Back From 2013: A birthday tribute to Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame gala in June 2012. (Ryan Brenizer Photography)

America’s only living Nobel laureate for literature celebrates her 82nd birthday on Monday, February 18, which prompts us to share a special tribute Morrison received at last summer’s New York State Writers Hall of Fame gala.

As regular readers of Library of America’s blog will recall, last June The Empire State Center for the Book, New York’s affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book, held its annual gala at the Princeton Club in midtown Manhattan. The highlight of the evening was the induction of the 14-member class of 2012, which included living writers E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison, as well as John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

The following tribute was prepared for the evening by former New York mayor David Dinkins, who was unable to attend in person. His remarks were read at the gala by Judge Anne E. Thompson of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, whose friendship with Ms. Morrison and with David and Joyce Dinkins dates to their college days at Howard University.

Over the four score and four years of my life, I have been blessed to know some of the most wonderful women who ever walked the face of this earth. There was my mother, then my sister Joyce, another Joyce—my bride of more than a half-century . . . who is here this evening, and (eventually) our little girl Donna and her daughter Kalila.

And beyond my family circle, I have had the good fortune to have as close friends a number of truly remarkable women, including one who is central to our purpose here this evening. I speak, of course, of Ms. Toni Morrison. And I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute to this occasion in tribute to her despite the thousands of miles that separate us.

Joyce and I have shared a friendship with Toni for many years and, as is true of everyone, we have been fans of her artistry since the beginning of her career . . . and have taken great pride in her accomplishments. You may know that our friendship began while undergraduates at Howard University—I was Class of 1950, and Joyce and Toni were in the Class of 1953.

Our friendship with Toni has evolved as much from how she has chosen to share her talents as it has from the pure talent itself. Her activism in the struggles for educational opportunity for young persons of color has earned her the respect and appreciation of parents everywhere . . . as she has encouraged their children’s dreams and stimulated their creativity by her example and her teachings.

After Howard, Toni went on to earn her master’s degree in English at Cornell University and she has taught her craft at her alma mater Howard and some other good schools—Yale and Princeton. Toni once said in a speech on values in higher education that: “What I think and do is already inscribed on my teaching, my work. And so should it be. We teach values by having them.”

Toni has incorporated the values learned from her parents during her early years in Lorain, Ohio into the richly-expressive depictions of the characters of her novels . . . from The Bluest Eye in 1969 through a succession of works that have included such best-sellers as Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby . . . and her Pulitzer Prize–winning classic, Beloved.

A member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters for over a quarter century, Toni has been awarded countless literary distinctions, including the Commander of the French Order of Arts & Letters and, the ultimate—the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Taking these honors in stride and never losing sight of her personal values, she has remained the warm and unpretentious person she was before becoming an icon whose every word is captured in print, whether in cover articles in Time magazine or the senior theses of students of literature the world over.

“I’m just trying,” she said in an interview with Salon magazine, “to look at something without blinking, to see what it was like or it could have been like, and how that had something to do with the way we live now.” And her body of work is the best testament that she has never blinked. The Nobel Prize Committee described her “epic power, her unerring ear for dialogue, and her poetically-charged” contributions to the field of literature . . . but Toni had other thoughts at the time.

You may recall her initial reaction to learning of her selection for this, the highest recognition for writers in the world. In case you may not, let me share it with you in her own words: “I called someone at the Nobel Committee,” she remembered, “and I said, ‘Look, if you’re going to keep giving prizes to women (and I hope you do), you’re going to have to give us more warning. Men can rent tuxedos. I have to get shoes and I have to get a dress.’” Vintage Toni Morrison.

In receiving this award tonight, Toni Morrison joins the company of a group of recipients who qualify as our pantheon of artistic excellence—E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill and Joyce Carol Oates as well as those inducted posthumously. I commend the good folks at New York Library Association, the Empire State Center for the Book, and the Writers Hall of Fame for their continued efforts to support and encourage the artistry Toni Morrison exemplifies, and hope that your presence here this evening is but prelude to an ongoing commitment to their mission.

Novelist, editor, teacher, scholar, dramatist, poet, children’s author, Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel Laureate, author of the best work of American fiction in the last quarter century . . . Toni Morrison has given us many hours of literary pleasure and thought, and has provided young writers with a blueprint for the kind of work they must strive to do.

She is dedicated to helping them to build from that blueprint and to design their own, and the tribute tonight is a promise to Toni that the people of the State of New York will continue to support work that expands and engages her artistic and intellectual legacy.

Toni, you are a jewel in the crown of American Letters. We congratulate you on your extraordinary achievements, and promise to do what we can to bring as many of your heirs as possible under the light of that jewel for generations to come.

Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, please join me in saluting our Beloved, Ms. Toni Morrison.

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