Moments and Memories with Toni Morrison
WHEN SHE LOOKED AT YOU, she connected with you. Toni Morrison gave you the feeling that everyone else in the room was outside the moment and you were within it. Old style. Warm and wonderful. With me it was in Harlem Arts Salon, in the home of my friends Margaret Porter Troupe and Quincy Troupe. We were gathered there for a celebration of her latest, Home, and also to acknowledge and commemorate the historic results of the decades following Giant Talk, an anthology she’d published that was edited by Quincy Troupe and Rainer Schulte. Rich Villar, who Margaret Porter Troupe, host of the salon, invited to provide the evocative introduction, had found that edition, brought it with him and took time to honor it, the standard, the classic set, while honoring the vast career of work by Toni Morrison, and the work by her colleague for conversation that afternoon, Ishmael Reed, and that of Quincy Troupe, who emceed and led the talk. The visual artist Mildred Howard provided the gourmet meal.
It was, like so many days I have spent at Harlem Arts Salon, incredible, an experience I still happily cherish. Quincy insisted I be seated next to her, and she immediately engaged with me and spent some time talking with me about recent events. She gave me some great advice on avoiding any tricks while opening jars (after I ceremoniously attempted to open and broke a vital one in the kitchen just an hour before), and made me feel okay about this, my most recent faux pas. Then she leaned close and asked me what I was going to have to eat, and I said I was fine having whatever she was having. It was crab cakes, and they were delicious, just like that day and like all the works written by this iconic and fierce genius writer. I am a die-hard lover of Sula and teach it and Beloved often. I have loved every book I have read by Morrison, and her work directly influenced me and millions of others like me, to write, to be writers.
Meeting her up close and personal, knowing she had ushered in what many of us consider truly breakthrough Black writing, an arrival of international Third World work to mainstream media, bringing together Black, Native, Latino, African, Asian, and Oceania poets and writers, and insisting they had agency while creating place in publication for writers of color in a time when the vast emptiness in a milk-white literary field was enough to eventually bring her to begin to author her own canon of works. These works, she repeatedly noted, were meant to fill a gap and give her the books she wanted to read herself. Meeting her for lunch was as memorable and meaningful as anyone might imagine. She was a stunning woman.
Seeing the note of her death, I immediately offered condolences to Margaret and Quincy and wished her a great journey. Shortly afterward, I reached out to them again to gather some of their words to offer here. When I called, they were just sitting down to dinner.
You want me to start where I first met her?
I knew Toni Cade Bambara while I was teaching at Athens, Ohio. She’d said she was having a party and I should come. I was moving to New York and had got an apartment, 382 Central Park West at 97th Street. I came to town, dropped my bags off there at the apartment, and called Toni Cade, asked where the party was. She lived in E 124th St in Harlem. She said the party was tonight. This had to be in 1969–1970, some time. I got a cab, went to the party, there were lots of people there, and Toni Morrison was there. I was editing Confrontation: A Journal of Third World Literature already. I met Toni Morrison there. Toni Cade had told her about the journal of Third World writing. Toni Morrison asked me, who are some of the people you have in there?
I had Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Derek Walcott, Lucille Clifton, everybody. She said, that sounds like a big anthology. Can you do an anthology?
She said, let me go back. I am an editor at Random House. I said, you are? She said she wanted me to do this, a big anthology, that it had to be a Third World literature anthology. I told her I also had Chinua Achebe, Amiri Baraka, Victor Hernández Cruz, Aimé Césaire, Ralph Ellison, Pablo Neruda, Ishmael Reed, Léopold Sédar Senghor, so many people — everybody.
She said, wow, okay, and that is the beginning of Giant Talk, that came out in 1975, an anthology of Third World writing.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:
Troupe and Schulte published Giant Talk through Morrison at Random House, using some of the works originally published by the University of Michigan from the magazines they were editing while teaching at the Ohio University at Athens. Of the anthology, Kirkus Reviews noted:
Troupe and Schulte, the editors of two little magazines specializing in Third World literature, have put together the best and fattest anthology of writers from Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas we've seen yet. In their introduction, they lay down their aims for the collection: to establish a broader definition of the Third World spokesman which transcends class and color, give a more geographically and stylistically comprehensive representation, and to place their work within a developmental and/or ideological scheme. Poetry, prose and novel excerpts are all included. A sampling of contributors includes Baldwin, Vallejo, Claude McKay, Thomas Sanchez, Fuentes, Asturias, Dalton Trevisan, Alice Walker, Alejo Carpentier, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Gayl Jones, Aime Cesaire, Neruda, Donoso, Nicanor Parra, Larry Neal, Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Toni Morrison, Cortazar, Lezama Lima; … If these writers aren't already represented in your library, you owe it to yourself to acquire this anthology and begin broadening your horizon.
