It is fitting that the February 18 birthday of one of the most towering figures in African American culture, Toni Morrison, happens during Black History Month. Her shining contributions to literature and political and social commentary will continue to be critically engaged and lovingly celebrated. But there is another aspect of Toni Morrison that relatively little is written: her great generosity of spirit. I was blessed to experience it.
It is one of the great gifts of my life.
While a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 1980s, I would see Toni Morrison around town going about her everyday business, doing the things that ordinary people do. I found this so strange because Morrison was anything but ordinary. Once I actually caught her eye across a busy street and she waved with a smile, but otherwise, I dared not approach her.
I finally met Toni in 1990. By then I was a doctoral student at Princeton University, where she was already a distinguished professor. Toni was extremely supportive of Black students and made herself accessible to us as often as she could. Despite her fame and its demands, she always found time to attend the weekly “Works-in-Progress” gatherings in the Princeton Black Studies program (which has since become its Department of African American Studies) where professors and graduate students and the occasional invited guest presented their current projects and elicited comments and critique. Toni was a full participant, sharing her thoughts and suggestions, which were always helpful, if not profound.
Afterward, we’d all meet for intimate little dinners, supposedly to discuss the presentations, but mostly to laugh and banter and enjoy each other as a pocket of Black folks gladly bonding in the stifling stiffness of an Ivy League institution. It was at one of those gatherings that I mustered the nerve to approach Toni with a nervous smile and a comment I thought would engage her attention. I probably said something inane trying to sound deep. But whatever I said, Toni smiled and took a liking to me.
It was then that I began to see a side of her known only to those blessed to know her personally: her bigheartedness. I’d like to think that Toni took to me because of my great and glowing personality, or because she recognized in me a brilliant intellect, but if truth be told, after getting to know her, I’m sure she saw in me what I really was: an older student who didn’t fully fit in (the study of religion was my second career) and decided to befriend me to ease my journey.
From then we would occasionally meet on campus to talk and laugh. She began to invite me to ride along in the olive-green Jaguar she bought used while she ran errands. To my astonishment, she invited me to parties at her home where I met famous folks that previously I’d only read about or seen on TV or the big screen: musicians, actors, comedians –and writers, of course. At one of those parties, a very well-known poet talked to me until I thought my ears would fall off (later Toni told me, “I should have warned you.”) Fran Lebowitz had me laughing until I ached. Toni even invited me to accompany her to a celebrity brunch at the Fifth Avenue apartment of a famous young black opera singer but sadly informed me at the last minute that she was told that only celebrities were invited and not their unknown friends. She reported this with clear disdain because Toni was down-to-earth. She did not see stars and celebrities. She saw people. Especially Black people. Everyone Black was someone to her.
With all else she had to do – her teaching, the many interviews, family obligations, and, of course, her daily writing – she actually took the time to read several of my seminar papers! (To this day I’m not sure where I got the nerve to ask her). On one unforgettable day, after reading one of my papers, Toni made the astonishing gesture I acknowledge in all my books: she wrote me a note that simply read, “Obery, you write well.” Imagine the generosity of that, by then a world-renowned Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature putting pen to paper to give a gift to a mere student, simply because she knew I would find it pricelessly inspiring. Whether her comment was true or not, whether she really thought I wrote well really didn’t matter. All I know is that from that point no one could tell me otherwise!
I imbibed the measure of confidence that Toni meant to instill in me. The evidence of her impact on me can be found years later on bookshelves, in college reading lists, on Amazon.com, and Google. I cannot say I would never have written without Toni, but I sincerely doubt I would have proceeded with as much confidence.
Until her death, our friendship grew and deepened. Toni embraced my children and grandchildren, even my mother-in-law. She was especially close to my wife, Farah, whom I actually met at her home. She had my youngest granddaughter, Mariam, photographed with her Nobel medal because she knew how much it would mean to her in the years to come. Toni was an international figure fully astride every literary stage of significance and knew it, but other than using her fame as leverage to help others, Toni wore that fame very lightly.
That was Toni Morrison. She could be cutting, acerbic, a little prickly from time to time, and she did not suffer fools gladly. And she was especially hard on white folks who dared to veer toward racism in even the smallest way. But she was also a generous soul who wanted nothing more than to lift black folks, as the song goes, “up where we belong.” Her love, her gifts, her generosity, are gifts that keep on giving. I am a better person and a much better writer and thinker for having known her and been blessed with her friendship. But not only me. In ways that we cannot always measure, the lives of millions of us, especially Black folks, are richer because of her pen, her insights, and especially, her dedication to her people.
Obery Hendricks teaches religion and African American Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of the award-winning, “The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted” (Doubleday, 2006) and “Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith” (Beacon, forthcoming July 2021).