Navigating a white male world wasn’t threatening. It wasn’t even interesting. I knew more than them. — Toni Morrison
TONI MORRISON—THE PIECES I AM—the new documentary by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, now in theaters—is a joyous, exhilarating look at the life and work of a great American author, teacher, and editor who has always been happy to be labeled a “black writer,” a “woman writer.”
“I didn’t want to speak for black people. I wanted to speak to, and among…”
And it is shocking, in Greenfield-Sanders documentary, to come across such benighted critical voices as, say, Sara Blackburn’s in 1973, in America’s supposedly liberal newspaper of record:
“Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”*
Removing the white male gaze as the dominant voice is a key element of Morrison’s practice, and she doesn’t hesitate calling out black writers who seemed to write to white audiences. Citing Ralph Ellison, she asks, “The Invisible Man? Invisible to whom?”
As a senior editor at Random House throughout the 1970s, Morrison discovered and championed books by Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Bettie Wysor (author of The Lesbian Myth). She also persuaded Angela Davis—then in her late twenties—to write her autobiography.
“Eventually I learned that the book she wanted to publish was the book I wanted to write… She helped me access my imagination in ways I continue to be grateful for today.” — Angela Davis
Song of Solomon (1977) was Morrison’s first best seller, and five years later she left her editor’s post to devote her time to writing and teaching. She’s professor emeritus at Princeton University, and often told her students, “I know you’ve been told, ‘write what you know.’ I don’t want you to do that. You don’t know anything.”
TONI MORRISON—THE PIECES I AM features interviews with Morrison’s friends and colleagues—Walter Mosley, Farah Griffin, Fran Lebowitz, Paula Giddings, Hilton Als, Sonia Sanchez, editor Robert Gottlieb, and Davis—as well as a rich selection of contemporary artwork by, among others, Mickalene Thomas, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, David Hammons, and Rashid Johnson.
TONI MORRISON—THE PIECES I AM
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*Sara Blackburn, review of Sula, by Toni Morrison, New York Times, December 30, 1973.
From top: Toni Morrison, photograph from Toni Morrrison—The Pieces I Am; Morrison, photograph courtesy and © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders; Morrison with her sons Ford Morrison (left) and Slade Morrison in 1978, photograph by Jack Mitchell, Getty Images; poster courtesy Magnolia Pictures; Morrison and Greenfield-Sanders, photograph courtesy and © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Images courtesy and © the author, the photographers, and Magnolia Pictures.