Exactly 50 years to the day that Dr. Luther King spoke at Kleinhan’s Music Hall in Buffalo, NY, a world-renowned author was wheeled onto the stage. Almost 90 minutes later, the audience of over 2,400 had witnessed greatness and an evening of laughter.
Laughter? Impossible. Unbelievable. I mean, the greatness was understood, but the soft laughter that resonated throughout the crowd from someone whose incredibly powerful books are heavy, dark, raw, and depressing? “I write the best sex scenes,” she chuckled and added, “but not too graphic.” Of course, I’m only paraphrasing, because there are so many things that her audience wanted to remember and walk away with.
Walk away. I hadn’t realized that Toni Morrison, now 87, is confined to a wheelchair. How did she appear so tall, stately, and powerful, yet so humble? It was obvious that she commanded the stage, for there were no bored deep sighs, squirming in one’s seat, or checking the time.
The countless awards and accolades bestowed upon her could turn others of her caliber haughty, but not Morrison. I mean, how many of us have ever even been in the presence of a recipient of both the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes?
I’ve attended many a lecture by other world-famous figures, but if I name them, that’s comparing and is that fair? “I will speak ill of no man and all the good I know of everybody,” Benjamin Franklin once said. (No, I wasn’t around to hear him speak.)
Morrison said that she started writing rather late-in-life—at the age of 39. “Although now at my age, that sounds pretty young,” she quipped. She was a ferocious reader as a child, thanks to her family’s encouragement and example. I wasn’t surprised. Isn’t that a prerequisite of truly remarkable writers?
Especially poignant was her account of when she was 10 years old and strolling home with her little friend and, even at that tender age, they both took on that formidable task of discussing if there really was a God.
“Chloe, do you believe in God?” the little black girl asked, using Toni’s birth name.
“Yes, I do,” she answered with real conviction.
“I don’t. Do you have proof that there’s a God?”
“No—no, I don’t.”
“I have proof that there isn’t a God.”
Here is where Morrison, in a light tone announces to the audience, “You might know that she would have proof and I didn’t!”
Toni—I mean Chloe—asked, “What’s your proof?”
“For two years now I’ve been praying to God for blue eyes and … and it never happened.”
Thus the inspiration for The Bluest Eye, her first published novel.
We all sensed that the lecture was coming to an end. Morrison concluded by saying that when she returned home, she would be working on a speech that she would be presenting at Princeton. “Just before I left, I received a call that they were going to dedicate a wing to me and call it Morrison Hall. And what did I do?” she confessed. “I gasped and told that gentleman that he couldn’t call it by that horrible name, because that was my ex’s name and I hated him!”
I saw the color of truth and the spunk to speak it.
My daughter and I stood in line for over an hour for her to autograph each of our books. Afterward, as I braved the cold blustery winds outside, my tired brain—so tired a few hours before—was suddenly stimulated, my body now rejuvenated and my heart brimming.
One woman, one lecture, and a profound feeling of well-being, and I saw the color of shared peace. Could it be that maybe Dr. Luther King’s spirit was there, too? And a little part of his dream was being realized?
Yes, it was a very memorable evening—a catharsis for the negative emotions that we sometimes feel from all the upheaval in today’s weary world. But on that night, our hearts felt light.
Karen White-Walker is a published writer and playwright. Her stories have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines across the country and eight of her plays have been produced. “I’m most comfortable writing articles about and for senior citizens,” she says, “because being one myself, I know of the trials, frustrations, and the feelings of accomplishment that make us who we are today—a feisty bunch!