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Toni Morrison and Her Role as Editor: A Toni Morrison Society Conference Report

The seventh biennial conference presented by the Toni Morrison Society took place in New York City from July 21-24, 2016. The previous conference was held in 2010 in Paris, France with the theme “Toni Morrison and Circuits of the Imagination,” and its return was nothing short of outstanding. With the reinstatement of the conference came a new direction in the society’s engagement with the work of the Nobel laureate. Unlike the structure of previous conferences, speakers did not present individual papers. Instead, sessions were plenary panels. Following the keynote speaker, participants were split into groups and lead by a principle discussant. Many more participants, therefore, had an opportunity to participate in discussions. The conference theme, “Toni Morrison and her role as an editor,” also diverged from previous conferences, focusing on Toni Morrison as an editor rather than a writer.

Dana Williams, professor of English at Howard University, touched directly on the theme of Morrison as editor at Random House as she discussed the research for her forthcoming book, Toni Morrison at Random: Midwife of a Generation.  Williams’s talk specifically focused on Morrison’s commitment to publish works by black authors writing about the global black experience. Williams discussed the radical nature and significance of this move. Morrison was a woman of color working in mainstream publishing at a time when much of what was being written about the black experience did not come from black people. In the books she edited, Morrison challenged the perceptions in literature of people of African descent. Contemporary African Literature (1972) is one such book, an anthology of African texts that began with the provocative introduction: “Africa was discovered by Africans.”

The next session focused on the authors Morrison worked with as an editor. The panel consisted of Angela Davis, John McCluskey, and Quincy Troupe. Davis talked about her experience working with Morrison on her autobiography. Like other panelists, Davis noted the success of her work with Morrison was grounded in her relationship with her as a mentor and a friend. She stated that even though she was working on an autobiography, a non-creative piece, Morrison encouraged her to draw on her knowledge as produced by her senses and to give place to site, sight, and feelings in her narrative. Through Morrison’s guidance, Davis “learned the epistemology of aesthetics… (that) knowledge arises out of the embodied.” This point was echoed by Troupe, who reflected on Morrison’s encouragement for him to write about what he valued as important. Troupe’s editorship of Giant Talk: The Anthology of Third World Writing (1975) came out of this advice. 

Morrison’s career as an editor before her literary fame and the impact of this experience on her own writing is something that not many people know about due to lack of scholarship. Sessions dedicated to this topic produced interesting and varied responses from participants in the round-table discussions. In my group, we talked about Morrison’s efforts to bring out the form and voice in authors she worked with and examined the impact of this advocacy. Morrison feels it is important that the author’s voice and position emerge through the text to add to the narrative of the multifaceted black experience.

Many references were also made to Morrison’s involvement in the publication of The Black Book (1974). Howard Ramsby, professor at Southern Illinois University, described the book as a “cultural witness” of African American life, testifying and evoking memories of the past. Cheryl Wall went on to describe The Black Book as a “polyrhythmic record (that) shifts from tribe to tragedy…a history where everyone is talking.” Wall questioned why the book has no significant place in African American historiography and suggested that it is because it does not conform to ideas of what constitute history. That is, it is a revisionist history and the editors made no pretense at objectivity. Morrison joined this discussion in agreement with Wall, arguing that The Black Book gives readers the responsibility of making their own meaning. This meaning is not literal in the book and must be discerned through metaphors, and this meaning is both a personal and collective experience. Its purpose, Morrison stated, is to pay tribute to those in the past who have made the present possible. 

This role of text as cultural memory relates strongly to Morrison’s
oeuvre and the Society recognizes this through its Bench by the
Road
project. This initiative places benches as a commemorative gesture
at important sites of black history here and abroad, like the recent bench placement
at the Schomburg Center for
Research in Black Culture
in Harlem. Both Morrison and Anthony Marx, the
director of New York Public Library, unveiled it. Marx spoke on the
significance of the bench’s location and the impact of Morrison’s work on black
American history and culture, joking that although he is not allowed to admit
publicly, Morrison is, in his opinion, “the great American novelist.” The
bench placement and a gala celebrating Morrison’s (belated) 85th birthday
brought the conference to a close, with warm wishes and congratulatory messages
from Morrison’s friends and colleagues, including Homi Bhabha and Wynton
Marsails, who joined the gala via video link.  
[By Portia Owusu]

Portia Owusu is a Fulbright scholar and doctoral student from London, England attending SOAS, University of London. She spent the 2015-2016 school year working with Dr. Maryemma Graham and the Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas as she completed her dissertation.