Morrison and Davis: Radicalizing Autobiography

Morrison and Davis: Radicalizing Autobiography


In June 1972, Toni Morrison flew to California to meet with Angela Davis, the Black Power activist, philosopher, and Communist Party member, who had been released from prison only weeks earlier. Davis had been indicted in connection to Jonathan Jackson’s armed attempt to free his older brother George Jackson from San Quentin State Prison, but all charges against her were dropped. Morrison planned to pitch Davis on writing an autobiography for Random House, where Morrison had edited Black biographies and essay collections by Lucille Clifton, Stokely Carmichael, and Muhammad Ali. But Davis had already left on a speaking tour by the time Morrison arrived. Though they ultimately did work together, the editor would get used to the feeling of racing to catch up with the charismatic radical.

Published in 1974 by Random House and recently reprinted by Haymarket, Angela Davis: An Autobiography offers one of the most remarkable political testimonials of the late 20th century. It took Morrison’s optimism to win over the skeptical Davis, who was busy traveling to the front lines of the US racial struggle in Detroit, Chicago, and New York, where she sometimes addressed crowds from the protection of a bulletproof glass box. As Morrison later said, “Angela is the fiercest woman I have ever met and I come from a long line of fierce women. And I mean fierce literally not academically. Her hatreds are monumental and she has no sense of danger. Sometimes I think she cannot perceive it. She is also incredibly, phenomenally disciplined.”

Yet these qualities also made Davis a reluctant memoirist. For her, memoir stank of the regime of “neoliberal individualism,” the remedy for which could only be to “engage in relentless critique of our centering of the individual.” Could autobiography be anything but bildung, the story of development and education that had been an anchor of colonial literary culture for centuries and historically denied to Black American authors? The prefatory essays Davis wrote over the next 50 years (all three of which are included in the new Haymarket edition) offer a mini archive of her thoughts on the staying power of the text, as well as her changing perspective on some of its claims. The 1988 preface reflects on leaving the Communist Party, while the 2021 preface criticizes the gender essentialism and ableist language of the original text. But each preface, over the decades, recounts the pivotal back-and-forth discussion with Morrison about whether the genre of memoir could be politically redeemed.

Publishing archives rarely document the genesis of a book. Editorial files sometimes preserve pitches sent in by agents or, less often, by authors. Origin stories compiled later are like the memories of first dates: the ragged edges smoothed out; the spark inferred from early drafts and chance encounters, then reconstructed in the negotiations of partnership, revised contracts, interoffice memos, and correspondence with publicists and lawyers before culminating in the inevitable proposal or rejection.

The papers documenting Morrison’s editorial work at Random House are held at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The archives showcase not just Morrison discussing with Davis the meaning of memoir, alongside edits of single phrases, but also Morrison advocating for Davis within the publishing company. Indeed, the archives make clear that Morrison ushered Davis’s story into print by exerting her own force of will, confident that the Autobiography revealed “what it was like to be caught in the arms of American ‘justice.’” Ultimately, the book became a platform for Davis: in Morrison’s papers are dozens of schedules for book talks, publicity tours, and speaking engagements.

The Autobiography was an important success for Random House, in spite of some misgivings among higher-ups about the book’s combative tone, not to mention its political radicalism. These editorial skirmishes came to a head after Davis delivered the full manuscript. At that point, Random House’s partner publisher, Bantam, offered reviews of the Morrison-edited manuscript that were highly critical. The archive at Columbia does not contain precisely what they wrote about the Davis draft, but the reviewers’ suggestions can be surmised from Morrison’s fiery, point-by-point rebuttal.

To the reviewers who complain about “the absence of a real (meaning human and vulnerable) person,” Morrison writes that “like most people this reporter wants to use Angela’s life for some personal reasons.” It is curious, Morrison notes, that a reviewer who would prefer that Davis’s manuscript offer ways to “strengthen myself” would also like her story to be more personal and less political. Moreover, these readers who want more of a self-help book than a political diagnosis of American racism fundamentally misunderstand Davis. According to Morrison, the publishers’ readers see Davis’s polished self-presentation and her “good and pleasant manners” as proof that she is different than the manuscript presents her: more relatable and less serious, more human and less political.

