Brow Beat

“She Found Us in the Deserts of Ourselves”

Toni Morrison’s remarkable memorial service in New York City.

Toni Morrison holds a legal pad and pencil.
Toni Morrison in New York City in 1979.
Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

In December of 1987, six years before she would win her Nobel Prize, Toni Morrison stood in front of the crowd of thousands that filled the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side of New York. They had gathered for the funeral service of James Baldwin, the first held in that cathedral since the death of Duke Ellington over a decade prior. And though Morrison’s address was technically to that crowd of thousands, her eulogy was addressed directly to the man she knew simply as Jimmy. “There is too much to think about you, and too much to feel,” she said. “You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention. I have been thinking your spoken and written thoughts for so long I believed they were mine. I have been seeing the world through your eyes for so long, I believed that clear, clear view was my own.”

More than 30 years later that same theme of finding a home in the clear, clear view of someone now gone echoed at St. John the Divine on Thursday, during a memorial celebration of Morrison’s life. Some 3,000 people crowded into the halls of the cathedral after waiting in a line that, a full hour before the 4 p.m. start time, snaked around the corner. Still, despite the throng, the voices of those gathered rarely rose above a quiet, reverent hum that fell to near silence as luminaries like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jesmyn Ward, Edwidge Danticat, Angela Davis, and Oprah Winfrey approached the pulpit. Artists like harpist Brandee Younger and pianist Andy Bey offered tribute as well, though the most stirring performance was undoubtedly saxophonist David Murray’s, the notes of his solo echoing in the century-old rafters in much the same way that Morrison’s words, her rhythms, her moral clarity reverberated in those of the people remembering her. The eulogies ranged from humorous recollections of moments shared (David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, recalled the humbling experience of attempting to commission a piece from her and receiving the gentle refusal, “I can’t honey, I’m baking a cake”) to ruminations on her career as writer, critic, and most particularly as editor. Davis noted that, though Morrison never marched in the street herself, she considered it imperative to “make sure there was a written record of those who … put themselves on the line.”

Morrison’s 19-year career as an editor at Random House is often refigured in the public imagination as a prelude to her writing career, the way she bided time when she wasn’t writing on subways and at the kitchen table. But Thursday her role as editor took, if not center stage, at least a starring role. “Editing was her job, but it was also her activism, her community work,” Remnick said. Coates’ turn at the altar revolved around the first work of Morrison’s that he encountered: the 1974 nonfiction anthology she edited called The Black Book. As Coates noted, The Black Book showed black life in all its contradictory glory, showcasing photos of families in their Sunday best alongside images of lynchings. “I did not like The Black Book,” he said. “But I was arrested by it.” What Morrison taught him, through the dissonance that permeated not just The Black Book but all her ensuing work, is that “black is always beautiful, but it ain’t always pretty … that beauty aches, just as it repulses.” The work of writing demands, Coates added, that we not “indulge in the pretty,” because black life “is not a fairy tale—it is grown folks’ literature.”

Davis echoed this mourning of a radical imagination that, in refusing to indulge in the myths and fairy tales created by white supremacy, shattered the boundaries that we ourselves, having seen them drawn so often, might have started to believe. “She never drew stark lines separating fiction and the real,” Davis said. “Her fiction was often much more real than reality, and especially our current political reality.” Ward, in a speech that held the same lyricism she was honoring, likened Morrison’s work to a beacon to descendants of the enslaved who had their language, their agency, and their children stripped away from them: “She found us in the deserts of ourselves. … We wandering children heard Toni Morrison’s voice, and she saved us.”

Throughout the afternoon, attendees offered the soft, appreciative sounds familiar to anyone who has spent time in a black church. Some clapped. Others snapped their fingers. But the biggest reaction of the night came during Winfrey’s speech. She began by recounting when she first met Morrison at Maya Angelou’s house, at a party thrown to celebrate Morrison’s Nobel Prize. “It was not easy to keep myself inside my body,” she confided. When Morrison gestured to the waiter for water, Winfrey said that she “nearly tripped over myself trying to get up from the table to get it for her.” The ovation came when she, in closing out the memorial, recited a passage from Song of Solomon. “Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage.”

We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on — can you hear me? Pass it on!