Friday, July 25, 2008

The Forced Poetics of Black (Feminist) Publishing: Toni Morrison as Editor

This is the text of an essay my sista Zach is reading outloud on my behalf at the Toni Morrison Society Conference this weekend in Charleston, SC.


Think about it. Have you ever had a chosen sister so who could co-write you a dictionary for the secret language of yes? Someone who lives in the growing part of your heart, reciprocally, so if I’m in Durham, she’s home, and if she’s talking to you I’m in your face? A sister true, so honest, so open and priceless that your brainwaves match her breath control even in front of strangers? Did you know it was possible to enjoy a faith that exceeds the limits of one body, because look. It’s happening. Now.

(Please email Alexis Pauline Gumbs at with feedback or inquiries about this paper. And don’t blame the messenger for any shortcomings.)


May we open with an artifact?

On October 27th 1975 Toni Morrison wrote a letter to June Jordan, the poet, on behalf of Random House, the publishing company, in regards to the possibility of publishing her poems:

“The answer they gave was ‘we would prefer her prose---will do poetry if we must.’ Now I would tell them to shove it if that were me—and place my poetry where it was received with glee. But I am not you. Nor am I a poet.”

Toni Morrison is not a poet. One thing that Toni Morrison learned in her many years working for New York City’s Random House publishing company was that the economy of publishing in the United States was in no way random. Especially not when it came to race. Despite her intimate knowledge of the constraints of the mainstream publishing, as an editor Toni Morrison made miracles. She words that were never meant to survive a way through to the future. Many of these have been the words I needed to survive up to this moment. The Library of America edition of James Baldwin’s Collected Essays, Toni Cade Bambara’s post-humously published novel (These Bones Are Not My Child) and short stories (Dream Sightings and Rescue Mission). It was Morrison, before she even published her own first novel, who pushed Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker into print. Often the difference between whether a particular book is or is not is print is literally whether or not Toni Morrison got involved. Without the diligence, strategy and vision of Toni Morrison there is no reason to think the category “Black Women Writers” would be teachable or even imaginable in the literary field.

Sometimes the depth and tactility of the worlds Toni Morrison creates in her novels lead me to believe that she is god. Such a conclusion would be unfair, to Morrison and to the rest of us, but it is fair to assert that Toni Morrison is and has been a major force in the world of black women’s publishing, and black publishing generally in the United States. This paper uses Morrison’s role as a key figure to focus an examination of two broad problems in the project black publishing oriented toward freedom: the problem of poetry and the problem of profit.


(Black) Poetry is a problem in the American publishing market. (Publishing is a problem in the black market of poetry.) So I find Martinican theorist Edouard Glissant’s concept of forced poetics a useful analytic through which to examine the problem of poetry in the American market. For Glissant, the dilemma of the situation of forced poetics is a result of oppression. Everything the oppressed person says, in the language of their oppression, reproduces the situation of oppression because it comes from that same situation. Poetic right? In other words nothing we say is actually free from oppression, because we who are speaking are still oppressed. Even our mouths, our hands and the words we choose to toss towards one another.

I would argue that on the level of publishing, within a market, this is even more pervasive. How, in a capitalist market could you possibly publish something that does not consent to a capitalist system (even while appearing not to)? How in a dominant society that presumes and benefits from the unfreedom of black people could you publish poems by or for free black people?

June Jordan, the same difficult to publish poet we began with, had some ideas about this problem. In her essay “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnett for Phillis Wheatley” June Jordan illustrates the paradox thusly

“A poet is somebody free. A poet is someone at home.

How should there be Black poets in America?”

Elaborating on the impossibility of black poetry in a country that enforces illiteracy and homelessness for black people, June Jordan describes the existence of black woman poet Phillis Wheatley as a miracle. And if publishing a book of poems as a slave was difficult, Jordan mentions Wheatley’s lost second book of poems to assert that it would have been even harder to publish the poems of an independent black woman than to publish the poems of a slave.

Jordan says “I believe no one would have published the poetry of Black Phillis Wheatley, that grown woman who stayed with her chosen Black man....From there we would hear from an independent Black woman poet in America.

Can you imagine that in, 1775?

Can you imagine that today?”

What is June Jordan suggesting? Hold this in your imagination for a moment because I think it might be true.

The poems of the enslaved are easier to sell than the poems of the free.

And that’s if you can sell poetry at all. In Toni Morrison’s letter to June Jordan, the poet, she explained that the rejection of June Jordan, the poet, as a poet by the very strategic Random House was based on (quote) “a rudimentary capitalistic principle” prose is a commodity that can be sold, poetry, is something else. I agree with Random House on the distinction that they make between narrative form and poetry. Stories, novels and essayys as mind-expanding, affirming transformative and beautiful as they may be when in the hands of someone like Toni Morrison are still, contained when compared with poetry. Sylvia Wynter (yet another Caribbean theorist) defines the “poetic” as the way we create a world by trying and failing to describe a human relationship to an environment. Poetry is an unwieldy product because it never quite stops being a process. Poetry, as Sylvia Wynter defines it, is dangerous to capital because it challenges the presumption that human beings are related to each other and to their environment through a means of production, and through access to commodities. Poetry, thus defined, says maybe I’m related to you through a process of creation. Maybe we can’t buy or sell each other, maybe the fundamental shape of our relationship is the way my words fit in your mouth. Or vice versa. Who is Phillis Wheatley? What is black poetry after slavery?

How do you sell poetry by poets if a poet is a person not for sale?


And who would you sell that poetry to anyway? The problem of profit in the mainstream publishing market is a primary determining factor in which books stay in print and which words become inaccessible to the future. How then, could one possibly be accountable to an audience of the rare, marginalized, silenced, undertaught, criminalized people we love? To be blunt: Is it possible to publish anything on a widescale in the United States that is not ultimately for white people with access to education and disposable book-buying money? Who cares if I have something to say to you?

In 1977 only two years after Toni Morrison’s realist letter to the poet June Jordan, the two writers were part of a New York based group of black women writers called the “Sisterhood” along with Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange and many others. These women envisioned an autonomous black women’s publishing initiative that would have been called Kizzy Enterprises. Kizzy Enterprises, which Ntozake Shange offered to house, in her house was intended to be a not for profit black publishing enterprise, which would keep important black texts in print, publish a periodical targetted to the black working masses and be supported, not by sales, but by the contributions of like-minded people. According to the minutes taken in the Sisterhood planning meetings for Kizzy Enterprises Toni Morrison made it very clear that none of the plans for Kizzy should be mentioned to Random House. Evidently Morrison understood black non-market publishing to incompatible with a mainstream publishing market in which she was still struggling to support black women writers. In the end Kizzy Enterprises was never born. A friend of ours asked Ntozake Shange about it the other day and she barely remembers the idea. I would never have known about it if June Jordan hadn’t kept the meeting minutes and if Harvard hadn’t kept June Jordan’s files. Kizzy remains an idea haunting the black presence in the literary market which remains determined by mainstream publishing interests.1

Somethings are never meant to survive. And sometimes they do. Because look at what is happening now. I choose to read this history as evidence that autonomous publishing oriented towards freedom is something that is still making. Among other reasons, this is because despite what she has to say, Toni Morrison is a poet.

May we close with an artifact?

In May 1985 Toni Morrison wrote an essay for the 15th anniversary issues of Essence Magazine. Cheryll Y. Greene, a genius and warrior who fought to publish towards freedom in the very confining pages of this black fashion and beauty magazine, created a Celebration of Black Womanhood, for this anniversary issue of Essence and asked Toni Morrison to provide some last words. Toni Morrison the poet addressed June Jordan retroactively and all of us with these last words and now we address her too:

“You had this canny ability to shape an untenable reality, mold it, sing it, reduce it to its manageable, transforming essence, which is a knowing so deep it’s like a secret. In your silence, enforced or chosen, lay not only eloquence but discourse so devastating that “civilization” could not risk engaging in it lest it lose the ground it stomped. All claims to prescience disintegrate when and where that discourse takes place. When you say “No” or “Yes” or “This and not that,” change itself changes.”

Thank you.



this was fucking gorgeous and i thank you sincerely for sharing this.

Beth said...

wow and thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you and love (always & deeper) wow yeah -b

Tara said...

So amazing! I was just reading about "The Sisterhood" in "The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker" edited by Rudolph P. Byrd. This is an eloquent post.

lex said...

Oh good looking out!!! I still have to read that!!!

lex said...

Oh good looking out!!! I still have to read that!!!