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Book review: “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” by Toni Morrison

In a recent edition of the New York Review of Books, Irish writer Fintan O’Toole writes that the core of Trumpism is his message to followers that they are the real Americans.

With regard to the complaint of Trump and his masses of a “stolen elections,” O’Toole writes:

The concern was not, at heart, that there are bogus votes, but that there are bogus voters, that much of the US is inhabited by counterfeit citizens.  Unlike us, they do not belong; they cannot be among the “we” who get to choose the king.

The flipside of this is the meaning of Trump’s rallies for his disciples. Again, O’Toole:

Whether by being there in the flesh or through experiencing the thrill vicariously on TV or online, they were able to recognize one another, both for who they were and who they were not: the Mexicans, the Muslims, the lame-stream media.

In other words, the members of Trump’s base define themselves, identify themselves, based on who they aren’t.

They can’t be insiders unless there are outsiders.  They can’t be the real Americans unless there are the fake ones.

“What is it for?”

Three decades ago, it was something similar in terms of American literature that Toni Morrison was getting at, first in her three William E. Massey Sr. lectures at Harvard University in 1990 and, two years later, in the book that resulted: Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

Morrison was reacting to generations of literary critics who, in her view, had failed to recognize a key racial component to all American literature from its beginning.  This component was the deeply subtle use of a “fabricated” image of black people as a means of defining white people — not just defining, but, even more, adding stature and status to white people.

She defines this image as “a nonwhite, Africanlike (or Africanist) presence or persona,” something that, in its use in U.S. society, has been called Africanism,

a term for the denotive and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people.

In other words, the white idea of who black people are.  The white way of thinking about black people.  The white definition of black people.

Morrison writes:

What Africanism became for, and how it functioned in, the literary imagination is of paramount interest because it may be possible to discover, through a close look at literary “blackness,” the nature — even the cause — of literary “whiteness.”  What is it for?  What parts do the invention and development of whiteness play in the construction of what is loosely described as “American”?

“Harder and infinitely more rewarding”

Morrison’s goal isn’t to browbeat previous generations of writers for having this racial element, this sort of stereotyping, in their work. Rather, she seeks, in this book, to open the way for “a deeper reading of American literature — a reading not completely available now, not least, I suspect, because of the studied indifference of most literary criticism to such matters.”

This deeper reading is hard work, but, after all, that’s what is required by literature. 

The fullness of, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Moby Dick can only be reached by endeavoring to plumb the work’s many levels of meaning, allusion, and language.  The fullness of a work can only be savored by asking always: Why did the author write it this way?  Why include this character?  Why this scene or that description?

Morrison’s focus on the Africanist presence in literature requires a widening of a reader’s deliberations when asking such questions.  Indeed, she writes:

Thinking about these matters has challenged me as a writer and a reader.  It has made both activities harder and infinitely more rewarding.  It has, in fact, elevated and sharpened the delight I take in the work that literature, under the pressure of racialized societies level on the creative process, manages to do.

Over and over again I am amazed by the treasure trove that American literature is.  How compelling is the study of those writers who take responsibility for all of the values they bring to their art.  How stunning is the achievement of those who have searched for and mined a shareable language for the words to say it.

“Rhetorical acid”

Halfway through her heartfelt and closely reasoned 91-page book, Morrison argues that early American writers were writing of “an imaginative and historical terrain…in large measure shaped by the presence of the racial other.”  Remember, until fairly recently, this literature, early and later, was created by white writers, for the most part, male, and was written for a white audience.

There are those, Morrison notes, who contend that race has nothing to do with the American identity.  But that contention in itself is a racial act, an effort to deny the Africanist presence that is there if one only looks.   Indeed, in a chilling metaphor, Morrison describes such efforts this way:

The world does not become raceless or will not become unracialized by assertion.  The act of enforcing racelessness in literary discourse is itself a racial act.

Pouring rhetorical acid on the fingers of a black hand may indeed destroy the prints, but not the hand.  Besides, what happens in that violent, self-serving act of erasure to the hands, the fingers, the fingerprints of the one who does the pouring?  Do they remain acid free?  The literature itself suggests otherwise.

“The one who does the pouring” — that’s a key concept, and it doesn’t just have to do with efforts to erase the black presence from American literature.  It could also apply to writers who use that presence in their art. 

Natally dead?

Morrison argues that writers who use this pretend Africanist image, refusing to face the realities of black life in America, twist themselves into pretzels and twist their art out of kilter — for example, Willa Cather in her final novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published in 1940.

Many literary scholars consider this novel, written by Cather in her mid-60s, to be a lesser work, even a failure.  Morrison, however, asserts that the problems in the text occur “not because Cather was failing in narrative power, but because of her struggle to address an almost completely buried subject: the interdependent working of power, race, and sexuality in a white woman’s battle for coherence.”

The story centers on Sapphira Colbert, an invalid dependent on the slave woman Till and other slaves.  She fears that her husband wants to or is sleeping with Till’s pretty teen daughter Nancy.  This isn’t true, but Sapphira decides to invite her libertine nephew Martin to visit in the expectation that he will rape Nancy, ruining her as a special sex object. 

