Morrison’s Things: Between History and Memory

by Kinohi Nishikawa

Toni Morrison remains the most influential theorist of the black past in contemporary letters. Since the publication of Beloved and its companion essay “The Site of Memory” in 1987, Morrison has provided the impetus and vocabulary for those wishing to claim that the past is never past but always present. Indeed, the closest thing to a prevailing method in African American literary criticism could be described as the Morrisonian imperative to read how the past haunts the present, making itself known and felt among the living in ways both explicit and subtle. The field’s current keywords—aftermath, afterlife, repetition, and return—reflect that orientation. Christina Sharpe has gone so far as to describe the object of African American criticism as “the ditto ditto in the archives of the present.”[1]

Ironically, what’s been forgotten in this canonization of the Morrison of 1987 is that she began to formulate her engagement with the black past over a decade earlier, in a project for which she served as editor and makeshift curator of objects. In 1974 Random House brought out a book that Morrison had spent 18 months assembling with four collectors of black memorabilia. Though already a twice-published novelist, Morrison used her status as an influential editor at Random House to see the project through. The result was The Black Book: a 200-page, oversized compendium that conveys the story of African and African-descended people in the New World, from the era of colonization, through the age of chattel slavery, and up to the waning days of Jim Crow. “Conveys” because The Black Book does not offer a textual narrative of events. Instead, it relies on pictures—that is, photographic reproductions of specific objects Morrison culled from her collaborators’ collections—to evoke what Sharpe has called the “total climate” of blacks’ experience of transatlantic slavery and its aftermath.[2] The pictures tell their own story, one that is impressionistic rather than authoritative, fragmentary rather than whole. And that is the point. Unlike books written by academic historians, which tend to ascribe a telos to narratives about the past (i.e., from slavery to freedom), Morrison envisioned her work as a “genuine Black history book—one that simply recollected Black Life as lived.”[3] This notion of recollection—of literally re-collecting and figuratively recollecting “Black history”—is the forgotten materialist basis of what Morrison would famously term “rememory” in 1987.

Though a wide body of scholarship has been built up around Morrison, surprisingly little has been written about The Black Book. The oversight is odd since putting the volume together not only launched Morrison’s theorization of the black past but also introduced her to the source material for her best-known work. A nondescript clipping from the February 1856 issue of the American Baptist relates the story of an enslaved woman, Margaret Garner, who tried to kill her young children rather than have them grow up in bondage. Recounted by the Reverend P. S. Bassett, the episode is didactic, highlighting for a white abolitionist readership the impossible decisions enslaved people were compelled to make between freedom and survival. While this story has long been recognized as the inspiration for Beloved, only the critic Cheryl A. Wall has devoted more than passing attention to its place in The Black Book. Yet even she contends that the clipping’s significance lies in the way it prefigures Beloved’s imperative to read the past in the present.[4]  This despite the fact that the excerpt appears early in the book (page 10), when the reading experience is most disorienting, and is easily missed among two densely packed facing pages of clippings and text. Fifteen independent items—some photo-reproduced from original sources, others quoted and set in uniform type—crowd the layout. Smudges and other errors from the copying process further diminish the readability of the text. In the actual composition of The Black Book, nothing makes Garner’s story stand out, which, again, is the point: it is merely one piece of the dizzying puzzle of history.

What was distinctive about Morrison’s engagement with the black past in 1974? How might a historicist obsession with 1987 obscure what she set out to do in The Black Book? I take a first step toward answering these questions in what follows. I propose that The Black Book advances a more contingent and discontinuous view of history than the one usually attributed to Morrison. This view, I argue, owes much to the book’s composition, which is pictorial and iconic rather than textual and discursive. By “flattening” history into a series of decontextualized images, The Black Book encourages glossing, skipping pages, reading out of order, and finding meaning only in visual or “surface” resemblances. These (non-)reading practices are further encouraged by the fact that Morrison does not discriminate when it comes to identifying things that evoke the black past. Examples of black ingenuity and perseverance appear alongside those of racial parody and animus, while handcrafted wares and mass-produced commodities vie for attention in the same span of pages, confusing the distinction between folk and market. In short, The Black Book gives one access to the black past only through an inquisitive perusal—an actual looking at things. Accordingly, its view of history is premised on an awareness that readers’ grounding in the present is far from certain. Not everyone can or will want to engage The Black Book’s arrangement of things. What matters for Morrison, here and in her work to come, is not the fact of recovery but the question of how one re-collects the past at all.

