Age hasn’t dimmed the fire in Toni Morrison, 84. The unwavering voice of black America talks about her latest novel and what it will take for racism to be a thing of the past

Toni Morrison is, without a doubt, a world-class novelist. Her work as an editor, however, has received much less attention. Morrison worked at Random House for 20 years, leaving in 1983, just before she set out to write her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved.

At her apartment in lower Manhattan, I ask her about the ways in which American literature has changed, and she volunteers that she “had something to do with that”. But she is not referring to her own fiction. “I said, I can’t march, I have small children,” she tells me. “I’m not the marching type anyway. So when I went into publishing, I thought, the best I can do is to publish the works of those who are out there – like Angela Davis, Huey Newton – and the literature. And let it be edited by someone who understands the language, and understands the culture.”

One of the books Morrison published in those Random House years was the autobiography of Muhammad Ali. The Greatest: My Own Story came out in 1975 and was deemed to be, in one critic’s estimation, “the greatest contribution to sports literature perhaps ever”. Things between Morrison and Ali weren’t always easy. “Ali wouldn’t even answer my questions,” she says. “I’d be in a room full of guys. They’d say, ‘Oh my God, look at his hands. Ooh. And look at his neck. Ooh…’ They weren’t doing anything but saying, ‘We love you’.” If she asked Ali a question, he would reply to one of the men.

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