Schulte edited Mundus Artium: A Journal of International Literature and the Arts. He was editor of the magazine that came out of Ohio University. That was my colleague, and I edited with him there. He had some, I got the rest. Published in 1975, Giant Talk had some 520 pages. We gave them 800 pages. They couldn’t publish all, they cut it back to 520. She loved it. That is how I met her. She said, when you come to New York, give me a call.
When I moved there, I saw her all the time. I asked her to read in readings I was hosting, with novelists, musicians, artists came, too. This was at the Creative Arts Center. The readings were twice a year that I hosted. She would do them for whatever, sometimes for free. I taught at Staten Island, and she would come participate at festivals and readings I hosted, all the time.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:
Jack Slater, writing in The New York Times, recognized that Giant Talk was a “giant undertaking,” one that “ranges across many cultures and throughout a great deal of the world, succeeds in containing an extraordinary variety of literature.” The seven sections of the book — “Oppression and Protest,” “Violence,” “A Crisis of Identity,” “Music, Language, Rhythm,” “The Humorous Distance,” “Ritual and Magic,” and “The Conceptual Voyage” — organize the writing thematically rather than by country, continent, or period. Slater saw the wisdom of this choice for what otherwise might have proven an “unwieldy” collection, given its scope. Slater:
The uninitiated reader can, therefore, savor with as much ease as possible bits and pieces of longer works, such as James Baldwin's “Another Country” and N. Scott Momaday's “House Made of Dawn,” as well as enjoy complete works by such short‐story writers and poets as Mario Arregui, Cesar Vallejo, Rene Depestre, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling A. Brown, Octavio Paz, Alice Walker, Wole Soyinka and Felipe Luciano.
But the fact that more than 100 remarkably different authors from three vastly different continents are represented in this book once more raises the question: Does such a phenomenon as a Third World writer exist? As the editors of “Giant Talk” see it, Third World writers “are … those who identify with the historically exploited segment of mankind, and who confront the establishment on their behalf.”
Slater was writing in 1975, the year the anthology came out. At this distance, we can be simply awestruck at the remarkable prescience of this collection. Slater doesn’t mention Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman, Ishmael Reed, Chinua Achebe, Pablo Neruda, Claude McKay, Aimé Césaire, Juan Rulfo, Ai, Countee Cullen, Alejo Carpentier, Ralph Ellison, José Montoya, Victor Hernández Cruz, Al Young, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Lucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayle Jones, Jayne Cortez, Stanley Crouch, Ray A. Young Bear, Sonia Sanchez, Gabriel García Márquez, Leopold Sedar Senghor, James Welch, Amos Tutuola, Nikki Giovanni, many dozens of others, and Toni Morrison herself, represented by a section of Sula. There may be no greater calling of the roll in the history of world literature, no more Olympian gathering.
Quincy and Rainer and Toni Morrison made it happen.
Later, when I moved to San Diego, to teach for the University of California, she came out and continued to be a part of my series that I hosted there.
Then she met Margaret, and she just fell in love with Margaret.
It was different. She would call and then say, put Margaret on the phone. I was shocked, at first, but Toni Morrison and Margaret got to be like sisters. She said, I know I’ve known you a long time, but I feel like me and Margaret are sisters. I said, fuck it, and she said, there are some things men and women can’t talk about. I said I was jealous. She said, jealous? What the fuck? She used to talk like that. We were close.
She would come up to talk to Margaret, and I would be writing and she would say she came to talk to Margaret. I said, no shit. She said, don’t say that shit to me, I am your older sister, I know you get away with that shit talking to everybody else. I am from the Midwest like you. You don’t say that shit to me.
You know, when I went to teach in Sac [California State College, 1978], I gave her my apartment on Western Avenue. She needed a place to stay in New York, so she stayed in my apartment with her two sons, in my place. We were family.
