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Toni Morrison Remembered By Poet Kwame Alexander

Aug 6, 2019
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The legendary American author Toni Morrison has died. She is considered one of the country's greatest authors. She captured black American life in her heartbreaking works, winning the Nobel Prize in literature for her novel "Beloved." MORNING EDITION contributor Kwame Alexander knew Toni Morrison and joins us on the line now. Kwame, thanks for being here.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Hey, thanks for letting me talk about this wonderful, powerful, inspiring woman.

MARTIN: Kwame, it's such a loss. Can you just talk a little bit about what you are hearing from your community of writers?

ALEXANDER: Well, I mean, you know, this morning, after I heard the news, I began to think about all of the writer friends who had been inspired by her, been empowered by her. And just like that, my phone started ringing. And I got calls from so many different writer friends who were just sharing, you know, their stories of how she impacted their lives.

One friend, Tracy Chiles McGhee, she told me that she goes to sleep every night listening to Toni Morrison. The Nobel Prize speech that Toni gave is her bedtime story. And she said she falls asleep to a different part of it every night and tries to remember it each morning because it makes her feel like she's a writer. It reminds her that she had the power of story in her. Another friend of mine, Jason Reynolds, he said Toni reminded him, you know, after reading "Beloved" 10 times, that he not only could be a writer, but he could write outside the box. There were no boundaries.

And I think, you know, for me, Rachel, I just learned not only that I could be a writer, that I could be a great writer from her. One of my favorite sayings - I don't know who said this, but certainly Toni is the one that - you know, that comes to mind when I hear what it means or what it means to me - I am the greatest, not because I am better than anyone, but because nobody is better than me.

MARTIN: I know this is an impossible question, but is there something specific you could point to as having particular meaning for you as a writer?

ALEXANDER: (Laughter) You know, the first time I encountered Toni Morrison was in the pages of a book, and as it were, it was in the acknowledgements section. There was a book, an autobiography written by Muhammad Ali - speaking of the greatest - it was called "My Story" (ph), and it was published by Random House. And it was the book that reminded me that writing and reading was cool because, you know, my dad had made me read his dissertation at age 11, and so I loathed reading.

And so I discovered this autobiography by Muhammad Ali. And, of course, in the acknowledgments, he thanked his editor. Who was his editor? Toni Morrison. So this was my first encounter with Toni Morrison in the pages of a book. Years later, after having read "Sula" and Beloved and "The Bluest Eye," I would happen upon a party at Sonia Sanchez's, the esteemed poet's house in Philadelphia. And it was the 60th birthday party for Toni Morrison.

And I walked in with some of my young writerly friends, and we're all - we're thinking we're all cool, and we get in the party, and in the backyard is Toni Morrison sitting in a rocking chair. And she's just holding court, Rachel. She's talking about all the writerly, you know, gossip and lore and myths and just - everyone's at her feet, and they're listening, and I'm listening, and we're all listening, and we're learning. And I think I'm a better writer for having been at her feet, and I think those of us who got a chance to read her books are better people because we've been at her feet.

MARTIN: Kwame Alexander, remembering the life and legacy of the author Toni Morrison. She died last night at the age of 88. Kwame, thank you.

ALEXANDER: Thank you, Rachel.

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