The first thing to note about The Black Book is that it’s chock-full of text. Captions and explanatory notes appear underneath or alongside most pictures. Several types of documents—letters, certificates, applications—naturally feature handwritten or printed text. And newspaper clippings and other text-heavy ephemera take up a lot of space in the book, especially early on. Still, I would maintain that The Black Book’s composition is essentially pictorial insofar as it decouples “understanding” the text from reading it closely. Morrison lends meaning to any given thing by how she associates it with other things—on a single page, over facing pages, or across successive pages. Think of it like reading a museum catalog: the point is to get the gist of its visual organization, not to linger over every word.

At a pictorial level, certain layouts in The Black Book give a fairly coherent impression of the meaning behind the assembled artifacts. One facing-page layout, for example, combines the following: five fugitive slave ads printed in 1790; two undated classifieds, likely from the mid-1800s; W. H. Siebert’s 1896 historical map “‘Underground’ Routes to Canada”; Samuel Rowse’s 1850 lithograph The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia; and an 1857 letter from William Brinkl[e]y, one of Harriet Tubman’s associates in Delaware. All of these things appear under the bold heading “I rode a railroad that had no track.[5] True, the individual pictures are decontextualized (supporting information on the lithograph and Brinkley do not appear in The Black Book), with only Brown’s fugitive plot given an explanatory note. Still, the layout’s overall composition conveys the resolve and resourcefulness of fugitives from slavery as they ran toward freedom, as well as the desperate efforts of white enslavers to retrieve them. Sides are drawn, sympathies are channeled, and the “goal,” Canada, is clearly delineated. In this way, Morrison’s things not only document something called the Underground Railroad; they also evoke, in the present tense, what it would have meant and felt like for an enslaved person to take flight.

Yet the coherence of this particular display is a rarity in The Black Book. Discordant juxtapositions are far more common, such that any impression of historical perspective is immediately undercut with confounding, contingent details. One page, for example, has a small photograph that shows a black woman holding a white infant in her lap. The original caption reads “Slave and Friend.” But printed next to this image are lyrics for “All the Pretty Little Horses,” and underneath both is Morrison’s clarification that the song is “an authentic slave lullaby [that] reveals the bitter feelings of Negro mothers who had to watch over their white charges while neglecting their own children.” Trying to exert a measure of control over the artifact and its description, Morrison inserts another artifact whose narrativization is supposed to guide the reader toward a “correct” reading of the image. Yet the page’s pictorial composition is irreducible to that gesture, for underneath this tableau are antebellum newspaper clippings addressing black westward expansion (one from the New York Tribune, the other from the Liberator) and a maniculed notice prohibiting “the employment of free colored persons on water-craft navigating the rivers of [Arkansas].”[6] What these artifacts have to do with each other from a historical perspective is a mystery. But their visual organization does elicit wonderfully weird associations, as one might detect between the white baby’s hand (clasped over the black woman’s) and the indexical manicule. 

This narratively incoherent but visually abundant mélange is not just a function of single-page compositions. It can be seen in facing-page layouts, as when a handwritten letter by Frederick Douglass defending his right to marry “a lady a few shades lighter in complexion than [himself]” appears directly opposite ledgers that list the human property of black enslaver John C. Stanley. It can be seen in successive pages, as is the case with the 16-page color insert, where minstrel-inspired advertising for commodities such as soap and baking powder gives way to photographs of the folk art and handiwork of enslaved people. And, perhaps most spectacularly, it can be seen on the front cover of the book itself (Figure 1): a riot of color and black-and-white images—36 in all—that practically asks (or begs) the question, What is this “black” in The Black Book?[7]

Figure 1

In earlier versions of this essay, I was tempted to read such confounding pictorial juxtapositions against the grain of Morrison’s intentions for the project. I assumed she had gathered these different things to make them useful to the present, only to find that their recombination failed to do so. I now think this reading is a mistake, an imposition of the way critics historicize Morrison circa 1987 onto her earlier, far more experimental, engagement with the black past. I now believe that the contingency and discontinuity of The Black Book—in short, its refusal to make a teleological narrative available to readers—is its raison d’être. Morrison was well aware that many of the things she had gathered from collections would perplex readers. But rather than force these artifacts into a historical arc, she made their achronicity, or their out-of-timeness, a feature of the book itself. How else can one explain its strange juxtapositions? They were by design, not some unintended consequence of a historicist project.

