Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Dana Williams shines light on editor Toni Morrison

Dana Williams presents on Toni Morrison's editorial work at the Toni Morrison Society Conference, July 22.

The Toni Morrison Society recently convened its seventh biennial conference, with a focus on Morrison as an editor. Dana Williams, professor of English and chair at Howard University, gave the keynote address. The presentation was a highlight of the conference, but just as important, Williams's work represents a notable, innovative turn in the overall scholarship on Morrison.

No African American is as widely studied and written about as Toni Morrison. Many universities offer annual "Toni Morrison" courses, and her books have been mainstays on conference programs for the last two decades. In addition, every year, her work is the subject of scholarly articles and full-length books.

For the most part, scholars concentrate on Morrison's novels. Most of us, those who study Morrison, note in passing that "oh, and she was an editor at Random House." A little further, we point out that she was the editor for Gayle Jones and Toni Cade Bambara. Yet, we'd need more research and guidance to more fully appreciate all that Morrison was accomplishing as an editor.

Enter Dana Williams.

For more than a decade now, Williams has been researching Morrison's editorial work at Random House during the 1970s. Williams has been painstakingly looking through the Random House records, 1925-1999 located at the Columbia University Archival Collections. She has also been reviewing the Toni Morrison Papers at Princeton University.  

Williams revealed that Morrison edited works by several writers, including Bambara, Jones, Quincy Troupe, Angela Davis, John McCluskey, Jr., Huey P. Newton, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Henry Dumas, Leon Forrest, Ivan Van Sertima, and Muhammad Ali. Williams has studied the correspondence between Morrison and her authors, and she has interviewed Morrison on various occasions over the years. 

Taking us well beyond the fact that the novelist was also an editor, Williams began illuminating Morrison's approach to assisting writers at various stages of their manuscript projects. Williams made us aware that Morrison coordinated the design of books, publicity and marketing strategies, and lively book release parties. By the end of Williams's presentation, the typical statement by many of us that "Morrison was an editor" seemed like an understatement.

Who would think that a cultural figure and artist as critically acclaimed and frequently written about as Morrison could benefit from recovery work? But here Williams was exposing us to hidden aspects of Morrison's contributions. At Random House, Morrison was playing a defining role in African American artistic and cultural production during the 1970s, not including the novels she produced.

The presentation by Williams was a glimpse of the larger book project that she is working on concerning Morrison's time at Random House. When her book is published, we'll have a clearer sense of Morrison's multifaceted contributions outside her identity as an author. Her novels and nonfiction are no doubt important, but Williams is clarifying the extents to which we can stand to learn much more about Morrison's "works." 

A few lessons from the Toni Morrison Society Conference 
Toni Morrison

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