UC Santa Cruz’s Dan White sat down separately with Angela Davis and Toni Morrison and put together one gem of an interview about their nearly five decades of friendship. Before she earned her own place in the American canon, Morrison worked as an editor at Random House for 20 years and edited a stable of books by black writers, including Davis’ 1974 autobiography. The interview touches on everything from Morrison’s distaste for that era’s black memoirs to the “white gaze” and the importance of goodness in literature. But these thoughts from Davis on Morrison’s friendship and editing stand out:
To Angela Davis: During her time at Random House, Toni Morrison edited your [autobiography], which was published in 1974. How did that initial connection come about?
AD: She contacted me. I wasn’t so much interested in writing an autobiography. I was very young. I think I was 26 years old. Who writes an autobiography at that age? Also, I wasn’t that interested in writing a book that was focused on a personal trajectory. Of course at that time the paradigm for the autobiography as far as I was concerned was the heroic individual and I certainly did not want to represent myself in that way. But Toni Morrison persuaded me that I could write it the way I wanted to; it could be the story not only of my life but of the movement in which I had become involved, and she was successful.
To Angela Davis: Your autobiography is very cinematic — I’ve read a lot of your more academic work, but this one is constructed like a novel. In the very beginning, you’re trying to get away from the FBI and there is this palpable sense of fear. The reader is right in the middle of a manhunt. I was wondering how much of that comes from the influence of your mentor, Toni Morrison.
AD: The decision to begin the story at the moment when I went underground and then would be arrested was an interesting way of drawing people into a story, the outlines of which they already knew because of course my being placed on the FBI 10 most wanted list was publicized all around the country, all around the world, so yes, there was the use of the kind of cinematic strategy of flashback and this was thanks to input from my editor, Toni Morrison. And I can also say that in learning how to write in that way for her — she did not rewrite things for me, but she asked me questions. She would say, ‘what did the space look like, what was in the room, and how would you describe it?’ It was quite an amazing experience for me to have her as a mentor. My experience with writing was primarily writing about philosophical issues. I really had to learn about how to write something that would produce images in people’s minds that would draw them into a story.
Morrison goes on to offer up some hilarious anecdotes about working as Davis’ handler on her book tour and setting boundaries for people. “People would come up to her, you know: ‘My brother is in prison, and I was wondering could we have a cocktail party (to raise money for him),’ and the thing was, (Davis) would stop and listen, and say, ‘where is he?’, and I would say, ‘Angela, come on!’”