Morrison said as much in her contemporaneous essays on the project. In them she identified at least two ways in which her work departed from academic historiography. First, it questioned the ideological limitations of historians’ primary research site: the archive. The problem with conventional histories, Morrison implied, was that they were bound to the legitimizing procedures of institutional archives. As such, histories that relied on archives would inevitably reflect the interests and concerns of the powerful, or those deemed worthy of having their effects saved for posterity. By contrast, Morrison wanted The Black Book to give voice to the masses, or “people who had always been viewed only as percentages.” To do that, she turned her attention from scholars to collectors—that is, “people who had the original raw material documenting our life: posters, letters, newspapers, advertising cards, sheet music, photographs, movie frames, books, artifacts and mementos.” Collectors Middleton “Spike” Harris, Morris Levitt, Roger Furman, and Ernest Smith were respected keepers of such “raw material,” and so they became her preferred entry point into the black past. Morrison paid her collaborators the highest compliment she could think of when she said all four possessed “an intense love for black expression and a zest wholly free of academic careerism.”[8]

The second way Morrison departs from historiography followed from the first. By operating at the margins of institutional legitimation, collectors risked being cut off from institutional recognition. It was debatable whether collectors had a legitimate claim to history at all. Doesn’t The Black Book ultimately only reflect what four collectors of varying interests and dispositions had made available to Morrison? The volume’s most outspoken critic, cultural nationalist Kalamu Ya Salaam, made a similar point when he complained, “[T]o throw all of these images and documents together without a text to explain the meaning, context and original intent does not serve to help us truely [sic] understand what our history, our real history of struggle is about.”[9] Yet Morrison would have welcomed the idea that Salaam did not glean “history,” much less a “history of struggle,” from her book. Historians, Morrison wrote, “habitually leave out life lived by everyday people”; in their writing, they seemed more concerned with “defend[ing] a new idea or destroy[ing] and old one.”[10] She wanted The Black Book to convey something messier, murkier, less institutionally recognized about the black experience in the New World. Rather than a history, she aimed to put together a work of memory.

This goal helps explain The Black Book’s artifactual resemblance to a scrapbook. Although the print-heavy layout does suggest a catalog, the variety of pictorial forms—iconic, indexical, textual, and otherwise—makes the volume reminiscent of a collection of ephemera. This perception is lent further credence by the book’s introduction, in which none other than Bill Cosby muses: 

Suppose a three-hundred-year-old black man had decided, oh, say when he was about ten, to keep a scrapbook—a record of what it was like for himself and his people in these United States. He would keep newspaper articles that interested him, old family photos, trading cards, advertisements, letters, handbills, dreambooks, and posters—all sorts of stuff.

“No such man kept such a book,” Cosby observes, before adding, wryly, “But it’s okay—because it’s here, anyway.”[11]As if passed down through time by a mythic ancestor, The Black Book arrives in the contemporary reader’s hands like an anonymous scrapbook. It contains remnants that are random, ephemeral, incomplete—and, precisely because of that, it comes as close as possible to documenting “Black Life as lived.” The illusion being broached here is that of ordinary remembering, or everyday recollection. A scrapbook is indifferent to the sweeps and arcs (much less teloses) of capital “H” history. All it does is keep what an amateur historian decides to set down as worthy of recalling in the moment of composition. This is why when we “read” a scrapbook, we approach it not as a bird’s-eye chronicle but as what Pierre Nora has called a “site of memory” (lieu de mémoire).[12]

Morrison’s commitment to ordinary remembering is so thoroughgoing that her name appears nowhere on or in The Black Book. The collectors are credited with putting the book together, but even their names are absented from the cover. This is by design, of course, as it supports the illusion that the volume is authorless, the product of a collective mythos rather than a single guiding hand. The one decidedly personal indulgence Morrison allows herself is to insert an oval-shaped, black-and-white portrait of her mother, Ramah Wofford, on the front cover and in an illustrated tableau of anonymous subjects’ portraits.[13] Nothing calls attention to her mother’s figure in either of these locations, or indeed to the fact that it is the ghost editor’s mother. Though she stares out at the reader, so do a number of the other figures among whom she is clustered. Thus, Wofford blends into the composition as just another picture in the collection. She is one memory among many.