Margaret Porter Troupe:
Because she is such a great, great, great woman, bigger than life, not only as a person but as an artist, writer, thinker, intellectual — to have had a personal relationship with her makes it [her passing] even more profound, deeper. On the other hand, she lived to be 88. She won every award there was, became an international figure. She was kind, caring, generous, a mentor, and always very kind to me. I was really privileged to know her in that kind of personal way.
I met her when I met Quincy, in 1978, when she was subletting Quincy’s apartment in New York. She was working on Tar Baby then. She wasn’t famous then. She was iconic later on. When he introduced her to me, she told him I was a keeper.
Even when praising Toni Morrison, the media overlooked Black critics who’ve devoted their lives to the study of Black literature. Among them, Bernard Bell, Brenda Greene, C. Liegh McInnis, Trudier Harris, Jerry Ward, Maryemma Graham, Eleanor Traylor. One of the most brilliant of critics, the late Reginald Martin, never had a byline in The New York Times Book Review. Instead of employing Black critics, the media, which is 40 or 59 years behind the South in terms of diversity, chose white critics to comment on the author's work. Most didn’t know what they were talking about, and some used the author’s complicated work to settle grievances they had with Black men.
For its lead front-page assessment of Nobel Laureate Morrison’s work, for instance, the Times chose Margalit Fox. Out of all the things she could have said about Calvin Hernton when she wrote his obituary, all the things she could have said about his poetry and fiction, she emphasized his critique of Black men. “In much of his work, Mr. Hernton anticipated Black feminist writers like Ms. Walker and Toni Morrison with his frank discussion of Black men’s abusive treatment of Black women.” She is one of three Black male haters who work for the Times. The other two are Alexis Soloski and Michiko Kakutani. They can do the brothers but can’t do the patriarchs who employ them.
Equally ignorant were the remarks made by four white males who dominated the film about Morrison, The Pieces I Am. Without them, the film was a remarkable journey through the life of the author. By using Black feminist fiction to settle scores with the brothers, they undermine the achievement of these authors. And so while praising an artist like Toni Morrison, they are insulting her.
I loved her writing.
I was the one that turned her on to García Márquez and if you look at her writing in Sula, in Song of Solomon, you can see that her writing changed when she read him. She loved García Márquez. I said, put that into print, that I turned you on to him. She said, you just turned me on to the book.
James Baldwin was a good friend of his and of hers.
She loved Miles Davis and wanted to meet him, but we couldn’t get it to work out. She loved him so much. I asked her if she wanted to sleep with him, or something. We used to talk like that. That’s how close we were.
I knew she was not well. She told me she was really sick, getting around on crutches and a wheelchair. I would tell her get up out of that wheelchair. She said she knew that my mother taught me good graces, but it didn’t work on me. I knew she was getting more and more fragile and feeble. I knew, but she would call us and have good conversation and I knew but …
You know, Clyde Taylor, a great critic that went to school with her at Howard lives in Panama now, said, “I knew she was … I could never visualize she was going to die. I thought she was indestructible.”
That’s how it was.
When the news came, her son called. He wanted me to know. She was a part of our family.
So tonight, we are rejoicing her life and weeping and we are going to be sad that we can’t see her again physically, but we know her spirit is here and we treasure the moments we had, great and many.
I will finish with this. I remember, one time, she came to have dinner with us. Not sure of the date, but Porter [Troupe] was young. Maybe it was on Western, we were staying. I can’t remember, but he was young. Porter stayed upstairs in a duplex we were staying in. She comes in, I say to Porter, this is Toni Morrison. He says, oh yeah, how you doing? He just went upstairs. Later, he got some sense, he said, was that Toni Morrison? You knew her? I’m afraid so, I said. He was one of the first to call. Oh, Dad, I wish I got to know her.
Margaret Porter Troupe:
I felt she liked me personally, but I was always a bit intimidated by her. Down the road, even more intimidated by her fame. I could call her up on the phone, and she would answer. When I had the gallery in La Jolla, the Porter Randall Gallery, she bought art from me — an Oliver Jackson sculpture. When I set up The Gloster Arts Project, she gave a very nice donation and words of encouragement. She always treated me like family.
I tried to be very respectful, knowing she was in demand and that everyone, everybody wants something. I didn’t want it to seem like that.
You know, I am not a scholar, an intellectual, an academic. She was a mentor to me, and I loved her writing. I remember, I read Beloved, I think, in a weekend. I put myself on a sofa and I did not get up. I could not put it down. It was so amazing.
