Note: This overview started as teaching notes, which I created for a class called "Theories of Literature and Social Justice." An earlier version of this essay can be found here. --Amardeep Singh
Toni Morrison was a groundbreaking figure in multiple fields -- as a novelist of course, as an editor who made it to the top of New York publishing, and also as a literary critic! Alongside all of her other work, Toni Morrison’s literary critical essays have also been hugely influential, and continue to be widely cited by scholars of American literature for their insights and arguments.
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) has been extremely helpful for scholars interested in thinking about race in American literature, especially American literature by non-black authors. It’s helped to engender an entirely new sub-field that didn’t exist when she wrote it, what we now call “whiteness studies.” Quantitatively, Google scholar indicates a minimum of 8600 citations for this book, which puts it in the top tier of literary critical scholarship, up there with Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979) and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) as epochal, paradigm-shifting works.
The argument is actually fairly simple. Here it is in my own words: Morrison argues that the figure of Blackness in mainstream, white American literature play a decisive role in shaping American culture, as described and documented in literary narrative. If what we understand as distinctively American culture is partly about the the invention of a new, individualized man -- the autonomous figure in Emerson and Thoreau’s writings -- Morrison wants us to remember that that new man is a white man, defining himself in opposition to non-white others. In her various readings, Morrison sees Blackness manifested first in the presence of individual Black characters, some of whom might seem marginal on first glance, but also in a more generalized "Africanism" that points to the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the institutionalized racism that accompanied it and followed it.
For many American literary critics, this was a controversial claim when Morrison made it, in 1992. There has been a powerful resistance to emphasizing the centrality of race or racism in American literary criticism. Earlier generations of literary critics tended to suggest that despite the obvious importance of slavery in American history, the major figures in canonical American literature -- figures like Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Edith Wharton, Wharton, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Willa Cather -- seemed to have fairly little interest in race, and rarely mentioned it. Moreover, despite the acknowledged existence of Black people, native Americans, and immigrants, the narratives composed by writers like Poe and Melville are essentially "raceless" and "universal." Morrison wants to rebut both of these claims, first by pointing us to a sampling of passages and moments in the works of a few white authors where race turns out to be very important. And second, the idea that these representations exist outside of race is a power move by the literary establishment for its own ends, by no means something we have to accept as simply and categorically “true.”
For Morrison, and for the generations of critics who have worked on these questions since this book was published, white Americanness is not simply a universal. Whiteness is something that can and should be be named and studied. (This admittedly makes some people uncomfortable. But remember: when we talk about whiteness, we are not talking about white individuals, we’re talking about whiteness as an analytical category.) Second, whiteness is always, always relational -- which is to say, it is defined in relation to non-white others. This emphasis on relationality isn’t a huge surprise to a Black writer or an Asian American writer; they’ve always understood their identities to be defined in relation to a mainstream American identity that is always presumed to be white.
Let’s get deeper into the book itself.
First off, Morrison mentions jazz at the very beginning of the book, with reference to a passage in Marie Cardinal’s novel The Words to Say It. There, the music of Louis Armstrong precipitates a psychic crisis in the narrator: “Gripped by panic at the idea of dying there in the middle of spasms, stomping feet, and the crowd howling, I ran into the street like someone possessed.” Toni Morrison goes on to provide a series of remarkably compelling readings of as she puts it, “the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them.”
What Africanism became for, and how it functioned in, the literary imagination is of paramound interest because it may be possible to discover, through a close look at literary ‘blackness,’ the nature--even the cause--of literary ‘whiteness.’ (Morrison, 9)
The kind of reading method Morrison employs in her book is what some critics would call dialectical reading (Edward Said would describe it, using musical terminology as “contrapuntal.”) She sees Whiteness and Blackness as intertwined, as producing each other, in American life. Whiteness is a dominant, but it depends upon its subordinate to give it shape, even though it also aims to relegate its other to a position of marginality and partial erasure. Sometimes the marginalization is direct and obvious (as she shows happening in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not: the Black character on the boat to whom Hemingway refuses to grant agency). At other times, the connection is more associative -- requiring the critic to fill in gaps left by authors whose failure to grant full subjectivity to their Black characters is symptomatic (a great example of this more associative reading method might be with Morrison’s account of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl).
