The next session focused on the authors Morrison worked with as an editor. The panel consisted of Angela Davis, John McCluskey, and Quincy Troupe. Davis talked about her experience working with Morrison on her autobiography. Like other panelists, Davis noted the success of her work with Morrison was grounded in her relationship with her as a mentor and a friend. She stated that even though she was working on an autobiography, a non-creative piece, Morrison encouraged her to draw on her knowledge as produced by her senses and to give place to site, sight, and feelings in her narrative. Through Morrison’s guidance, Davis “learned the epistemology of aesthetics… (that) knowledge arises out of the embodied.” This point was echoed by Troupe, who reflected on Morrison’s encouragement for him to write about what he valued as important. Troupe’s editorship of Giant Talk: The Anthology of Third World Writing (1975) came out of this advice.
Many references were also made to Morrison’s involvement in the publication of The Black Book (1974). Howard Ramsby, professor at Southern Illinois University, described the book as a “cultural witness” of African American life, testifying and evoking memories of the past. Cheryl Wall went on to describe The Black Book as a “polyrhythmic record (that) shifts from tribe to tragedy…a history where everyone is talking.” Wall questioned why the book has no significant place in African American historiography and suggested that it is because it does not conform to ideas of what constitute history. That is, it is a revisionist history and the editors made no pretense at objectivity. Morrison joined this discussion in agreement with Wall, arguing that The Black Book gives readers the responsibility of making their own meaning. This meaning is not literal in the book and must be discerned through metaphors, and this meaning is both a personal and collective experience. Its purpose, Morrison stated, is to pay tribute to those in the past who have made the present possible.
oeuvre and the Society recognizes this through its Bench by the
Road project. This initiative places benches as a commemorative gesture
at important sites of black history here and abroad, like the recent bench placement
at the Schomburg Center for
Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Both Morrison and Anthony Marx, the
director of New York Public Library, unveiled it. Marx spoke on the
significance of the bench’s location and the impact of Morrison’s work on black
American history and culture, joking that although he is not allowed to admit
publicly, Morrison is, in his opinion, “the great American novelist.” The
bench placement and a gala celebrating Morrison’s (belated) 85th birthday
brought the conference to a close, with warm wishes and congratulatory messages
from Morrison’s friends and colleagues, including Homi Bhabha and Wynton
Marsails, who joined the gala via video link.
Portia Owusu is a Fulbright scholar and doctoral student from London, England attending SOAS, University of London. She spent the 2015-2016 school year working with Dr. Maryemma Graham and the Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas as she completed her dissertation.