Since 1987, critics have interpreted Morrisonian memory, or rememory, as Beloved terms it, as a charge to read the past in the present. The ethos of such criticism presumes a standpoint that can identify how contemporary circumstances are but an extension, or repetitive realization, of the past. Yet, having traced Morrison’s theorization of memory back to The Black Book, I think this is only a partially correct reading of her work. Morrison did believe in something like collective memory, a sense of the past that bound people to one another in the present. But she consistently refused an absolute knowledge of the past, one that confirms what we believe we already know (Sharpe’s ditto ditto, for example). Instead, Morrison supposed that people could access collective memory only through fragments, traces, the detritus and hauntings of history. This stuff, for Morrison, possessed its own historical weight and was not assimilable to confident determinations of the past. In making The Black Book, her intention was not to integrate readers into a discourse of “their history” but to confront them with buried memories—things in which they might not even recognize themselves.[14]

It may be fitting that, as I revised this essay for publication, The Black Book went out of and came back into print. The original 1974 edition had long been out of print, but the 2009 35th anniversary edition followed course in the late 2010s. That second disappearance turned The Black Book into something like one of the things it reproduces—a relic of the past, a memory among other memories. For a period, copies of the 2009 edition cost upwards of $150, and as much as $2,500, from online and antiquarian booksellers. Yet The Black Book’s obsolescence was short-lived. With the passing of Morrison in 2018 there came renewed demand for her work, including this long-overlooked book. 

The most recent edition (2019) is an artifact of our times. An image of the original cover, showing noticeable shelfwear, is set within a gray frame. The look approximates a well-worn family photo, as if the book itself is being memorialized. Morrison’s name appears front and top-center, her behind-the-scenes work on the project now highlighted in yellow. Yet there is one element that is ghosted from the previous editions: Bill Cosby’s introduction. The reasons for this are obvious, even though the exclusion is unannounced in the text. That the change was made at all—silently, posthumously—confirms Morrison’s intuition that history is not ditto ditto but contingent and discontinuous. Reading The Black Book today is not the same as reading it in 1974, and that is the abiding point. 

[1] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 82. Sharpe’s application of “ditto ditto” to the concept of the archive is adapted from her reading of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008).

[2] Sharpe, 104-5.

[3] Toni Morrison, “Behind the Making of The Black Book,” Black World, February 1974, 89.

[4] Cheryl A. Wall, “Reading The Black Book: Between the Lines of History,” Arizona Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2012): 105-30.

[5] Middleton Harris, et al., The Black Book (New York: Random House, 1974), 68-69.

[6] Ibid., 65.

[7] Ibid., 24-25, 89-104, front cover. The last part of this paragraph riffs on Stuart Hall’s field-shaping essay, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?,” in Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 21-33.

[8] Toni Morrison, “Rediscovering Black History,” New York Times Book Review, August 11, 1974, 16.

[9] Kalamu ya Salaam, review of The Black Book, by Middleton Harris, et al., Black Books Bulletin, 3, no. 1 (1975): 73.

[10] Morrison, “Behind,” 88.

[11] Bill Cosby, “Introduction,” in The Black Book, v.

[12] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 7-24. The subtitle of my essay, and the distinction between history and memory I draw on here, is indebted to this piece.

[13] Harris, front cover, 196-97.

[14] This point about (non-)recognition echoes Christopher Freeburg’s analysis of The Black Book as fostering a “personalized and contingent” black interiority rather than subjecting readers to a predetermined historical script. Christopher Freeburg, Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017), 130.

Kinohi Nishikawa's picture

Kinohi Nishikawa is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in PMLA, Book History, and African American Review, and in the edited collection Post-Soul Satire.

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