Released only weeks before the author’s death on August 5, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am opens with artist Mickalene Thomas making a collage of an elderly Morrison superimposed upon an image of her as a young woman, embellished with flowers and patterned fabrics. The force of black art dominates the documentary—not only Morrison’s own words, but images from twenty-one prominent black artists including Kara Walker and Faith Ringgold, all shown atop a lush score composed by Kathryn Bostic. The emotional richness of the film skillfully pulls viewers into the unique power of Morrison’s fiction. However, its nearly exclusive focus on her novels—and its progressive liberal depiction of Morrison as a singular genius—sidelines Morrison’s political impact as an editor and essayist, creating a strangely lopsided impression of her life and impact.
‘I wanted to give back something. I wasn’t marching. But I could make sure there was a published record of those who did march and did put themselves on the line.’
In the late sixties and early seventies, before she was known as an author, Morrison was a Random House trade editor who almost singlehandedly introduced black radical activists to mainstream American readers. No single editor or major publishing house has surpassed Morrison’s contribution in the intervening four decades. Cofounder of the Black Panther Party Huey P. Newton (To Die for the People, 1972); prison activist and Black Panther field marshal George Jackson (Blood in My Eye, 1971); and Angela Davis (Angela Davis: An Autobiography, 1974) were all published by Morrison at Random House. Morrison did not necessarily embrace these ideologies, but believed it was invaluable that they circulate in the marketplace of ideas—despite their demonization by the U.S. government.
The film offers brief glimpses of Morrison’s proximity to black militancy with black and white photos of Panthers and the covers of To Die for the People, Blood in My Eye, and Angela Davis: An Autobiography. But these visual nods are unaccompanied by narration explaining that an entire vibrant strand of 1960s and ’70s radical politicking was made accessible and sympathetic to the American mainstream largely thanks to the behind-the-scenes work of Morrison. Of her contribution, Morrison told Hilton Als in 2003: “I wanted to give back something. I wasn’t marching. I didn’t go to anything. I didn’t join anything. But I could make sure there was a published record of those who did march and did put themselves on the line.”
Morrison though was also savvy enough to understand that this would not be enough to motivate Random House to publish her list. Aware that Random House was diversifying authors and readership and that a successful book is also a profitable one (or vice versa), in meetings Morrison pitched book sales over political ideology: “I was not going to . . . disrupt anything. . . . the books were going to make [Random House] a lot of money!”
All the while that she was at Random House, Morrison was not only honing her own craft as a novelist, but also as an essayist and critic. While her fiction unquestionably has transformed the terrain of how we understand black subjectivity—through her unparalleled storytelling about the trials, terrors, and triumphs of black women—her nonfiction (in addition to her editing) also contributed significantly to black freedom struggles.
In 1971 Morrison contributed an op-ed to the New York Times called “What the Black Woman Thinks About Women’s Lib” that would presage not only her artistic commitment to the unique status of black women, but also her lifelong engagement with both the promise and shortcomings of feminism:
What do black women feel about Women’s Lib? Distrust. It is white, therefore suspect. In spite of the fact that liberating movements in the black world have been catalysts for white feminism, too many movements and organizations have made deliberate overtures to enroll blacks and have ended up by rolling them.
She continues by emphasizing the need to account for the “uniqueness of [black women’s] experience,” as succinct a summation of her life’s artistic project as ever there was.
But Morrison also urged whites to interrogate their need to invest in “race” as a concept, a theme she explores in her novella-length essay Playing in the Dark (1992). In a tour de force of U.S. belles lettres, Morrison examines how the image of the abject black, different from and subservient to whites, is a persistent trope in literature and says more about whites’ hidden urges than it does about black people. Likewise, when Morrison referred to Bill Clinton as the “first black president” in an op-ed published during Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, her widely misinterpreted remark had nothing to do with Clinton’s race—or whether he was a friend to blacks—but rather sought to describe how Clinton had been denigrated and rendered a mere plot device in the way that blacks so often are, in literature as in public life.
Beautiful films are useful in dangerous times. How useful depends upon what one can see present and absent on screen, and on what they motivate one to do after the credits. We are in a time when black, brown, and Muslim women are rising to positions of power as elected officials and demanding protections for the vulnerable, and powers to create social justice. But some perceive them as an existential threat, recognizing that it means political leadership will no longer be vested almost exclusively in white men, or in a liberal order that does little to check predatory uses of power. So these incredible women, even with millions of supporters, find themselves beset by a raging president’s partisans simply for performing their elected duties.
Morrison recognized transformative politics survive longer when embedded in art, and traces of resistance run below the cinematic black beauty of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. But one has to sift through literary accolades to find the spirit of rebellion curated by Morrison’s editing and embodied in so much of her work. We can only hope that viewers are astute enough to perceive their relevance in a democracy that is falling to pieces, one that has just lost a guiding light.