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

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.

BY William E. Cain

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

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.

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. 

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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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