Later in the Preface, she writes:
The principal reason these matters loom large for me is that I do not have quite the same access to these traditionally useful constructs of blackness. Neither blackness nor ‘people of color’ stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread. I cannot rely on these metaphorical shortcuts because I am a black writer struggling with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive ‘othering’ of people and language which are by no means marginal or already and completely known and knowable in my work. My vulnerability would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it. The kind of work I have always wanted to do requires me to learn how to maneuver ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains. (Preface, x-xi)
Here, Morrison is writing herself into the story. She sees the ways white writers use blackness as tending towards “metaphorical shortcuts” rather than substantive engagements, as in effect providing a useful set of tropes for those writers rather than a serious point of exploration. I’m also interested in the point where she acknowledges that the danger for a Black writer might lie in “romanticizing Blackness”; here I think she must be referring to what in the 1970s and 80s was called Afrocentric or Black nationalist thinking, and she’s clearly distancing herself from that approach as well. Finally, it’s telling that she always brings it back to language, and she maintains what seems like considerable humility in her engagements on that front.
A final passage from the Preface we might want to consider:
For reasons that should not need explanation here, until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white. I am interested to know what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination. When does racial ‘unconsciousness’ or awareness of race enrich interpretive language, and when does it impoverish it? What does positing one’s writerly self, in the wholly racialized society that is the United States, as unraced and all others as raced entail? What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be ‘universal’ or race-free? In other words, how is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction? [...] Living in a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression presents a singular landscape for a writer. (Preface, xii-xiii)
Here, Morrison aims to put forward the centrality of race as a topic, and suggest that all of us are implicated in it -- that the construction of an “unraced” reader is a deliberate act. That unraced subject was in fact, she states, “presumed to be white.” Morrison is asking what the consequences might be of, as it were, erasing race, but she is also clearly gesturing towards how we might reinsert it. It might be a little uncomfortable at first to say that Melville and Emerson were white American writers interested in whiteness (and sometimes Blackness), but it is more honest and also potentially more inclusive to do so.
Another key foundational passage from section 1, “Black matters”:
For some time now I have been thinking about the validity or vulnerability of a certain set of assumption conventionally accepted among literary historians and critics and circulated as ‘knowledge.’ This knowledge holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four hundred-year-old presence of, first Africans and then African-Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence--which shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture--has had no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture’s literature. Moreover, such knowledge assumes that the characteristics of our national literature emanate from a particular ‘Americanness’ that is separate from and unaccountable to this presence. [...] The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination. (4-5)
This passage does two things that seem important to underline. First is the way Morrison is frontally challenging a way of thinking that had been accepted as uncontroversially true -- a mode of “factual” knowledge about American literature rather than a constructed argument. What she’s saying in this book would require some people to realize that a good deal of what they had previously thought and said about American authors and American national culture was much more open to challenge than they had probably expected. Second, she’s helping to introduce the idea of the “Africanist presence" she will be referring to throughout the book. She’s clearly interested in the Africanist presence as being both African (especially in the early literature, when many enslaved Black people were either recently brought over from Africa or recently descended from Africans) and eventually in its emergence as African American.
She continues to unpack “American Africanism” on pages 6 and 7. Here is a bit more on the “Africanism” mentioned above:
I am using the term ‘Africanism’ not to suggest the larger body of knowledge on Africa that the philosopher Valentin Mudimbe means by the term ‘Africanism,’ nor to suggest the varieties and complexities of African people and their descendants who have inhabited this country. Rather I use it as a term for the denotative 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. (6-7)
It’s safe to say that in many cases, when Morrison uses the term ‘Africanism’ she means it as synonymous with ‘Black’. I do think she’s interested in the ways there are residual echoes and reverberations of African culture and expressive language that have remained with Black folks in the U.S. long after knowledge of African languages disappeared. Some of her novels show us this -- it’s in the connection of ancestor Solomon to Africa in Song of Solomon, or Sethe’s mother and ‘Nan’ in Beloved, who are shown speaking another language at the beginning of the novel -- it seems like they’ve been recently transported to the U.S. (See our overviews of these novels here.)
