The Time a Legend-to-Be Helped an Icon Produce an Autobiography
By Andrew Sanger
When Random House scored the rights to Muhammad Ali’s autobiography in 1970, they knew they had struck gold. At that time, Ali held an unparalleled level of worldwide fame (or infamy, considering his conflicts with the U.S. government) and was already widely thought of as one of the greatest athletes of all time. The book was a surefire hit. All Random House had to do was find the right editor to help pull the project together.
Initially, the job fell to Charles Harris, a pioneer in publishing works by Black authors and the man who had secured Ali’s book contract in the first place. However, Harris decided to leave his position at Random House to help jump start the country’s first Black university press at Howard University. The job fell instead to Chloe Ardelia Wofford. Wofford had recently published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, under the pseudonym Toni Morrison.
Before arriving at Random House, Morrison received her B.A. from Howard University, M.A. from Cornell, and had taught writing at Howard and Texas Southern University for nearly ten years. She joined Random House’s team in 1965 as the first Black woman to hold a senior editing position in the fiction department. Despite her fiction background, the publishing house decided that Morrison would be the best woman for the job when it came to Ali’s book.
The autobiography was to be a compilation of Ali’s memories and musings on his life and career, as collected and written up by journalist Richard Durham. Unfortunately for Morrison, she had to deal with more than Ali’s unfiltered thoughts. Morrison contended with Ali’s overbearing manager, Jabir Herbert Muhammad, who fought to censor anything that could cast the boxer in a negative light throughout the editing process.
Muhammad also pushed Morrison to include a story in which Ali threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, a tale disputed by many people close to the boxer. Morrison later admitted that she felt intimidated by Muhammad’s efforts to censor or otherwise alter the book but said that she defied him whenever she could.
In his book on Muhammad Ali titled King of the World, writer David Remnick interviewed Morrison on her experience working with the heavyweight champion. His biggest question was why she took the project in the first place. Sports writing has historically fallen pretty far from the realm of serious literary fiction, which Morrison is best known for, but it was less the sport than the man which grabbed her interest.
“I don’t like boxing,” Morrison told Remnick. “But he was a thing apart. His grace was almost appalling.”
Later in the interview, Morrison reflected on her and Ali’s relationship. “Ali was sort of flirtatious, like a boy almost,” Morrison said. “When I first met him, he said, ‘You know, we can have three wives.’ I said, ‘Please! I’m old enough to be your mama!’”
The finished book hit shelves in 1975 under the title The Greatest: My Own Story. It was, as predicted, a major seller. But what set the autobiography apart from other great sports titles was how Morrison helped funnel Ali’s acute sense of social justice into the prose.
As an unlikely duo, Morrison and Ali were able to weave their talents together to produce a product that reached far beyond the unfortunately small readership of socially-conscious literary fiction. From Ali’s religious conversion to Islam to his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, Morrison did her best to make sure the book pulled no punches when it came to accurately presenting Ali’s signature outspoken, boastful, yet intelligent personality.
It wasn’t too long after The Greatest came out that Morrison’s name became as big as Ali’s. She cemented her legacy by publishing her 1987 novel, Beloved, routinely listed as one of American writing’s most outstanding achievements. Only a short time after that, in 1993, Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Morrison worked as an editor at Random House for nineteen years. She spent the rest of her life writing and teaching until she passed away in 2019 at 88. Her legacy is massive, and her work will undoubtedly be read, studied, reread, and admired for generations.
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- “Toni Morrison’s work with Muhammad Ali foretold a gift for chronicling the black experience.” Kevin B. Blackistone. The Washington Post. Aug. 9, 2019.
- “Toni Morrison and the Ghosts in the House.” Hilton Als. The New Yorker. Oct. 20, 2003.
- “Remembering Toni Morrison, a Trailblazing Editor.” Radhika Jones. Aug. 8, 2019.
- “Toni Morrison.” The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Originally published at https://bidwellhollow.substack.com.