But as the archives make clear, Morrison assures the publisher that they are profoundly mistaken. If they questioned the larger integrity of Davis’s manuscript, Morrison warned, they’d have to find another editor. “How nice it would be,” she added sarcastically, in a comment that reaches across the decades into today, “if Angela were really Jane Fonda and not Jean [sic] d’Arc.”


About five years into her tenure at Random House, Morrison had earned a reputation as a tireless fighter for the authors she represented. In 1977, when poet June Jordan published Things that I do in the Dark: Selected Poems, the acknowledgment included Morrison, “my editor, [who] kept on believing this book into print.”

Morrison’s editing career began in 1965 when she spotted an ad in the New York Review of Books for a position at the textbook company L. W. Singer in Syracuse. Living at the time in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio, Morrison had recently divorced Harold Morrison, an architect she met while teaching at her alma mater, Howard University. She got the job at Singer, purchased soon thereafter by Random House. After relocating to New York, Morrison wrote and published The Bluest Eye (1970) and worked on Sula during the year she collaborated with Davis. In 1980, a couple of years before leaving Random House to write full time, she received a letter from Toni Cade Bambara describing her progress on what would become The Salt Eaters. Bambara wrote: “I more fully appreciate a comment you made/often make about you and writing and time, etc. The short story is a piece of work. The novel is a way of life. It’s devastating. How the hell do you do it, Lady? Stunning. (You are, I mean).”.]

At Random House, a hallmark of Morrison’s editorial paper trail was her “Queries.” Usually a stack of loose-leaf paper with handwritten comments paired with manuscript page numbers, these offer tantalizing hints of passages cut from the final manuscript. Morrison suggests expanding upon the brief mentions of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, that Davis “speak of them in more intimate tones i.e., ‘Harriet Tubman whose great, sad eyes were like balm to the hundreds she . . .’” Neither Davis’s original brief description nor Morrison’s suggested expansions made it into the final manuscript.

The queries can have a challenging tone—in one, Morrison asks why, near the beginning of the book, Davis writes that she is “ashamed” about being afraid, elaborating: “It seems inhuman not to be afraid + childish to regard fear as a defect. Submitting to it is.” Davis’s final text reads:

Outside in the open, entangled in my grief and anger was also fear. A plain and simple fear so overwhelming, and so elemental that the only thing I could compare it to was that sense of engulfment I used to feel as a child when I was left alone in the dark. That indescribable, monstrous thing would be at my back, never quite touching me, but always there ready to attack. When my mother and father asked me what it was that made me so afraid, the words I used to describe this thing sounded ridiculous and stupid. Now with each step, I could feel a presence that I could describe easily. Images of attack kept flashing into my mind, but they were not abstract—they were clear pictures of machine guns breaking out of the darkness, surrounding Helen and me, unleashing fire.

Morrison’s editorial suggestions came in a few different forms: broad comments often embedded in correspondence, pages and pages of “queries” (often requests for additions), and copyedited manuscripts in which Morrison primarily focused on deletions. Among her overall comments for Davis was a list of “overused adjectives,” namely, “strange/strangely, struggle, thoroughly, tremendous, incredible, experience, horror/horrifying, utter.” On the same sheet, covered in Morrison’s elongated cursive, she offers some general stylistic advice, pointing out how often Davis falls into the passive voice (“I found myself” or “I received a shock”). The lists were likely tools for Morrison as well as Davis as they worked together to express the scale and scope of the story without falling into linguistic repetitiveness.

In her work with Gayl Jones on her breakout novel, Corregidora, Morrison said that she admired how the novel aimed at “a large idea,” the history of slavery, and then “brought it down small, and at home, which gives it a universality and a particularity which makes it extraordinary.” Morrison focused on achieving a consistent style, even amid the complexity of Jones’s multivoiced prose, textured with songs and snatches of overheard conversation. She asked Jones to “first of all, get Ursa’s language range defined. She moves from things like ‘I seen the way’ and ‘Ima walk out’ to ‘we’ve too much anger for each other’ and ‘what have I engendered?’”