Another important passage: the subject of the dream is the dreamer:
How does literary utterance arrange itself when it tries to imagine an Africanist other? What are the signs, the codes, the literary strategies designed to accommodate this encounter? What does the inclusion of Africans or African-Americans do to and for the work? As a reader my assumption had always been that nothing “happens”: Africans and their descendants were not, in any sense that matters, there; and when they were there, they were decorative—displays of the agile writer’s technical expertise. I assumed that since the author was not black, the appearance of Africanist characters or narrative or idiom in a work could never be about anything other than the “normal,” unracialized, illusory white world that provided the fictional backdrop. Certainly no American text of the sort I am discussing was ever written for black people—no more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written for Uncle Tom to read or be persuaded by. As a writer reading, I came to realize the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity. It requires hard work not to see this. (16-17)
This is a huge breakthrough. In my words: when white writers write about Black people as marginal characters, Morrison isn’t necessarily asking us to invert the paradigm and see those characters as somehow central or definitive (though sometimes they might be). Rather, the construction of racialized others in texts by white writers tells us something about the construction of whiteness in those texts: "the subject of the dream is the dreamer."
I might also note that Morrison’s move here is remarkably parallel to what Edward Said notes in Orientalism with respect to western conceptions of non-western cultures. When American writers construct a discourse of Africanism in their works, they are constructing an inverted mirror -- a fantasy of otherness. They are not, by and large, actually incorporating the actual voices and narratives of people of African descent. When British writers like H. Rider Haggard or Joseph Conrad dreamed of “savages” in sub-Saharan Africa, they were not seeing and hearing real African people; they were imagining an Other to themselves said more about their fantasies than it did to the ethnographic reality of the people they were ostensibly encountering along the Nile or the Congo. (See our introduction to key concepts in Orientalism here.)
The next section of “Black Matters” deals with Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which as Morrison acknowledges is not a novel of Cather’s people tend to talk about much. Why and how does it fail? What is it about the story that’s unsatisfying?
For Morrison, some of it at least is the way Cather can’t come up with a realistic imagining of either of the major Black characters in the story, Nancy (the daughter) or Til (the mother). She’s particularly blank on Til, whose maternal concern for her daughter who has disappeared is reduced to a single opportunity to ask a question about whether her daughter has made it safely to Canada. Morrison encapsulates her frustration with Cather’s failure of imagination in the following paragraphs:
Rendered voiceless, a cipher, a perfect victim, Nancy runs the risk of losing the reader’s interest. In a curious way, Sapphira’s plotting, like Cather’s plot, is without reference to the characters and exists solely for the ego-gratification of the slave mistress. This becomes obvious when we consider what would have been the consequences of a successful rape. Given the novel’s own terms, there can be no grounds for Sapphira’s thinking that Nancy can be “ruined” in the conventional sense. There is no question of marriage to Martin, to Colbert, to anybody. Then, too, why would such an assault move her slave girl outside her husband’s interest? The probability is that it would secure it. If Mr. Colbert is tempted by Nancy the chaste, is there anything in slavocracy to make him disdain Nancy the unchaste?
Such a breakdown in the logic and machinery of plot construction implies the powerful impact race has on narrative—and on narrative strategy. Nancy is not only the victim of Sapphira’s evil, whimsical scheming. She becomes the unconsulted, appropriated ground of Cather’s inquiry into what is of paramount importance to the author: the reckless, unabated power of a white woman gathering identity unto herself from the wholly available and serviceable lives of Africanist others. This seems to me to provide the coordinates of an immensely important moral debate. (24-25)
The key parts for me are in bold above. I do think Morrison is seeing a slippage between the contrivances of Sapphira in the novel and the contrivances of the author: both are white women “gathering identity unto [themselves] from the wholly available and serviceable lives of Africanist others.”
Section 2: “Romancing the Shadow”
This section starts with an account of an Edgar Allen Poe story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, where the death of an African in a stranded boat leads to the apparition of a giant white ghost. The particularities of the reading of this particular story might not be essential for us to grasp: Morrison quickly pivots to an account of early American literature more generally:
Young America distinguished itself by, and understood itself to be, pressing toward a future of freedom, a kind of human dignity believed unprecedented in the world. A whole tradition of “universal” yearnings collapsed into that well-fondled phrase, “the American Dream.” Although this immigrant dream deserves the exhaustive scrutiny it has received in the scholarly disciplines and the arts, it is just as important to know what these people were rushing from as it is to know what they were hastening to. If the New World fed dreams, what was the Old World reality that whetted the appetite for them? And how did that reality caress and grip the shaping of a new one?
