Downtown Phoenix remembers legendary black writer Toni Morrison

Dr. Neal Lester reads one of Morrison’s children’s books, “The Book of Mean People,” to the audience on Jan. 20, 2020 at The Black Theatre Troupe’s Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center in downtown Phoenix. (Erin Brassey/Downtown Devil)

Arizona State University’s Project Humanities partnered with the Black Theatre Troupe to honor author Toni Morrison in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Throughout the celebration of Morrison and her work, people of all ages, races and genders took the microphone to share their personal connection to an author they had never met in person.

Morrison, an award-winning writer, died at age 88 in August 2019. One of her most notable books was her novel “Beloved,” for which she received a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Some of her other well-known works are “The Bluest Eye,” “Song of Solomon” and “Tar Baby.”

Her novels focus primarily on black characters, exploring issues within the black community, but her works include a diverse cast of characters with varying experiences.

“It’s not just about black people,” said Dr. Neal Lester, the founding director of Project Humanities and a professor at ASU. “It’s about people: people who love, people who experience sexual violence, people who experience colorism, people who experience sexism.”

Lester emphasized that Morrison’s famous works, many of which were written decades ago, are still relevant today.

“It’s a voice that speaks to current times, as well as past times, in terms of understanding race relations in North America,” he said. “But also looking at this in terms of perspectives that are more nuanced, and perspectives that are bold and unapologetic about social injustice.”

The first to share a story about how Morrison impacted his life was a tall young man who spoke for a brief moment before playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his harmonica. The whole room’s spirit softened, and the true celebration began.

Others came up to share stories or quotes. Some even came up to the stage to share original works of writing.

Floyd Alvin Galloway, host and producer for Radio Phoenix, admitted to the room that he has never completely read one of Morrison’s books – not for lack of trying – yet he still found inspiration in her life.

“My motivation of being a writer comes from her being able to write in the community that she was in, being a black woman – a woman in a predominantly male-oriented community,” Galloway said.

Each person who spoke about Morrison explained how she left an impression on them through her words, whether she was writing or speaking.

Young writer Rosalyn Leigh brought a new perspective to the table as she reflected on the first time she read one of Morrison’s books.

“Some people have said that Toni Morrison moved them, right? Toni Morrison stunned me,” Leigh said.

She went on to explain that the first time she read a novel by Morrison, she was so shocked she had to put the book down.

“I have a lot more writing to do,” she said. “Because the kind of work that she does is so stunning that it’s often made me feel like, ‘How can I possibly top this kind of writing?’”

Moments of laughter tied the whole night together into a connection between a room full of strangers as Lester read Toni Morrison and her son Slade Morrison’s “The Book of Mean People” aloud so that everyone in the audience had finished one of her books.

“Nobody could cuss like she could,” Leigh said after reading one of Toni Morrison’s quotes.

Project Humanities puts on events throughout the year to help people find and feel those connections.

“In a world where it feels like we’re coming from all these different places, I think it’s really important to have things that will bring us together,” said Jocelyn Booker-Ohl, Project Humanities Coordinator. Booker-Ohl explained that the goal of Project Humanities is to bring people together to give them the opportunities to talk, listen and connect.

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Correction: January 23, 2020: Due to an error made in the editing process, it was stated that Floyd Alvin Galloway was host of the event. The event facilitator was Dr. Neal Lester, not Galloway. Galloway is host of Radio Phoenix.