Both Morrison and Jones, who was a PhD student at the time, wanted to clear out the overtly literary language—or even worse, the language of literary criticism—to make room for the characters’ voices. Even after rounds of edits, Morrison didn’t fully trust herself to catch the tics of the highly educated. So in a note to the copyeditor clipped to the final manuscript, she asked them to look out for “lapses into ‘literary’ language.”

But language wasn’t the first concern for the Autobiography; Davis remembers her early drafts as “primarily writing about philosophical issues.” Working with Morrison helped her “learn about how to write something that would produce images in people’s minds that would draw them into a story.” Davis calls this a “cinematic strategy,” though Morrison’s editorial suggestions ask for more detail and less distance. Rounds of marked-up Autobiography manuscripts are heavy with Morrison’s green-penciled efforts to slim down the philosophical assessments and retrospective conclusions.

For example, Morrison eliminates entirely Davis’s assessment of the Birmingham middle school history textbooks (crossing out “I decided that it was going to be difficult to believe anything that was written in those books which were clearly written in accordance with the dictates of racism”) but preserves Davis’s disbelief, as a 12-year-old, at hearing a teacher interpret gospel music as praise for slavery.  The deletions chip away at Davis’s analytic defense of communism, allowing the youthful shock of recognition when she encounters Marx as a high school student to come through. Morrison’s edits cluster around critical moments in Davis’s political formation: her move from Birmingham to New York to attend high school at the experimental Little Red School House; her first, transformative encounter with The Communist Manifesto; her arrival in California after studying in Germany; cruising the streets of San Diego in a 1958 Buick, trying to figure out her way into the West Coast movement.

The final text achieves a sense of forward propulsion that feels tailored to the indefatigable Davis: “I was like an explorer who returns to his homeland after many years, with precious bounty and no one to give it to. I believed my energy, my commitment, my convictions were the treasure I had accumulated, and I looked high and low for a way to spend it. I roamed the campus, examined the bulletin boards, read the newspapers, talked to everyone who might know: Where are my people?”

Morrison ushered Davis’s story into print by exerting her own force of will, confident that the “Autobiography” revealed “what it was like to be caught in the arms of American ‘justice.’”

The tension between vernacular realism and “literary” style drove the collaboration of Black author and Black editor, a process whose autonomy was encumbered by the environment of 1970s commercial publishing. The proposed outline of Davis’s book sketched a chronological order for the narrative, beginning with her childhood in Birmingham and charting her schooling and activism across various settings: New York, Brandeis, international youth trips, graduate school, and the Communist Party in California. That structure would prove to be a challenge. Morrison later reminded her boss, Jim Silberman, that “when the manuscript first arrived I said it would be difficult to work with an author who has no vanity and who is completely uninterested in herself,” before adding wryly, “I gather we are to develop this vanity some.”

The final manuscript of the Autobiography is more like a novel but also less like the chronology of personal formation than was proposed. It begins with Davis going underground and “making myself unavailable to the FBI,” and recounts her flight from California and life as a fugitive prior to her arrest. The opening chapters—a section of the Autobiography called “Nets”—foreground the law, the prison, and Davis’s efforts to connect with other prisoners. She smuggles in copies of George Jackson’s book of letters, Soledad Brother, for the prison library; scrambles to organize a legal team; participates in street protests outside on Sixth Avenue; and fights solitary confinement (instituted to prevent Communist contamination of the other inmates). Only midway into the book does the narrative return to her childhood in Birmingham.

Reorganizing the story in this way met Davis’s demands to write a political autobiography, an emphasis that sparked dissatisfaction among the larger publishing team. The Autobiography was jointly published by Random House and Bantam Books. Bantam, best known for its classic reprints, paperbacks, and genre fiction, was also venturing into political titles, publishing Protest: Man Against Society, an anthology of protest literature, and Jackson’s Soledad Brother, a landmark work of radical criticism for which Greg Armstrong held a champagne publishing party at the gates of San Quentin prison. The joint contract specified that costs and profit would be split down the middle, but Random House would take on editorial responsibilities, which occasionally put Morrison in a tough position between an author who wanted a decisively political autobiography and editorial staff who preferred a more personal, “human” memoir. (If Davis had published a second book, Bantam would have taken the editorial lead.)

