Toni Morrison Was a 'Transcendent Fact of Life': Read Author Isabel Wilkerson's Tribute to the Late Writer

Toni Morrison — a Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 — was born 90 years ago on this day, Feb. 18, in 1931. In her many years in the spotlight, she penned numerous works of meaning, including Beloved, The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon. She died on Aug. 5, 2019, though her memory lives on in the words of fellow writers like Isabel Wilkerson, who pays tribute to Morrison in the pages of this week's issue of PEOPLE. Here, Wilkerson's essay on the literary icon.

Toni Morrison is the literary mother of every Black writer — we who yearn to be worthy of walking in her shadow, we who hungrily claim her as our own, though we know full well that anyone who loves language is her heir, that she belongs to the world far beyond ourselves. 

I am boundlessly grateful for the moments when my life intersected with hers. Decades before she became the first African-American to win a Nobel Prize in literature, she was an undergraduate at Howard University. That fact alone would later draw aspiring writers like me to that campus, thrilling as it was to walk the same corridors at Douglass Hall as she, search the stacks within the same walls of Founders Library, pass through the same brick pillars to The Yard.

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Years later, I happened to have had the chance to sit down with her over lunch several times at Princeton University, where she taught for many years and where I was a visiting professor one semester. Every time I was with her, I nearly lost the capacity of speech, which was perhaps to be expected, because if you were in Toni Morrison's presence, you needed merely to listen.

Unbeknownst to me, she would become one of the first people to read my first book, The Warmth of Other Suns. She was herself a daughter of the Great Migration to Lorain, Ohio, had been surrounded by people who fled the Jim Crow South and had interwoven the threads of their dislocations into her masterpieces. The publisher had sent her an advance copy with no guarantees whatsoever, given the demands on her time and the fact that this was a debut work of nonfiction.

I will never forget the day that I got the call. I was crossing Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and the cell phone rang. It was my editor breaking the news to me, and I was trying to hear what she was saying over the din of traffic, and I was trying to process the fact that Toni Morrison had read the book, that Toni Morrison had responded, had rendered her opinion on the book, that she had sent in a blurb, that this was too rare an occurrence to contemplate even now. 

I believe I screamed, but I don't remember for sure because when you go into shock, the body shuts down so that you can recover. I did manage to make it across the street. In that moment, I felt a beam of light as if from the heavens, and I am forever in awe and ever grateful to her.

I gasped and had to remember to breathe when the news of her passing broke in the summer of 2019. The thought of Toni Morrison no longer being in this world is still incomprehensible. She was our oracle, a transcendent fact of life for any writer. We can only be grateful that we overlapped with her time on this planet. And for the blessing she bestowed on my own work, her wise send-off to it as it entered the world, well, this is even more precious to me now. 

For more on Morrison and other Black icons in pop culture, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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