UC Santa Cruz Review writer Dan White had separate in-depth conversations this summer with Toni Morrison and Angela Davis about their past collaboration, their longstanding friendship, and their bedrock belief in the power of literature. Davis introduced Morrison while she was in Santa Cruz to deliver the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture at the Rio Theater on October 25. The subject: “Literature and the Silence of Goodness.” Angela Davis was interviewed by phone from Massachusetts, and Toni Morrison from upstate New York.
Dan White: I would guess that even some of your most ardent fans don’t realize that you were an influential editor at Random House for 20 years. At the time, you were bringing out African American voices, including some strong feminist voices, to a wider audience.
Toni Morrison: Well, I was determined to do that when I came there. There was a lot of activity going on, a lot of activism, and I thought, ‘I will publish these voices instead of marching.’ I thought it was my responsibility to publish African American and African writers who would otherwise not be published or not be published well, or edited well, and so I brought out works by (Muhammad) Ali and Toni Cade (Bambara) and Gayl (Jones), and I did a whole collection of African short stories and then I did The Black Book, and I thought that was important because I was good at it, because I had read some books by black writers about black things, and they were so badly edited, it made you want to weep. Like Roots (by Alex Haley). Have you ever read that?
DW: I was a kid when it came out. I did see most of the mini-series.
TM: Oh, they just threw (the book) together. It was backward anyway, and they threw in the ending. He says ‘that child was me.’ We knew that in the beginning!
To Angela Davis: During her time at Random House, Toni Morrison edited your biography, which was published in 1974. How did that initial connection come about?
AD: She contacted me. I wasn’t so much interested in writing an autobiography. I was very young. I think I was 26 years old. Who writes an autobiography at that age? Also, I wasn’t that interested in writing a book that was focused on a personal trajectory. Of course, at that time, the paradigm for the autobiography, as far as I was concerned, was the heroic individual, and I certainly did not want to represent myself in that way. But Toni Morrison persuaded me that I could write it the way I wanted to; it could be the story not only of my life but of the movement in which I had become involved, and she was successful.
Read more at news.ucsc.edu.