Review: Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

For both black and white American writers, in a wholly racialized society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive.
The idea that there is nothing default about our default values is not a new one. It's been a theme in some philosophical circles for more than a century and a half now. We build ourselves by excluding others. (I guess I should write "Self" and "Other," but the meaning comes across quite nicely without that convention.) We define ourselves by opposition, by contrast. We are not like [insert your group of choice here]. Our values reflect how unlike them we are. We like to tell ourselves that we oppose a group because of our diverging values, but very often opposition came first: we arrived at our values with it in mind. We arrived at our values through it, because of it. But although this division was at the very basis of our identity, it can be pretty difficult to become aware of it. Especially because, if the identity-building exercise was successful, the others were probably excluded or silenced as a result. We cannot rely on their testimony to help us trace our identity.

This is pretty much the basis of Toni Morrison's project in this book. The American literature (and the American national identity) developed around a series of themes. Everyone knows them, but let Morrison sum them up again: "individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figurations of death and hell." Since other groups were disenfranchised for much of this process, it is assumed that these themes were created by white writers for a white audience, with little or no input from the Others, in this case the black population. But is it that simple? You can tell by my capitalization of the word "others" that it's not. Morrison argues that the American literature defined itself as a coherent entity precisely as a reaction to an abiding and unsettling black presence. Behind its famous themes, one can discern the background of racial tension that made them possible.
What, one wants to ask, are Americans alienated from? What are Americans always so insistently innocent of? Different from? As for absolute power, over whom is this power held, from whom withheld, to whom distributed?
While the actual voices of black people were silenced, blackness in different forms was a constant in the literary discourse. It was necessary. For defining freedom, one needs to be able to contemplate its opposite. For defining one's self, one needs to posit an Other. For constructing literary whiteness, one needs literary blackness. And this literary blackness was delivered in the form of Africanist characters. What are Africanist characters, you ask? They are black characters written to provide a useful contrast, a background to white experience. They are instruments through which, in various ways, whiteness is built, explored and validated. (One need not look very far to find such characters either. Morrison's examples are all from classic authors, but entire passages of this book could just as well describe the novel The Help too.)
Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.
Africanism is then the black persona as imagined by a white culture. Studying it tells us a lot about whiteness, not blackness. Not only because much of it is projection, but also because, as Morrison beautifully puts it, the subject of the dream is always the dreamer. And this is really the most important aspect of this book. It is not a systematic study. It sometimes makes pronouncements that seem insufficiently illustrated by the handful of texts analyzed. (Although, like in the case of The Help, other examples easily spring to mind.) What it does is try to "avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served." What it does is challenge the idea of whiteness as natural and default, and instead shows how it is constructed, how it emerged from a dialectic, how it depended on constantly having blackness as its object. It teaches us not to take whiteness for granted.

The Writer's Eye

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.
Morrison explicitly brings to this study her experience as a writer, specifically her realization that writers always have to navigate a set of social, racial, gender limitations, that, in order to transpose themselves in the situations they imagine, they need to constantly negotiate the limits of their freedom. It is her firm belief that writers "transform aspects of their social grounding into aspects of language," and, more than this, that they are, on some level, aware of doing it. So it makes sense to look for the traces of this transmutation in their works, to see how they reacted to the surrounding culture - whether they used it, helped create it or tried to dismantle it.

But here emerges a different problem: that of judging writers. Morrison is quite clear that she only intends to describe and analyze the ways in which literary whiteness and literary blackness came about. She is not advancing judgment on the writers whose works she's discussing. She's not labeling the works as racist (even when they quite clearly are). But you can't help but feel that some of these writers did fail badly not only morally, but technically as well. Hemingway in particular appears not only callous, but terribly lazy. (And yes, using race as an easy signifier is laziness, among other things.) One does not need an explicit indictment for the portrait to be quite cutting.

The Bottom Line

All this said, it is perhaps useful to think of this book as a would-be seminal work. It outlines a possible direction of study, some directing principles and shows how they can be applied on a handful of examples. It is not comprehensive and it doesn't try to be. Overall, I think it succeeded in getting its message across (if my new awareness of how Henry James is using black characters is any indication, anyway), but I still would have loved for it to be more systematic. 4 out of 5 stars and it is a recommended (and pretty accessible) read.


  1. This is a very interesting essay, and I feel like I’m only half ‘getting it.’ What works does Morrison cite? While reading your essay my mind strayed to the contrast between Gone with the Wind and The Wind Done Gone. Before reading Randall's book, I hoped it would be a richly imagined tale from the perspective of the slaves, answering Mitchell’s atavistic fondness for a glorified past. Unfortunately Randall failed to present that necessary perspective.

    1. Yeah, that's my fault. I should have talked more about the works she mentions, but it would have made this a very long review of a book that's just 100 pages long. I'm going to remedy this here, though. So Morrison talks about:

      1. Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather. I haven't read it, but it's a novel that sounds well intentioned. Morrison, however, points out that the black characters are unrealistic, especially the trope of the black woman who puts white people's comfort not only above her own comfort, but also above her own children. And this is a trope you find in GWTW to a degree (I'm thinking of Dilcey and also of Mammy's lack of life (and name) apart from her job) and you definitely find in The Help (Minny risking her life for Celia, Minny scolding her daughter when she says something bad about Celia, Aibileen's different treatment of Minny's kids vs. the white girl she tends to, all of the maids putting their lives in danger for Skeeter - it's not just one action, it's a trend). She also talks about how Africanist characters are built just so that white characters (and white authors) can safely explore some themes through them, but they are not really given agency or a proper voice.

      2. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym , specifically the end, how they float into the white mists after Nu-nu dies and how these images of impenetrable whiteness are recurrent endings in literary works and why that might be.

      3. Huckleberry Finn - Jim's function in the narrative.

      4. Hemingway's To Have and Have Not and The Garden of Eden and all the varied ways in which Hemingway uses black characters to build his white macho ideal by contrast.

      These are the works that she spends more time discussing, but she mentions a bunch of others. Like I said, the analyses didn't seem the central point of the book to me. They were there more to exemplify her general point.

      I don't know what to say about Gone with the Wind and The Wind Done Gone, because I haven't read the latter. I do think an analysis of Mitchell's black characters through this lens is possible. And what I know exists and is somewhat close to this approach is an article discussing how sexual violence is codified in GWTW and how it's associated with black and darkness (not only in Reconstruction scare tales but also in the case of Rhett Butler and his debatable marital rape as well).