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Toni Morrison speech culminates jubilee

In his five decades at Duke, Reynolds Price has made many friends in high places.

But few loom larger than Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who addressed a packed crowd in the Chapel Saturday morning. Morrison's reading was the centerpiece of the four-day "A Jubilee for Reynolds Price," a series of presentations and workshops celebrating the esteemed author's 50 years at Duke.

"This has been one of the greatest weekends of my life," Price told the crowd as he introduced Morrison.

But he did not dwell long on the present.

"Since I've been teaching here for the past 150 years, I thought it would be appropriate to introduce Toni with a poem," he said.

The poem, entitled "To Toni From Reynolds," wound through the two writers' long friendship, from their meeting as young writers to the lessons they have gleaned from each other over the years.

When he was finished, Price stepped gingerly from the podium and hugged Morrison. As he returned to his seat, she began her own retelling of their shared history.

She explained that their friendship is rooted in emotional connection.

"[There is] the agency both of us find in laughter. But more than that I like the way Reynolds cries and what makes him cry-unabashedly and beautiful," she said.

Price's writing also drew praise from Morrison.

"He has, unlike so many of us, the courage and talent to take the risks that imagination demands," she said.

After praising Price, Morrison read extensively from her new novel, "A Mercy," slated for publication this fall.

The piece takes place in upstate New York in 1690 and tells the story of a 16 year-old slave girl sent on a long journey for her ailing mistress. In a half-hour excerpt, Morrison read a scene in which the protagonist is sheltered for the night by a white woman and her daughter who has been accused of being a demon.

When she finished, the crowd rose in a standing ovation.

Many in the audience were Duke alumni, friends and former Price students who came back for the weekend to celebrate his life.

As people streamed out of the Chapel, Farrar Babcock Cottingham, Woman's College '40, said her husband knew Price and it was their personal connection that brought them back to Durham this weekend.

"[Morrison] told a very gripping story," she added.

Matthew Hearn, Grad '90, said the event was the highlight of his trip.

"Hearing both Price's poem and [Morrison's] voice echoing through the Chapel, that's hard to top," Hearn said.

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