It was Bantam’s review process that produced such harsh critiques of the early manuscripts, which, though absent from the archives, we can surmise from the fierce defense Morrison offered. This showcased her editorial skill as not just a reader but also an advocate. In notes to Bantam, Morrison portrays Davis as an unyielding political combatant, someone possessed of a degree of courage that Morrison admires and finds alarming.

When she tells Silberman, “I would like to describe to you the ways in which she has risked not only her life but mine as well,” Morrison seems surprised about Davis’s willingness to put herself on the line and to assume others wanted to do so, without asking. Morrison goes on to recount how she was transported to the front lines of the fight against everyday racism simply by moving through space with Davis:

I was in a brawl with her at an airport just a few weeks ago—a political brawl with a white man who spoke unkindly to a black woman Angela didn’t even know. She walked some distance to get into the battle before I could bat an eye. The brawl stopped not when the police were called but when the white man ran away. She risks her life easily—athletically she moves always toward feats that could end in death.

Morrison can’t explain Davis, nor would she want to—that is part of what incenses her about the Bantam readers’ report—but she does understand that the author’s readiness to risk bodily harm and social stigma is unusual. Davis, Morrison wrote, is an “almost totally political person” who does not “tuck her politics away. Never. Not even in her dreams. Not in the bathtub. Not on the toilet. Not anywhere.”

The decision for a reader, Morrison admits, is difficult. This uncompromising character is either inimitably heroic or simply unbelievable. This book was the kind of text Morrison had envisioned since the beginning.


In a neatly typed letter from June 1972, Morrison pitched to Davis the kind of book she planned for the activist to write. Morrison envisions “a non-book in the truest sense—that is to say—it would never be confined to its covers.” “The book, like its author,” she wrote to Davis, “would be both the theory and the thing, the idea and its manifestation. It would be so powerful—it boggles the mind.”

Having promised this to Davis, at publication, Morrison drew on her social and professional networks to make the launch a cultural and literary event. Morrison’s editorial papers preserve a letter she drafted to send to dozens of Black professional organizations (one of the surviving copies is addressed to the president of a medical association), asking them to promote the book, host a reading group, or purchase copies.

The partnership with Bantam facilitated overseas distribution, and Davis went on packed tours of Scandinavia, France, and the UK. Making the text available to a Russian audience was important to her, so Bantam had the text translated into Russian (to check the translation, Random House had the text partly translated back into English and approved by Davis and Morrison). The guest list for the release party covers nearly a dozen sheets of lined notebook paper. Morrison rented Automation House, an art gallery on the east side of Central Park, and in the run-up to the launch, left herself handwritten notes to call Chinua Achebe and double check June Jordan’s RSVP.

In 2010, Morrison and Davis reunited at the New York Public Library, where they had been invited to talk about the importance of libraries to American society. Together they traded stories about banned books. Davis recounted how she smuggled Soledad Brother into the House of D; Morrison recalled the moment she learned that Paradise had been struck from the Texas prison libraries. Both spoke frequently about the joy of working on the Autobiography together, though rarely of the more difficult aspects of the process: the Bantam review, the heavy publicity demands put on Davis during the US and international book tours, and the heavy labor of editing.

Watching a recording of the event recently on YouTube, I was reminded of something Arjun Appadurai once wrote: “The archive is … a tool for the work of collective memory.” Davis and Morrison, each at the height of their imaginative powers, came together during a period of censorship and cultural erasure and left behind an astonishing archive of memory making and collaborative literary practice. They reimagined the revolutionary tract through the lens of Morrison’s prodigious novelistic consciousness. And they practiced a form of cultural labor in which art and politics refine and sharpen each other, rather than dimly approximating each other’s complexity. As Morrison foretold in her 1972 letter pitching the book to Davis, “Working together would be fantastic, I’m sure, and the end result glorious.” icon

Featured image: Angela Davis, half-length portrait, with “x” markings that indicate the photographer’s or editor’s selection of a photo for printing (1974). Photograph by Bernard Gotfryd / Library of Congress



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