Author Toni Morrison’s Passion for Historical Truth Revealed

AP photo of author Toni Morrison by Lisa Poole

AP photo of author Toni Morrison by Lisa Poole

One of only a few living African-American authors whose Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning novels are studied regularly on a high school and university level, Toni Morrison has also written and edited influential nonfiction works, like The Black Book, by Middleton A. Harris.

Originally published in January 1974, Random House released a 35th Anniversary Edition of The Black Book just last month and today, December 14, 2009, it is ranked at number 516 on list of top-selling books and at number 455 on Barnes and Noble’s. It has also become one of the most recommended Christmas and Kwanzaa gift books on blog sites across the Internet.


The Black Book is one of the most straightforward meditations ever published on the history of race relations in the United States because it presents readers mostly raw evidence rather than with impressive prose–though that is also included–offered to interpret such evidence. Along those lines, tucked inside the book’s extraordinary pages are Antebellum reward posters for the return of runaway slaves, photographs of black war heroes, seventeenth century drawings of Africa as seen through the eyes of would-be European slave traders, slavery auction notices, African sculpture, movie posters, soap advertisements, twentieth century sheet music, and the kind of odd written inquiries into the humanity or non-humanity of Blacks that helped those Europeans who believed in "the peculiar institution of slavery" justify their actions.

"Clearly, it was not a book to be put together by writers," said Morrison in her 1974 essay Rediscovering Black History. "What was needed were collectors–people who had the original raw material documenting our life."

She also pointed out the following in Behind the Making of The Black Book: "Black people from all over helped with it, called about things to put in it… All the other publishing ventures I was involved in got secondary treatment because of that book. I was scared that the world would fall away before somebody put together a thing that got close to the way we really were."

While many did in fact contribute their individual scraps of treasured artifacts to compose what might be described a splendid quilt of Black Americana the effort was spearheaded by Middleton A. Harris, whom Morrison described as "the chief author of the project"; plus, retired public school teacher Morris Levitt; director/actor Roger Furman; and entrepreneur Ernest Smith. Famed comedian and educator Bill Cosby was impressed enough it that he provided a foreword for the title.

New anniversary editions of books in and of themselves generally are not particularly newsworthy, but in a year that saw Douglas A. Blackmon win the Pulitzer Prize for Slavery by Another Name, the Re-Enslavement of Black American from the Civil War to World War II, the re-publication of The Black Book is indeed noteworthy both for what it revealed about the African-American historic human condition three decades before Blackmon’s celebrated work, and for what it is now teaching a new generation of readers about why the word "slavery" still commands relevance when discussing race relations in the United States.

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Toni Morrison’s passion for historic truth revealed part 2

by Aberjhani

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