Toni Morrison as an Editor Changed Book Publishing Forever
Her talent as a novelist is evident, but her nurturing of Black authors cannot be overlooked
A few years ago at a Radcliffe Institute exhibit, I came across photos of a draft of what would become Angela Davis’ autobiography. A foundational Black literary text, bare-boned and vulnerable, is not something you often get to see. The manuscript bloomed with the strokes of a blue pen, notes from the editor on what needed to be changed. In the caption of the photo, the editor’s name was noted: Toni Morrison.
There is so much power in that photo. It tells us a lot about Davis, but it tells us even more about Morrison. Morrison, one of the most beloved Black writers, lovingly and painstakingly edited the manuscript of Davis, one of the most beloved Black activists. For many, Morrison is mostly lauded as a writer. Yet her role as an editor at Random House shimmers beneath the veil, a fun fact buried beneath the weight of her literary accomplishments.
“I didn’t really learn about Toni Morrison’s work at Random House until I was taking a course at Howard,” says Dana Williams, a professor of African American literature and the interim dean of Howard University Graduate School. She’s currently completing her book about Morrison and her stewardship of Random House called Toni at Random.
“The class was taught by Eleanor Traylor, and it was on the fiction books that Morrison edited while she was at Random House,” she says. Williams learned about the writers Morrison hand-selected to publish, including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Henry Dumas. “In the early years of her career as an editor, sometimes she had a choice in the book she edited, and sometimes she didn’t,” explains Williams. “These were writers that she intentionally recruited.”
The publishing world in the 1970s was not fertile ground for Black literature. Even in 2021, the book industry is still overwhelmingly White, cis, and hetero with editorial departments trending toward more White hires. When a young Morrison applied for a job as an editor at Random House in 1967, the book industry was overwhelmingly racially homogenous. But she got the job. At 34 years old and newly divorced with two children, she accepted…