Through various convolutions, Sapphira’s own daughter enables Nancy to escape.  Till does nothing to protect Nancy. Morrison explains why:

That condition could only prevail in a slave society where the mistress can count on (and an author can believe the reader does not object to) the complicity of a mother in the seduction and rape of her own daughter.

Because Till’s loyalty to and responsibility for her mistress is so primary, it never occurs and need not occur to Sapphira that Till might be hurt or alarmed by the violence planned for her only child.

That assumption is based on another — that slave women are not mothers; they are “natally dead,” with no obligation to their offspring or their own parents.

Facing “the void of racism”

These are assumptions that, 81 years ago, were acceptable in much of white society — that a black slave would be more loyal to her mistress than to her daughter, that a slave wouldn’t have the sort of family feelings that a white person would.

Cather’s story is based on these assumptions.  The result, though, is that Till and other characters end up acting in un-real ways. Literature is nothing if not an attempt to, in some way, reflect reality.  Till’s lack of maternal feelings and actions make her, and, ultimately, the story, unbelievable.

In the 295-page novel, there is a snippet of ambiguous dialogue that hints at Till’s motherly emotions, but writes Morrison, “It leaps out of the novel’s void and out of the void of historical discourse on slave parent-child relationships and pain.”  It’s an attempt to save her novel from incoherence, from un-reality.  Morrison writes:

Consider the pressures exerted [on Cather] by the subject: the need to portray the faithful salve; the compelling attraction of exploring the possibilities of one woman’s absolute power over the body of another woman; confrontation with an uncontested assumption of the sexual availability of black females; the need to make credible the bottomless devotion of the person on whom Sapphira is totally dependent.

A few pages later, Morrison writes that the “breakdown in the logic and machinery of plot construction” in Sapphira and the Slave Girl points to “the powerful impact race has on narrative — and on narrative strategy.”

The story Cather is telling can’t be told by facing the realities of slavery and racism, and, so, the novel collapses.  Nonetheless, Morrison writes:

In her last novel [Cather] works out and toward the meaning of female betrayal as it faces the void of racism.  She may not have arrived safely, like Nancy, but to her credit she did undertake the dangerous journey.

“Limitless store of love”

Much more successful, Morrison writes, was Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884.

First of all, she asserts that it was and remains essential that Huck’s travel companion be identified as Nigger Jim.  Efforts to bowdlerize the novel by changing Jim’s name and in other ways undercut Twain’s social commentary on race relations in the U.S. at that time, even though the story is set before the Civil War.

It is, Morrison writes, a novel about slavery.  It only makes sense because Jim is a slave.  Yet, unlike Cather, Twain faces that fact head-on.

Two things strike us in this novel: the apparently limitless store of love and compassion the black man has for his white friend and white masters; and his assumption that the whites are indeed what they say they are, superior and adult….

Jim permits his persecutors to torment him, humiliate him, and responds to the torment and humiliation with boundless love.

That sounds pretty adult and superior, doesn’t it?

“Play so painfully”

By contrast, Twain portrays the whites in the novel as savagely scheming or blissfully dopey.  And that goes for the two characters who have been seen as loveable rascals, Huck and Tom Sawyer. 

In one of her most harrowing passages, Morrison writes about the ridiculous efforts and complicated schemes that the boys devise to free Jim — rather than just letting him go and head for his own freedom.

The humiliation that Huck and Tom subject Jim to is baroque, endless, foolish, mind-softening — and it comes after we have experienced Jim as an adult, a caring father and a sensitive man.

If Jim had been a white ex-convict befriended by Huck, the ending could not have been imagined or written: because it would not have been possible for two children to play so painfully with the life of a white man (regardless of his class, education, or fugitiveness) once he had been revealed to us as a moral adult.

“The frontal debate it forces”

The ending of Huckleberry Finn can seem goofy and pointless, buffoonish.  Yet, Morrison argues that, wrapped in its humor and cleverness, the novel is Twain’s refusal to look away from the facts of slavery and racism.  Morrison writes:

It is not what Jim seems that warrants inquiry, but what Mark Twain, Huck, and especially Tom need from him that should solicit our attention.

In that sense the book may indeed be “great” because in its structure, in the hell it puts its readers through at the end, the frontal debate it forces, it stimulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom.

The point of Morrison’s book, which goes into many other examples, and the point of her call for a greater willingness to look at the often-veiled Africanist presence in American literature is the enrichment of the reading experience. 

Approaching literature with this question added to all the other questions a reader must ask can show, for instance, why Cather’s novel went off the rails and why Twain’s has long been, for all its humor, so uncomfortable to read.

It can also show how the black Africanist image has been an element of centuries of American writings and how it has been used to frame and enhance the image of white people.

Literature has to deal with real people.  To the extent that images are substituted — stereotypes — the art is diminished.

Patrick T. Reardon


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