The flight from the Old World to the New is generally seen to be a flight from oppression and limitation to freedom and possibility. Although, in fact, the escape was sometimes an escape from license—from a society perceived to be unacceptably permissive, ungodly, and undisciplined—for those fleeing for reasons other than religious ones, constraint and limitation impelled the journey. All the Old World offered these immigrants was poverty, prison, social ostracism, and, not infrequently, death. There was of course a clerical, scholarly group of immigrants who came seeking the adventure possible in founding a colony for, rather than against, one or another mother country or fatherland. And of course there were the merchants, who came for the cash.
Whatever the reasons, the attraction was of the “clean slate” variety, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to be born again but to be born again in new clothes, as it were. The new setting would provide new raiments of self. This second chance could even benefit from the mistakes of the first. In the New World there was the vision of a limitless future, made more gleaming by the constraint, dissatisfaction, and turmoil left behind. It was a promise genuinely promising. With luck and endurance one could discover freedom; find a way to make God’s law manifest; or end up rich as a prince. The desire for freedom is preceded by oppression; a yearning for God’s law is born of the detestation of human license and corruption; the glamor of riches is in thrall to poverty, hunger, and debt. (33-35)
There’s nothing here that’s very controversial -- these are claims that would be widely accepted as an uncontroversial account of the emergence of the “American mind” -- one of the key facets of American culture. Rugged individualism, egalitarianism, room for free thought and an unconventional orientation to society. Nonconformism.
The example she gives of this in the subsequent pages, the story of William Dunbar as recounted in a book called Voyagers to the West, which turns out to be pretty jaw-dropping. Dunbar came from Scotland, immigrated to the early U.S., and maintained a plantation in Mississippi with a number of Black Caribbean slaves. When those slaves rebelled against his authority, he had them beaten -- brutally (four sets of 500 lashes). He was also known as an extremely learned man with thoughts on the new American democratic experiment, a member of the Philosophical society, well-respected by people like Thomas Jefferson.
For Morrison, there is no contradiction here: this is it. Here is her take on how this image of Dunbar seems to perfectly encapsulate the contradiction at the heart of the construction of (white) Americanness:
I take this to be a succinct portrait of the process by which the American as new, white, and male was constituted. It is a formation with at =least four desirable consequences, all of which are referred to in Bailyn’s summation of Dunbar’s character and located in how Dunbar felt “within himself.” Let me repeat: “a sense of authority and autonomy he had not known before, a force that flowed from his absolute control over the lives of others, he emerged a distinctive new man, a borderland gentleman, a man of property in a raw, half-savage world.” A power, a sense of freedom, he had not known before. But what had he known before? Fine education, London sophistication, theological and scientific thought. None of these, one gathers, could provide him with the authority and autonomy that Mississippi planter life did. Also this sense is understood to be a force that flows, already present and ready to spill as a result of his “absolute control over the lives of others.” This force is not a willed domination, a thought-out, calculated choice, but rather a kind of natural resource, a Niagara Falls waiting to drench Dunbar as soon as he is in a position to assume absolute control. Once he has moved into that position, he is resurrected as a new man, a distinctive man—a different man. And whatever his social status in London, in the New World he is a gentleman. More gentle, more man. The site of his transformation is within rawness: he is backgrounded by savagery. (43-44)
Here’s another passage from Morrison that speaks to this more oblique mode of reading:
Explicit or implicit, the Africanist presence informs in compelling and inescapable ways the texture of American literature. It is a dark and abiding presence, there for the literary imagination as both a visible and an invisible mediating force. Even, and especially, when American texts are not ‘about’ Africanist presences or characters or narrative or idiom, the shadow hovers in implication, in sign, in line of demarcation. It is no accident and no mistake that immigrant populations (and much immigrant literature) understood their ‘Americanness’ as an opposition to the resident black population. Race, in fact, now functions as a metaphor so necessary to the construction of Americanness that it rivals the old pseudo-scientific and class-informed racisms whose dynamics we are more used to deciphering. (Morrison, 46-47)
It’s in passages like these that one gets a hint of the ambition and scope of this argument -- it goes to the core of the construction of Americanness itself. One way for critics to try and prove her assertion (in such a short book I think we have to take her readings as suggestive rather than as proven by evidence) might be to go deeper into the ways in which what she calls the Africanist other was a constitutive presence and absence from other works in the American canon. (And since this book was published American literature scholars have been doing this, in a growing sub-field focused on “whiteness studies.”)
--Amardeep Singh, April 2021