How heartbroken the world must be to hear of Toni Morrison's death. She will not write another acclaimed work, nor will she teach or offer any more literary theories. Sadly, her family and friends will suffer most. To all of us, though, she was a hero, and quite frankly an inspiration to those in and outside the literary arena. I am definitely shocked and saddened - another pillar is gone, but graciously, she leaves her work, which will help us carry on.
Back in 2007, when Morrison visited Tulane University, I happened to be in attendance at a reception given in her honor. I remember almost every moment of that wonderful night, in the great writer's presence, but three things stand out: how grand Morrison looked, sitting there in that chair as people lined up to say hello; how special I felt, especially since I reconnected with one of my mentors, Niyi Osundare, who was present as well; and also, how incredible my department chair, Claudia Champagne, was to have invited me. I will begin there.
In March of '07, just weeks before the reception, Claudia, who as a Tulane alum was invited to the reception, asked if I would like to attend. I remember Claudia said, "Don't scream, but . . . ." She clearly knew how highly I thought of Morrison, though she could not have imagined all the lessons I had learned from Morrison over the years. Forget the Pulitzer or Nobel or all those other accolades, I had read everything she wrote. I studied Morrison. I valued her writing, as well as the necessity she felt to teach us about literature. Personally, she was just as great a teacher as writer. I believed (and still do) Morrison was teaching me that I could feel just as sure about my own work. Anyway, I did scream, quietly, and explained to Claudia that I do not typically get so excited about meeting great writers; it was only that Morrison makes one a fanatic - let's face it, to stand in the presence of greatness, a legend, was a highlight in my life. I could not contain my excitement. I immediately set about looking for something to wear. I settled on some tan pants and top, with my favorite dress coat (navy blue and a perfect fit). I pulled my braids back from my face, wore my favorite dangling earrings, and dabbed on a little lipstick. I felt ready to meet greatness.
The evening did not disappoint. The room was filled with familiar faces - local icons and such - but I was truly looking for Morrison from the moment we walked in. She came in a little later, and in the meantime we ate and milled around. That's when I ran into Niyi, who I hadn't seen since I'd graduated from UNO. As a teacher and poet, he too was/is unequaled, so even if I had not seen Morrison that night, I was happy to have reconnected with a mentor. Niyi was one of my professors and had sat on my thesis committee. His love and connection to Nigeria always inspired me, to one day go to Africa. Yes, because it is the Motherland, but also because Niyi's enthusiasm made others want to go there as well. He was/is a walking billboard for his country, his continent. He and I talked briefly about Katrina and how much he lost in the flood waters. Niyi's pain was immediately my own, even though he did not wear his misfortunes on his sleeve. It was clear that he could weather that storm and many others with strength to spare. But that night, the idea that he and I both were in that same room, awaiting Morrison, both of us wanting to say hello to the incomparable lady, made me feel very happy and blessed.
When Morrison did walk in, I almost bumped her with my large bag, which would have been a complete disaster. Morrison moved on and was positioned at a table where people could stop by and say hello. She was wearing a long silvery coat, which complemented her aged dreadlocks, her face, and her stature. The lipstick was a final important detail. She had her own large bag, there on the table. She seemed comfortable and easy, as though she did not understand all the fuss. Somehow, Claudia (who by then I deemed a friend) snapped photos of Morrison and I, one in particular at the perfect moment. The photo cannot testify to what I was saying to Morrison (At that point, I may have been saying something benign like, "You are a great inspiration to me."). When Claudia gave me the photo later, I almost howled seeing Morrison's face, with me bending down speaking to her. Nowadays, when I see the photo, I smile not only because Morrison is smiling, but because she appears to be smiling about some witty thing I just said. Could she not contain her glee - hence, the smile? It's not all that important, I suppose, but that photo, like so many of her photos, helps me see how powerful her smile truly was. For me, the picture paints "a thousand words" that I may have said to the author. After all, it's truly rare that we get to tell our heroes how much they mean to us.
Later when Morrison read from her work, and told us memorable things about her style and writing habits (such as the fact that she always knows her endings before she knows anything else), I sat there sated and smiling myself, so happy to be a writer, knowing that this was something I would always share with Morrison.