Oprah Winfrey joined others in paying tribute to literary icon, Toni Morrison, at a Thursday night gathering at New York’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.
“She took the canon and broke it open,” Winfrey told the packed church of more than 3,000 people, according to The New York Times. Winfrey said when she read Morrison’s books, she felt “a kind of emancipation, a liberation, an ascension to another level of understanding.”
Morrison passed away at the age of 88 in August.
Over the span of her illustrious career, Morrison authored 11 novels, children’s books and essays, including The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Sula. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, Beloved, which Oprah starred in and produced on the big screen.
Winfrey, along with Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Edwidge Danticat and Ta-Nehisi Coates, paid tribute to Morrison and shared fond memories of the imprint that Morrison left in their lives.
Winfrey said she first met Morrison at Maya Angelou’s house more than 25 years ago, to celebrate the writer’s achievement of winning the Nobel Prize. “My head and my heart were swirling,” Winfrey told the crowd, according to The Times. “Every time I looked at her I couldn’t even speak. I had to catch my breath.”
Winfrey said she saw Morrison trying to grab a waiter’s attention for water, and it was then that Oprah said she nearly “tripped over” herself “trying to get up from the table to get it for her.”
Coates said he’ll never forget the wise lessons that Morrison left with him. He said she taught him that “Black is beautiful, but it ain’t always pretty,” and that you had to go to ugly places sometimes to produce stellar work.
“The beauty must ache. The beauty must sometimes repulse, even as it enchants, even as it informs, even as it arrests,” Coates said, according to The Times.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, and Angela Davis spoke of how Morrison used her writing and editing platform as a tool for activism.
“Editing was her job, but it was also her activism, her community work,” Remnick said.
Davis added that although Morrison never marched, she made sure “there was a written record of those who did march and put themselves on the line,” according to The Times.
“So many of us feel that we had found ourselves through, because of and in relation to Toni and her work,” Davis said.
Morrison was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. She has one son, Harold Ford Morrison, and three grandchildren. Before she began a career in writing, she was an editor at Random House, and worked with the likes of Davis, Gayl Jones, and Toni Cade Bambara.