Sunday, September 18, 2011

Toni Morrison & Black Arts Poetry

Toni Morrison served as editor for Middleton Harris's The Black Book
Although it's not mentioned much, Toni Morrison was a contributor to and beneficiary of black arts discourse. Characterizations of the Black Arts Movement as an all-male movement that was challenged and eventually eclipsed by African American women novelists often lead commentators to place Morrison outside and beyond the realms of black arts. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, for instance, places Morrison in the "Literature Since 1975" section as opposed to the "Black Arts Era, 1960-1975" section, even though Morrison's first novel The Bluest Eye was published in 1970.

Morrison's first novel, by the way, focuses on issues related to black identity and self-image and the psychological effects of young black girls being inundated with strict white ideals of beauty. The focus on identity and self-image as well as the critiques of whiteness were undoubtedly congruent with major trends in black poetry of the time period.

Morrison was also an editor at Random House at the time, and she worked on a number of projects featuring black poetry. For one, she served as an editor for works by the late Henry Dumas, a poet murdered by police in 1968. Morrison worked with Eugene B. Redmond to bring Dumas's poetry, short stories, and novel into print. Morrison gives a nod to Dumas in her novel Beloved (1987) by naming a plantation in the story Sweet Home. Dumas was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas.

In her book South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature, literary scholar Trudier Harris has written about more Dumas and Morrison connections. According to Harris, Morrison helped Dumas by agreeing to publish his books, and at the same time Dumas "helped her by encouraging her to expand her imagination in ways that have led to her becoming a household name around the world."

Morrison also served as the editor for Middleton Harris's The Black Book, a scrapbook-like text filled with various images, excerpts from newspapers, and other materials documenting black life, culture, and history. Among other features, the book includes several excerpts from poems. Notably, excerpts from poems by Dumas, whose works Morrison was editing at the time, appear more than any other poet in the book. Clearly, Morrison was the invisible editor in the presentation of Dumas's work in the book, which also served to promote his work to a broader audience.

The Black Book also includes the following excerpt from Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "the mother": "Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All." On the opening page of Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon, a character prepares to leap to his death. He closes his suicide letter with the lines "Please forgive me. I loved you all." Similar to the speaker in Brooks's poem, the figure in Morrison's novel asks for forgiveness and announces loving "you all."

In an article promoting The Black Book in Black World magazine, Morrison struck a nationalist tone--a tone that coincided with the tones of leading contributors to black arts discourse, noting that “Black people from all over helped with it, called about things to put in it.” In addition, Morrison noted, the production man and printer for the book were black.

Morrison also served as an editor for works by Lucille Clifton, Quincy Troupe, and June Jordan, writers whose poems circulated widely during the black arts era. Morrison may not be a leading figure to the production of black poetry during the time period, but she was definitely an important contributor, and as in the case of Dumas's work, writers associated with the movement had an influence on her artistic creations.

This entry is part of a series--30 Days of Black Arts Poetry.

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