Hilton Als Brings Toni Morrison’s The Black Book to Life

In an exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery called Toni Morrison’s Black Book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and critic brings in work from Amy Sherald, Kerry James Marshall, and many more.

by Jasmine Sanders

Toni Morrison in China, 1984. Courtesy of Princeton University Library (Toni Morrison Papers, Manuscripts Division, Special Collections, Princeton University Library).

In 1974, Toni Morrison, then 36, published The Black Book, a collage-styled documentation of “the Black experience in America from 1619 through the 1940s.” Described by Morrison herself as “encyclopedic,” The Black Book was completed during her nonpareil stint as an editor at Random House, where she edited the likes of Muhammad Ali, Henry Dumas, Gayl Jones, and Angela Davis, fostering the authors and their work in a milieu still hostile toward Black literature and its subjects. The sloganeering of the time—exhorting Black Pride, Black Beauty, Black Power, Black Love—telegraphed the desires of the downtrodden to imagine better; yet they came with their own circumscriptions, which Morrison’s work attempted to evade.

The critic and essayist Hilton Als, who profiled Morrison for The New Yorker in 2003, recently curated an exhibition based on The Black Book, titled Toni Morrison’s Black Book, on display at David Zwirner Gallery through Feb. 26. Speaking over Zoom, Als expounded upon Morrison’s ambitions for that project—her third work following The Bluest Eye and Sula—which became an immediate New York Times bestseller at the time of its release. “She did not want the conversation to be 1964 and before that slavery. She wanted to have a more comprehensive-ness,” Als told me. “She wanted documentation as opposed to interpretation.”

Following the author’s death in 2019, at 88 years old, there was a spate of renewed interest in The Black Book, which had become something of a rare objet after decades out of print. The book was reissued in 2009 (which happened to be its 35th anniversary), with the original cover restored, a foreword and preface by Morrison featured within. The work is a sprawling, personal book, which contains letters between Morrison and her authors, her masterful whittling of type-written manuscripts, as well as more casual communiqués with peers and friends. Morrison the editor is significantly less known than Morrison the author—the manner in which she shaped Black literature from both inside and out, her position within the cohort of Black feminist writers, scholars, and theorists. Als says of those women, “They were building a community with one another that was kind of extraordinary, the post Black arts movement sensibility and the possibilities really expanded post-[Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.], Malcolm [X] and Medgar Evers, this sense of urgency.”

In an interview with NPR, Morrison stated that part of her motivation was attempting to confront the notion within publishing that Black audiences did not buy books. “And I thought, well, maybe we haven’t published anything that the larger African-American community wanted,” she said. “What about something that’s really popular and is about African-American life?” So she assembled a mass of postcards, newspaper clippings, sheet music and others bits and shards for a sort of historical scrapbook of the Black experience.

Als’s show, which took over a year to complete due to the pandemic, includes both original materials from Morrison’s work as well as contributions by contemporary Black artists like Kerry James Marshall, Amy Sherald, Martin Puryear, and Beverly Buchanan. The immersive, kaleidoscopic feel of the exhibit replicates the pastiche style of The Black Book, granting it a sense of prescience and continuity, while the Black history the book records continues to unfold after and around it. The show is imbued with the heft and scope of historiography, welcome semblances of play, and the self imagining whose seeds had bloomed into the revolutionary zeal of the 1970s.

Gwen Knight, “The Boudoir,” 1945.

The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society, New York/Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York

Installation view, Toni Morrison’s Black Book, David Zwirner, New York.

Courtesy of David Zwirner

Jacob Lawrence, “Pool Players,” 1938.

The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society, New York

Featured in the exhibition are advertisements and other media depicting minstrel caricatures, mile-wide grins and sooty skin. In one room, a baby doll, points to the blighted desires of Pecola Breedlove, the main character in Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, who wished for a beauty other than her own. Elsewhere, there are patents for typewriters, shoe-making machines and other inventions owed to black creators. Als says that his approach to the show had been a bit freewheeling, a fact which probably accounts for the show’s being able to side-step the frequent feel of Black art exhibits—one that’s too tidy and over-curated. “I would say there’s a great deal of improvisation,” he added. “I had a list of artists I was interested in and moved from there.”

Installation view, Toni Morrison’s Black Book, David Zwirner, New York.

Courtesy of David Zwirner

In another room, there are newspaper clippings covering Margaret Garner, an escaped slave woman who murdered her children upon capture—the subject which inspired Beloved, Morrison’s most lauded novel. (It has recently shown up in the raft of books being banned throughout American classrooms.) Morrison would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Beloved in 1983. Its publication cemented her status within the great American literary canon, and represented for Als a cleave in her work, when she began to expand on her experimentation of form, her influences (Virginia Woolf, Gabriel García Márquez, and William Faulkner) more central to her constructions of her novels and their meanings.

“I had some idea that Toni’s move into modernism after Beloved would have to find visual representation [in the exhibition],” Als said. “I think she was really interested in the limits of the modern, what can be called Modernism. She wanted to see what Black Modernism could do, and she was compelled by the point where Modernism and Blackness converge.”

Walter Price, “Thinly coded language,” 2019.

Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

James Van Der Zee, “Untitled,” 1931

The Estate of James Van Der Zee and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

The second part of the show represents Als’s interest in Morrison’s post-Beloved sensibilities. “One of the things I loved about that was I could show the early part of her career contrasted with the second part of the show, which is much more open,” he said.

Als himself first encountered The Black Book as a boy in his native Brooklyn inside of Liberation Bookstore, which boasted a glut of books from Broadside Press, Gwendolyn Brooks’s company. “There was The Black Book and Morrison’s Sula, which pointed to how culture at the time was really geared toward Black self-awareness. It was a book that made you realize that you were connected with history.”

He was immediately taken with its scope and method, the imagination and heft of it, which seemed to contain the power of the ordinary experiences of Black life. “Here was Blackness documented, a documentation of Black people, free of ideology. It was also this hybrid form, written but visual,” he said. “It changed my life, without a doubt. [But] my work with the book is not completed. There is always ongoing conversation with books you love.” And, he noted, The Black Book is incredibly timely at this very moment. “The country again turns its attention to race more fully for good or ill. It’s central to the question of what makes an American and the cultural significance of Black people in this country,” Als said.