restricted access Reading The Black Book: Between the Lines of History
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Reading The Black Book:
Between the Lines of History

When ‘The Black Book’ was Published in 1974, with Toni Morrison as its in-house editor, it was an immediate commercial and critical success. With the hardcover priced at $15.00 and the paperback at $5.95, an eye-catching cover that echoed the design of a quilt, and an introduction by Bill Cosby, it was aggressively marketed to a mass audience. Cosby recorded five radio commercials: 160 press kits containing the book, the Cosby tapes and scripts, and quotes from an array of black artists and celebrities (including Muhammad Ali, B. B. King, Gwendolyn Brooks, Angela Davis, Alex Haley, Max Roach, and Alice Walker) were mailed to disk jockeys at black-oriented radio stations across the country. A “Black Book” record was cut, with lyrics based on the poem—written by but not attributed to Morrison—that graced the back cover. Morrison made numerous media appearances to promote the book. Parties were held in Chicago and New York; the star-studded gala at Charles Gallery, a restaurant on Harlem’s 125th Street, on 4 March 1974 was widely reported by local media, including television, radio, and newspapers. The effort paid off: on 15 April 1974, The Black Book was number nine on The New York Times trade paperback best seller list (Random Box 1146).

Co-edited by collectors Middleton Harris, Morris Levitt, and Roger Furman, the self-described “scrapbook” of African American history, won critical acclaim. In a competitive season, The Black Book garnered a nomination for the 1975 National Book Award in the Contemporary Affairs category, alongside Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Pirsig’s counterculture classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Woodward and Carl [End Page 105] Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, and Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, which won the award. In recognition of its stunning design, The Black Book also received an award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Several critics were effusive: Newsweek reviewer Margo Jefferson found that, like the best histories, “it informs, corrects and even inspires”; she also noted that the material required “a reader’s interpretation” (104). Donald Bogle in a review, “The Whole Black Catalogue,” whose title riffed on The Whole Earth Catalogue (1968), one of the era’s most successful publishing ventures, summed up The Black Book as “oversized, rambling, ambitious, and stubbornly brilliant.” It was, he averred, “much too dazzling and personal to sit unread on anyone’s table.” Doris Grumbach, the regular reviewer for The New Republic, made an apt judgment and an accurate prediction: “the book is fine and, like its subject, I suspect will endure” (31). The Black Book went through twelve printings, and a 35th anniversary edition was issued in 2009.1

The Black Book documents the history of African Americans through an array of verbal and visual texts: posters, newspaper articles, letters, speeches, bills of sale, spirituals and blues, work songs and folk tales, children’s rhymes, drawings, advertisements, photographs (both family pictures and documentary photographs of quilts, tools, furniture, and other artifacts), recipes, patent applications, sheet music, playbills and movie stills, formulas for conjure, and dream interpretations. The past unwinds in what historian Elsa Barkley Brown might describe as a polyrhythmic record that shifts abruptly from triumph to tragedy, degradation to betrayal, from the trivial to the profound. Like its quilt-like cover, the entire book offers a visual metaphor for history as “everybody talking at once” (85). It reproduces hand-written letters and pages from tax ledgers and family Bibles. Facsimiles of published material are produced in a range of fonts, as are the columns of factoids composed by the editors. The Black Book reproduces newspaper accounts of lynchings that capture the peculiar confluence of barbarism and propriety attendant to the public spectacles. One front-page article describing a lynching in Pennsylvania notes the deference shown the white women in attendance, as white men “stepped back even as the women came forward and led them to points of vantage where they could obtain the best view...