing a work day as an editor, as Fran Lebowitz remembered. The woman who turned down writing for The New Yorker because she was “baking a cake,” as Remnick recalled, with a chuckle. The woman who drank vodka when it was cold and smoked cigarettes at the Louvre, writer Edwidge Danticat said.
“Everyone knows what a cultural earthquake Toni was. Not everyone knows what kind of friend Toni Morrison was. For 40 years, Toni was at least two of my four closest friends,” author Lebowitz said, so obviously missing her.
Certainly, Morrison’s books will be read and re-read. But the eulogizers grasped at moving forward at a world without Morrison herself, as we all must.
“In Tar Baby, a daughter is told, ‘The world will be there while you sleep.’ This is true for you as well,” Danticat said, directly addressing Morrison. “The world will be here, but certainly not as rich or as full. But it will be here as you rest.”