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

Black and white photo of Toni Morrison smiling.
Toni Morrison. Photo: Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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 the position and uprooted her life in the West to move East to Syracuse. Her 19-year career there made her the first Black woman editor at her level in Random House company history.

When we think of an editor, we think of notes in the margins, strikethroughs, and (lots of) corrections. But Morrison’s role went beyond annotating and adjusting manuscripts. She was a caretaker of a blossoming universe of Black literature, stewarding a cadre of writers and thinkers who would change the world. Morrison considered everything, from book jacket designs to which cover colors would catch the eye in bookstore windows. Her hands played a part in everything, including the advertising of the books she edited to ensure the works reached the eyes of literary critics and academics.

“The literary world, the critics would pit the works against each other. She knew that and would plan releases months or years apart to give each work time to breathe.”

“She knew the world they lived in and what these writers would be up against,” says Williams. “She proactively moved against these White supremacist systems in the publishing industry.” She sent copies of the works she published, like Dumas’ Play Ebony, Play Ivory, to Black celebrities to increase visibility. Ever the effervescent hostess, she planned and executed book release parties for the likes of Muhammed Ali that drew in thousands of people.

Strategy was a necessity for her when planning to release books penned by Black writers, especially Black women writers. “She knew she couldn’t just release a book by Gayl Jones and Bambara back to back,” Williams points out. “The literary world, the critics would pit the works against each other. She knew that and would plan releases months or years apart to give each work time to breathe.”

And if there was one thing Morrison had as both an editor and a writer, it was range. From fiction to nonfiction to anthologies, the books she edited and published went out into the world and forever changed it. Collections like Contemporary African Literature and her own The Black Book became bedrock texts for the Black studies field that began to emerge in the 1960s. She guided the works of other Black writers and tended to the soil that was needed to seed a movement. All the while, she was ascending to fame as a writer in her own right.

“We don’t really talk about this enough,” says Williams. “The fact that she was not focused on just her career. She had already published The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon when she really began to gain traction as an editor. Instead of saying, ‘I am satisfied being the only one,’ she was very clear that she wanted to be in community with other Black writers who were doing incredible work.” She didn’t just contribute to a growing legacy of Black American literature — she helped steward and maintain a viable environment in which it could grow.

In a 1980 lecture, Morrison talks about the Black writer and the role of the ancestor in Black life and literature. “The absence or presence of the ancestor determines the success of the protagonist,” Morrison says. “For the ancestor is not only wise, he or she values … racial memory over individual fulfillment.”

While she was not much older than the writers she worked with as an editor, Morrison most certainly fulfilled and continues to fill this essential role as an ancestor, as a memory keeper. She tenaciously carved out a space in an unyielding industry, lovingly tilled the soil, and helped build an ecosystem whose fruits are still being born today. She was a gardener of that “racial memory,” and through her pivotal time as an editor, she forever changed the landscape of publishing and our culture.

Tenderness and care are two words that sum up Morrison’s 19 years of transforming Random House and the publishing world. She was a force to be reckoned with, determined to break the orthodoxy of publishing tradition at any cost. Those who worked with her at Random knew it. “I’ve interviewed people who worked with her there,” says Williams. “They all say the same thing. They were in awe of her. She could not be bullied or intimidated. And she was determined to make a space for Black writers.”

With Toni at Random, Williams hopes to shine a brighter light not only on the books Morrison helped publish but the relationships she built and watered while at Random House. “We all know her quote, ‘If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,’” says Williams. “But in the case of her time at Random House, it really was ‘If there’s a book you want to read and someone else is writing, you help them write it.’ And you help them publish it. And that’s exactly what she did.”

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