In the extensive coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, Toni Morrison's blurb for the book and author has drawn considerable attention. Morrison's powerful appraisal of Coates reminded me of that career-defining endorsement she received from a group of black writers during the late 1980s.
James Baldwin's funeral took place on December 8, 1987, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. After the services, several African American writers and cultural workers gathered together and expressed their discontent that talented black literary artists like Baldwin could produce extraordinary compositions and remain under-acknowledged. Channeling their anger, a group of 48 black poets, novelists, cultural workers, including Maya Angelou, Houston Baker, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., June Jordan, Eleanor Traylor, Quincy Troupe, Alice Walker, Mary Helen Washington, and Eugene B. Redmond composed and signed a letter, which they submitted to The New York Times.
The letter, which appeared in the January 24, 1988, issue of the Times, bemoaned the fact that the recently departed:
Baldwin never received the honor of these keystones to the canon of American literature: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: never. And so we have buried this native son, Jimmy Baldwin, with a grief that goes beyond our sorrow at his death. We also grieve for every black artist who survives him in this freedom land. We grieve because we cannot yet assure that such shame, such national neglect will not occur again, and then again.The letter then pivoted to the urgency of supporting another novelist, whom the letter writers felt was being overlooked:
Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy.Morrison had lost the National Book Award for Beloved earlier in the year, but, in retrospect, many commentators believe that the letter produced by those 48 writers assisted in influencing the Pulitzer committee to award Morrison for her novel in 1988. She went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Just as important, teachers and scholars apparently took notice of the sentiments expressed in that 1988 letter to the Times by those 48 black writers.
By the early 1990s, the scholarly discourse on Morrison's work had began to dramatically pick up steam. In a relatively small amount of time, Morrison became our most critically acclaimed black writer. The widespread scholarly interest and major award-winning status of her work were routed to that January 1988 letter in the Times.
Fast forward to 2015.
"I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died," writes Morrison for the back-cover book blurb for Between the World and Me. "Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." By reflecting on the death of Baldwin in her blurb, Morrison had returned to the figure whose passing had previously inspired 48 black writers to endorse and thus greatly advance appraisals of her work.
• Toni Morrison
• Between Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates
• Notes on coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me
• A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates