historic photo of Toni Morrison writing in her office

Crystal Williams on Toni Morrison’s Memo

RISD’s president reflects on “Toni Morrison’s Memo on Angela Davis” and the author’s advocacy for Black creatives.

Most of us know Toni Morrison as one of the 20th century’s most esteemed writers. She was also a transformational editor. During her time working for Random House, she wrote an internal rebuttal to prepublication editorial input regarding Angela Davis’s autobiographical manuscript. Morrison, with “Morrisonian precision,” admonished the suggested editorial changes as a desire for trite tropes about Black life, and an attempt to obscure Davis’s reality, in service of appeasing the reader’s desire for palatability and their inability to imagine Black inner life as profoundly differing from their conception of it. 

Today, “Toni Morrison’s Memo on Angela Davis” is part of Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library collection. What strikes me as important for us in 2022 is  that so many of her arguments remain relevant. Things have changed but not nearly enough, and our artists and designers—and, in turn, our art and design—suffer for it. I wonder what we would gain if the historical and contemporary impact of the white gaze on the production of Black and Brown artists were utterly blunted—not just for some creatives, but for all. I’ve also been thinking about Morrison’s advocacy. “Wow,” I think to myself as a leader, “stand in that light.”

black and white portrait of Crystal Williams

As Rhode Island School of Design’s 18th president, Crystal Williams is helping drive meaningful change centered on expanding inclusion, equity, and access to enhance a genuinely rich learning environment. In addition to her more than two decades of higher education experience, she is an award-winning poet and essayist and has published four collections of poems.

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