Bernard Gotfryd. Toni Morrison, author, with her sons Harold and Slade at their upstate New York home, Nyack, New York, c. 1980-1987 (detail). Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Toni Morrison’s Black Book
Curated by Hilton Als
By the time Toni Morrison (1931–2019) conceived, edited, and saw The Black Book (1974) into print, the then forty-three-year-old writer had, in addition to publishing her first two novels, The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973), been a senior editor at Random House for seven years. There, Morrison worked with a wide variety of writers and thinkers, including Muhammad Ali, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, poet Henry Dumas, novelist Gayl Jones, and Huey P. Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party. From the start of her editorial career, Morrison considered herself something of a publisher-activist, committed to bringing more women writers and authors of color to the fore.
Indeed, The Black Book grew out of certain concerns she had about race and language, one being Morrison’s sense that the “Black is beautiful” jingoism of the time reduced the complexity of Black American life to a slogan. She was equally dissatisfied with academic treatises that did not get at the heart and spirit behind the culture. Taking matters into her own hands, Morrison worked, over a feverish eighteen-month period, with collectors of Black memorabilia and a graphic designer to put The Black Book together. She wanted the largely visual work to be a kind of scrapbook, or panorama, of Black American life, largely free of language and thus cant, and valuable to the young. “I was afraid that young people would come to believe that black history began in 1964,” she told an interviewer. “Or that there was slavery, there was a gap, and then there was 1964.”
By the time Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon, was published in 1977, The Black Book had been printed several times and had become a pivotal resource. Today, nearly fifty years after it made its auspicious debut, the National Book Award–nominated, seminal volume continues to exercise a great influence on contemporary artists, just as Morrison’s writing has had a great effect on readers worldwide. Indeed, one could view the writer’s fictional oeuvre as a kind of corollary to The Black Book. In her “scrapbook” and in her novels, Morrison built a grand and spacious architecture to house the visual, linguistic, and political reality of Blackness, and the sustenance, complications, and joy to be found there, too.
Image: Installation view, Toni Morrison's Black Book, David Zwirner, New York, 2022