During the years that she worked at Random House, she published books by Muhammad Ali, Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, whom she discovered in the 1970s. Jones’s manuscript was so impressive that when Morrison read it for the first time, uppermost in her mind, she once wrote, was “that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.” It was Morrison who helped promote Ali’s book and who once hired members of the Fruit of Islam to work security for him. She also reviewed a biography of Angela Davis for The New York Times in 1972, slamming the author for being “another simpatico white girl who felt she was privy to the secret of how black revolutionaries got that way.”
And when the poet Henry Dumas went to his death, the way so many black boys and men do, it was Morrison, who never had a chance to meet him and published his work posthumously, who sent around a book-party announcement that was part invitation, part consolation, which read: “In 1968, a young black man, Henry Dumas, went through a turnstile at a New York City subway station. A transit cop shot him in the chest and killed him. Circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Before that happened, however, he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read.”
Two years after Dumas’s death, Morrison published her first novel, at 39. In many ways, she had prepared the world for her voice and heralded her arrival with her own editorial work. And yet the story of Pecola Breedlove, a broken black girl who wants blue eyes, was a novel that no one saw coming. Morrison relished unexpectedness. The first edition of “The Bluest Eye” starts Pecola’s story on the cover: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”
Morrison’s work, since she published that first novel, has always delivered a heavy load. Her books are populated by both history and the people who are left out of history: a jealous, mentally ill hairdresser with a sharp knife (“Jazz,” 1992); a man who as a child suckled at his mother’s breast until those in the community found it odd (“Song of Solomon,” 1977); an enslaved woman, who would rather slice her own daughter's neck than let captivity happen to her (“Beloved,” 1987); and a destitute little girl, belly swollen with her father’s child, holding a Shirley Temple cup, desperate to have Temple’s bright blue eyes (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970).