Thirty-five years ago, Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, joined with a team of black memorabilia collectors, helmed by Middleton A. Harris, to assemble what Henry Louis Gates Jr. considers the “ultimate treasure chest of the black experience.” The result is a collection of more than 500 documents, photographs and articles that fashion an imaginative narrative of the African-American journey from slavery to the civil rights movement. There are slave sale receipts, patents by African-American inventors, sheet music for “coon songs,” images of black war heroes and everything in between.
Not long after the release of The Black Book, a New York Times best seller, Morrison received a letter from a prison inmate who asked for two more copies of the book. One was to give to a friend. Another was to throw against the wall “over and over and over.” The copy already in possession was to be held tightly, close to the heart. Morrison writes about this request in a new foreword for the 35th anniversary edition of The Black Book released this week by Random House. The unknown inmate, as Morrison acknowledges, encapsulated how one feels about this scrapbook of our country’s history. It’s beautiful and maddening. It’s necessary and heart-wrenching. It should be a text used in all American History classes, and it should be kept in the homes of Americans everywhere as a reminder and testament. As Morrison writes as eloquently as only she can, “It’s new life is more than a welcome gift; it is a requirement for our national health.”