In 1973, Toni Morrison published her second novel, “Sula.”
A New York Times reviewer praised the book, which followed Morrison’s 1970 debut, “The Bluest Eye,” but advised her to rethink her choice of subject matter. Morrison, the reviewer wrote, was “far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.” If she stopped writing small stories about black people living in the American past, Morrison “might easily transcend that early and unintentionally limiting classification, ‘black woman writer,’” the reviewer continued, “and take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working.”
It can be hard to imagine now — the time before Morrison won a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, before she became the first black woman people are ashamed to admit they’ve never read and students are expected to understand. It can be easy to overlook the resistance Morrison faced and the courage she exhibited when she decided to write stories about black people, using the language and experiences of black people, without changing those stories for a white audience.
Morrison, as both a writer and a senior editor at Random House, never watered down her stories or changed the language or perspective to make them about or more accessible to white readers. She described the demand that she do so as “powerfully racist.” And for that alone, many who knew her say, she should be admired and remembered after her death at 88 this week.
“We look now at all the accolades, all the well-deserved praise of Toni and her gorgeous words today, and we can forget that what she did and what she insisted on doing was revolutionary and for far too long dismissed,” said Paula Giddings, a historian and retired Smith College professor. “But if you do that, you can forget the enormity of what Toni helped to birth.”
As an editor, that was the work of novelists such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara as well as the poet Henry Dumas. The commercial and critical success their work, which Morrison shepherded with her shrewd instincts on the book business, made room for others to continue.
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To Sandra Guzman, a freelance journalist who said she may have been the last person to interview Morrision at length, in 2016, Morrison’s work and the space she created for others to do similar work is a monumental contribution to national life.
“She helped to decolonize language,” Guzman said, “to write freedom and make space for others to do the work to make others free. That’s what she said is the obligation of every free person. She’s in the ancestral place now, but she absolutely left us a great legacy.”
Guzman’s interviews with Morrison and others are featured in a documentary she made about Morrison, “The Pieces I Am,” in theaters now.
As an editor, Morrison advocated on behalf of writers who might not have otherwise been published, said Dana A. Williams, a professor of African American literature at Howard University. Williams cited activist Angela Davis’ 1974 autobiography as an example.
“Random House wanted a book by Davis, everyone wanted a book by Davis. She had just gone through the trial,” said Williams, referring to Davis’ acquittal on charges connected to a courtroom shootout in California in 1970. “But Davis believed no one truly wanted a memoir from anyone as young as she was at the time unless it was salacious and focused on who slept with who. Morrison was probably the only person who could have talked Davis into doing the book and then convinced Random House to get on board not with the sexy, provocative book imagined but one about philosophy and liberation.”
“Angela Davis: An Autobiography,” made the New York Times’ best sellers list.
Williams is writing a book about Morrison’s editing titled “Toni at Random.” Williams initially planned to give her book an eight-to-10-word title, but when she told Morrison, Morrison had a piece of advice: “Short titles sell books.” Morrison edited it down.
“Morrison was an artist and literary genius in her own right,” Williams said, “who inspired and made way for the brilliance of others. And, she was an editor smart enough to read the tea leaves.”
Among Morrison’s skills: pushing writers to resist the standard approach to writing about people of color.
“In Morrison’s work and in the work she edited, what you see are stories that shifted the gaze,” Williams said. “What those books did was create real intercultural conversation where everyone gets to eavesdrop on the actual conversation nonwhite people were having, the lives nonwhite people were living and the things some of us sometimes do to one another. In doing so, it allows readers to recognize that black experiences include universal components.”
Giddings — the retired professor who wrote the critically acclaimed “When and Where I Enter,” a history of black women in America, and “Ida,” a biography of the pioneering black journalist Ida B. Wells — met Morrison when Giddings was a secretary at Random House in the 1970s. She was one of several secretaries who unknowingly typed the handwritten manuscript of Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” in exchange for Morrison’s homemade carrot cake. It was the start of a long friendship.
In January 1988, Giddings was one of 48 writers and intellectuals who penned an open letter to the nation’s leading literary institutions — the granters of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The letter, published in The New York Times, called into question a system that had failed to recognize Morrison’s books. Both had also neglected James Baldwin, Giddings said, who had died the month before. A few weeks after the letter was published, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for “Beloved.”
“In her books and so many others she helped to get published,” Giddings said, “so many beautiful and important books, came a slow understanding that a whole range of stories matter. America simply cannot be fully understood without them.”