Having a seat at the table takes on a whole new meaning for me when I was sitting next to author Toni Morrison.
Thanks to poet friend Nikki Giovanni – a literary giant in her own right – I was invited to attend a celebration of Morrison soon after the untimely death of Morrison’s son.
Among the many luminaries there at Virginia Tech in October 2012 were poets Maya Angelou and Sonia Sanchez, neo-soul songer India.Arie, activist Angela Davis and scores of Morrison-admiring scholars, students, artists, and community members from across the country – all converging to give Morrison her flowers when she could witness their beauty.
At the pre-event dinner, I was assigned a seat at Morrison’s table with about three or four others.
Unsurprisingly, we were all mesmerized by whatever Morrison said in her characteristic soft-spoken yet firm tone and measured cadence. She was regal, attentive and engaged, and not the least bit interested in discussing her work.
She said that once her work is written and published, she rarely revisits it. What I remember most about the dinner was not the food or the formalities of the evening but rather what Morrison said when the dinner conversation stumbled into the topic of “failure.”
Morrison, very matter of factly, reminded us that there’s no such thing as “failure” if we learn from our unsuccesses. That learning she firmly sees as “data.”
In that moment, I realized that sitting at the table meant that I had gleaned from Morrison yet another lesson that resonates with me through moments of disillusion and disappointment.
Indeed, what I know about myself and the world has largely been the result of reading, teaching, studying, and publishing on black women writers.
Among the most influential in my personal and academic life was Toni Morrison. For over 30 years, I have taught and written about her novels, her single short story, her children's books, her interviews and her essays and speeches.
A consummate storyteller, she continually takes her readers into a world that is both comforting in its familiarities – black folks' cultural and linguistic rhythms and experiences – and challenging in its complex realities of our humanity and inhumanity.
Whether writing about or discussing racism, colorism, sex and sexuality, incest, rape, trauma, women's friendships, American folklore, adultism, meanness, unconscious bias, Toni Morrison has gifted the world with an unparalleled body of work that humanizes even as it calls out injustice and inhumanity for what it really is – all in the spirit of making us better humans.
To experience Morrison's work is to bask in the choreography of words that sing, soar, and spiritually satisfy.
At the invitation of Giovanni who organized the “Sheer Good Fortune” event and is a Project Humanities supporter, Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, enthusiastically endorsed our Project Humanities Humanity 101 efforts with these words:
“I applaud the ambitious effort of Dr. Neal A. Lester and Project Humanities at Arizona State University to remind each of us of our shared humanity. Humanity 101 and its principles are about human decency and self-empowerment. What could be more necessary in our daily actions and interactions?”
On the occasion of Morrison’s recent death, we are afforded this moment of individual and communal reflection and profound appreciation for one whose works give voice to those are often silenced, marginalized, minoritized, and absent.
It was indeed my “sheer good fortune” to be able to meet and greet Toni Morrison and to thank her for all that I had learned from her through her work. In her response to my condolences, Giovanni offered with these words that admittedly make me blush and smile:
“Thanks, Neal. [Toni] was so pleased to sit next to such a good looking guy. We all enjoyed that event. It was our ‘sheer good fortune’ to have been part of celebrating her before we miss her.”
-Ahwatukee resident Neal Lester is Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.