Toni Morrison: White Cultural Achievement Is Built on the Backs of Black People

This 1992 review of Morrison’s Playing in the Dark shows how the renowned author interrogated myths of white superiority in American literature.

William E. Cain August 6, 2019

Toni Morrison in Milan, Italy, on January 30, 2017. (Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

In April, 1992, In These Times pub­lished this review of Toni Mor­rison’s Play­ing in The Dark: White­ness and the Lit­er­ary Imag­i­na­tion. Mor­ri­son, one of the giants of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, died on Mon­day, August 5, 2019. She was 88 years old.

The author studies the manner in which white writers represent "blackness."

Toni Mor­ri­son, author of Beloved and one of this nation’s fore­most nov­el­ists, has writ­ten a pas­sion­ate book about the African­ist” pres­ence in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. She fas­tens on a cru­cial fea­ture of books by white writ­ers: How do they rep­re­sent black­ness,” and how does this, in turn, explain and inter­sect with their rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Amer­i­can white­ness”?

Mor­ri­son urges that a new crit­i­cal dis­course be devised to appraise the white lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion, a dis­course that shifts atten­tion from the racial object to the racial sub­ject; from the described and imag­ined to the describers and imag­in­ers; from the serv­ing to the served.”

Mor­ri­son empha­sizes that she isn’t sim­ply refer­ring to white writ­ers’ atti­tudes” toward race. She is explor­ing some­thing more sub­tle and com­plex — the man­ner in which white writ­ers use black char­ac­ters, as well as metaphors of black­ness, to define racial dif­fer­ences, and, fur­ther­more, to cir­cu­late myths of white supe­ri­or­i­ty and mas­culin­i­ty, as well as cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal power.

Slav­ery as nar­ra­tive: Race, Mor­ri­son states, gov­erns the think­ing of white Amer­i­cans, yet lit­er­ary crit­ics and teach­ers not only mar­gin­al­ize or shun books by African-Amer­i­cans but also man­age not to see mean­ing in the thun­der­ous, the­atri­cal pres­ence of black sur­ro­ga­cy — an inform­ing, sta­bi­liz­ing and dis­turb­ing ele­ment — in the lit­er­a­ture they do study.” As though it were fat­ed to invis­i­bil­i­ty, black­ness eludes them, even in the texts they have can­on­ized and scru­ti­nized with rapt intensity.

Black slav­ery,” says Mor­ri­son with pierc­ing iron­ic force, enriched the coun­try’s cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties: for in the con­struc­tion of black­ness and enslave­ment could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dra­mat­ic polar­i­ty cre­at­ed by skin col­or, the pro­jec­tion of the not-me.”

Her stun­ning point is that Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and, indeed, Amer­i­ca as a polit­i­cal body, came into exis­tence because of the pun­ish­ing real­i­ties of black slav­ery and oppres­sion. This is the basis for white free­dom and cul­tur­al achievement.

Mor­ri­son notes that none of the famil­iar clas­sics of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture — not even Uncle Tom’s Cab­in—was writ­ten for African-Amer­i­cans. Yet many of these books fun­da­men­tal­ly depend upon black­ness for their struc­tures and themes. Often, Mor­ri­son observes, it’s a black char­ac­ter who in fact deter­mines and pro­pels the log­ic of a white author’s book; this char­ac­ter, and all that he or she sym­bol­izes, des­ig­nates the dif­fer­ences” against which the white char­ac­ters are pitched.

There are, Mor­ri­son adds, polar­ized images of black­ness and white­ness even in books in which blacks do not appear or bare­ly fig­ure. The traces of racial dif­fer­ence thus mark books by white writ­ers even when black char­ac­ters are absent from them.

Poor choic­es: Play­ing in the Dark is essen­tial read­ing for any­one inter­est­ed in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture— and in the ways in which racial think­ing is every­where embed­ded in cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion. Mor­rison’s book will lead to a remap­ping of lit­er­ary ter­rain, and it will prompt oth­ers to under­take spe­cif­ic analy­ses of the var­i­ous forms through which white authors have orga­nized texts. It mer­its a place along­side such note­wor­thy reflec­tions on Amer­i­can and African-Amer­i­can writ­ing as Richard Wright’s How Big­ger Was Born,” which reviews the com­po­si­tion and mean­ings of Native Son, and James Bald­win’s Every­body’s Protest Nov­el,” which sear­ing­ly focus­es on Wright and Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe.

Mor­rison’s own deal­ings with texts, though, are some­what per­plex­ing. She con­cen­trates on Willa Gath­er’s Sap­phi­ra and the Slave Girl and Ernest Hem­ing­way’s To Have and to Have Not and The Gar­den of Eden. Why such odd choic­es? Why not explore, for exam­ple, the role of the Negro pianist” in My Anto­nio—per­haps Gath­er’s best nov­el — who appears at a key junc­ture look­ing like some glis­ten­ing African god of plea­sure, full of strong, sav­age blood.” Why not dwell upon the won­der­ful nig­ger” prize­fight­er whom Hem­ing­way’s Jake Barnes and Bill Gor­ton obses­sive­ly talk about in The Sun Also Ris­es?

On one lev­el, it’s part of Mor­rison’s pur­pose to chal­lenge tra­di­tion­al views and rank­ings, but her argu­ment would have been more effec­tive if she had shown how it oper­ates in those books by major Amer­i­can writ­ers that have been reg­u­lar­ly hon­ored and taught. She could have sim­i­lar­ly strength­ened her case if she had con­sid­ered the 1,000-page man­u­script of Hem­ing­way’s The Gar­den of Eden, in which the racial themes are even more promi­nent and exot­i­cal­ly strange than in the crude­ly con­densed, bowd­ler­ized ver­sion of it that Scrib­n­er’s pub­lished in 1986 and that Mor­ri­son cites.

There’s anoth­er prob­lem with Play­ing in the Dark. It’s mis­lead­ing to sug­gest, as Mor­ri­son does, that schol­ars and teach­ers per­sist in ignor­ing racism and race or else treat them cav­a­lier­ly. The only con­crete exam­ple she offers is a stu­pid remark about the darky” from an essay on Poe pub­lished in 1936. She insists that equal­ly egre­gious rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the phe­nom­e­non are still com­mon.” No doubt. But in 1936, very few lit­er­ary his­to­ri­ans, crit­ics and teach­ers were work­ing on African-Amer­i­can writ­ers or on racial issues in Twain, Faulkn­er and oth­er white writ­ers. Now they are.

Mor­rison’s gen­er­al­iza­tions thus describe what was being done in the 50s and 60s, not what is being done in the 90s. It’s pre­cise­ly because so much research and teach­ing now focus on race (as well as eth­nic­i­ty, class and gen­der) that fright­ened con­ser­v­a­tives such as Allan Bloom, William Ben­nett and Lynne Cheney have declared that the human­i­ties have betrayed their mis­sion of instill­ing uni­ver­sal” values.

But these faults do not detract from the main virtue of Play­ing in the Dark. Mor­ri­son is vivid­ly sketch­ing a new way to read Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and enabling us to see the hard racial truths that it con­tains. Her argu­ment is dar­ing, pro­found and painful. This book must be attend­ed to. 

William E. Cain is Mary Jew­ett Gais­er Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Welles­ley Col­lege. He is a co-edi­tor of the Nor­ton Anthol­o­gy of Lit­er­ary The­o­ry and Crit­i­cism (2nd ed., 2010), and, with Syl­van Bar­net, he has co-authored a num­ber of books on lit­er­a­ture and composition.
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