Four publishing and literary professionals offer personal tributes to Toni Morrison, who died last week at the age of 88.
President, Adero’s Literary Tribe/ATL and former v-p, senior editor Atria/S&S
She is Sister Toni to me—neither Ms., certainly not Mrs. Morrison. She is my predecessor in my chosen field, but more my elder and spirit guide at the intersection of humanity and life. She was introduced to me by another Sister: Toni Cade Bambara. We Black Women apply the honorific in mutual respect devoid of hierarchy. Toni Morrison was an aspirational source as editor, writer, voice, human, but she was more: a Sister in the divine movement of Black Arts .
My introduction to Toni Morrison was by way of her second novel, Sula, which I read on a short flight. My body reached at my destination—from Georgia to my home in Tennessee. But, the story of an intense friendship between two Black women was stunning. The literary equivalent to Miles Davis’ iconic Kind of Blue. Morrison’s words captured the beautiful ugly, the terribleness (to use a Barakian term) of a Black woman’s heart so precisely. And, my mind never landed. I was re-tooled for a longer journey.
I was a Clark College student at the time who aspired to be a writer, editor, and activist in the tradition of those who rejected the idea of art/literature for art’s sake. I was an apprentice in a Movement made by Bambara, Baraka, June Jordan, John O. Killens, Angela Davis, Wesley Brown and others who when I speak of Morrison, I cannot leave out. She did not practice her art and her life in isolation of course.
I met Bambara at Clark College, an Atlanta HBCU. She was my teacher, who became a mentor and sister friend. Knowing the path I pursued in book publishing, one Sister Toni made sure—when my move to New York City happened—that I met Sister Toni Morrison when a relocated here in the 1980s. Morrison was the editor of Bambara’s books as well as friend of the sort who sent each other a dollar or two, looked after the children, and would do whatever else a woman needed to facilitate the practice of their cultural work in an environment dead set against her. This is what sisters do for one another: we share. And they shared with me their experience with me. The publishing industry, as a cross road of culture and commerce is not an easy place to be for a Black person. Having Toni Morrison with her tools—of language, craft, intellect and intention—the weeds were cut from the road. I will sharpen my tools on her ancestor stones, continue to fly and land to tend to the crossroads under the guidance of Sister Toni.
W. Paul Coates
Publisher, Black Classic Press
As simple as it may sound it’s The Black Book [ a vast collection of African-American memorabilia edited by Morrison and originally published in 1974] that I return to time and again. I know others will remember Toni Morrison for Beloved, Jazz, Sula and others. But I’m stuck on a different gift from Toni Morrison. The first time I opened the Black Book I tried to imagine the mind that used images of our past to connect so many of our interlocking parts. Each artifact placed on the pages represented volumes and inspired curiosity. In this sense The Black Book runs contrary to the word-picture books Toni Morrison has gifted us with. In the Black Book she uses pictures for words to tell one of the most powerful stories ever. I never get enough of that book. Thank you Toni Morrison. May the ancestors welcome you and prepare a place of honor for you to rest.
Vice-president, publisher S&S/37 Ink
I’ve felt Morrison’s influence in many ways. First, she was an editor and had worked at Random House, where I too once worked. When I walked into that building, I was well aware that few black women had had the privilege of walking through those doors with the title of editor- and two who had were giants, the historian Paula Giddings and, of course, Toni Morrison. The shadow of excellence that she cast, the standard she set for the advocacy and discovery of authors was great and intimidating. She gave me a standard to which I aspired. As an editor, I have read so many debut novelists whose writing fell under her influence and sometimes I felt my job was to tell them “You can’t be Morrison; she already has that job. Trust your own voice.” I know it must have been intimidating for them. It’s like playing tennis when Venus and Serena are still in the game. As a reader, I was spellbound by her characters and the musicality and luminosity of her language. As a black woman, I was affirmed by her novels and essays. She was the first to show me black is beautiful.
Clarence V. Reynolds
Director, Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY.
I had the distinguished pleasure to meet Toni Morrison when the Center for Black Literature hosted the Tenth National Black Writers Conference, in 2010, and she served as the Honorary Chair of the conference. Her presence was then and has always been august. For decades, Toni Morrison has inspired my appreciation and fueled my journey in the world of literature. Her bold and honest voice in her many works captured the complexities of the Black experiences in this country like no other. I recently saw the engaging documentary The Pieces I AM, and the film sheds light about her life that only deepened my admiration for her work and her spirit.