What endeared me was when she got the Nobel, she didn’t stop, she did not tone down her critique of America. She told the truth. A role model. Her whole intellect was amazing, so well read. And she knew so much. Whenever I was in her company, I just drew it in and was always a bit in awe of her. I was.
I loved her dearly.
She loved me and Quincy, the same.
I couldn’t believe it, one day when I started doing the salon … I wanted to start the salon because we have all these great living artists and there needs to be a way for people to be with them, in an intimate space. I am going to ask Toni, I told Quincy. I called her and she said, sure. I told her there was no money, she said, no problem I’ll do it.
I love reading her work, so poetic, the whole historical aspect to it. I read writers today, and my attention span is short. Toni packed her work with meaning, eloquence, emotion, passion, all those things that you feel to your core, she was able to capture in words, language, mood, in storytelling. She was amazing. I couldn’t wait for her books to come out.
She was fierce, loyal, powerful — she was powerful!
When she came for salon, she told me about her arthritis. She said, honey, I am in pain. My doctor told me I could take up to four full-strength aspirin and it still don’t kill the pain, it makes it bearable. She was in a wheelchair and just became immobile. Ish [Ishmael Reed] called and said she had a stroke. We called her and she was so cheerful and was really her old self. I said we are going to come and bring you a surprise, but we got wrapped up in the Gloster Project and didn’t make it to Princeton. I just told Quincy, we have to go see Toni and then two, three days later we got the news.
I didn’t go, so that hurt a lot.
I will tell you one of the things she said to me. She made me laugh.
We were at a big event they had for her at NYU. There was a packed audience, and I went down to say hello, and she was sitting in front of the audience in a wheelchair. She gave me a hug and a kiss. Then someone came up and said, my queen, and went goo goo gah gah over her. She turned to me and laughed and said, I don’t know what they are talking about. Girl, what are they talking about? I laughed and laughed.
She was quite aware of her fame, but the adoration seemed ridiculous to her.
I loved her.
You know, I just lost a brother, Wash [Washington]. Very close. In June, we lost Joe Overstreet, a painter. July, Steve Cannon, who was with Quincy when I met him. We’ve lost Hugh Masekela, South African jazz player. Hamiet Bluiett, sax player. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor: I miss her so much! She taught me cooking, about African-American history, the history of food, how to entertain — a wonderful aesthetic. Taught me to sew. Made her own clothes. We cooked together … All these people are very, very close to us. These are the people who formed me. I have a piece of all of them inside me that helps me do the work that I do. These are the people.
When I was a young girl from Mississippi, I knew nothing about art, culture — though I was an English major, I knew nothing. These are the people who helped me become Margaret Porter Troupe. These are my mentors. Toni Morrison and all of these people. But this is where we are now. As one of my brothers said, we are all in the Waiting Room of Death. I say, keep working, keep going, one foot in front of the other — reflect. I’ve worked with all these great, great people. These are the people who formed me. Along with Quincy, his contemporaries are my mentors. They embraced me, loved me. They were kind and generous to me, loved me. They were my teachers. Toni was a teacher, to me, a mentor.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:
Last month, I presented Beloved, the novel and the film, for my Fiction to Film class at UCR as an iconic representation of generational and continual trauma legacy, as a beautiful and horrendous ghost story, and as a pivotal work in American and global letters and media, and my students, as is typical, were beguiled with the work. Each time I return to her works and move into new works she was still presenting, I soar a bit with enchantment and with the steadiness a profound writer brings to audience enlightenment. We are better people, better readers, better writers from her generous presence and giant works in the world, and her absence will take a bit of getting used to. Those of us who met her, spent some quiet moments with her, still relish those memories for all their worth. For now, we move forward, one foot in front of the other, step by step, and reflect, like those who knew her best and loved her fiercely, this timely, warm woman who literally changed the world.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke's books include The Year of the Rat, Dog Road Woman, Off-Season City Pipe, Blood Run, Burn, and Streaming, as well as a memoir, Rock Ghost, Willow, Deer. She is the editor of the anthologies Sing: Poetry of the Indigenous Americas, Effigies, and Effigies II and is a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Riverside.
Quincy Thomas Troupe Jr. is an American poet, editor, journalist, and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, in La Jolla, California.
Margaret Porter Troupe is director of the Harlem Arts Salon and the former owner of Porter Troupe Gallery.
Ishmael Reed is the author of over 25 books including Mumbo Jumbo, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, and Juice!.
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