In her book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Woman Writer Toni Morrison asks us to consider our history as told through our literature. For the major part of American history, with some exceptions until recent times, the literary canon has been written primarily by white men and has not overtly included the presence of what Morrison calls the Africanist population.
Though all Americans lived in and with the presence of an enslaved Africanist population they only exist in the literature as backdrop, without voices or names and no reality of their own.
Yet, Morrison writes, it is there, a huge presence in every book, in a different and unique way, often as a darkness, blackness, or primal fear. This Africanist presence is alluded to, a foil and backdrop for the white imagination to act out upon.
Without the Africanist presence there is no American identity, Morrison says. The Africanist presence and white Americans’ response around it created America: created white American reality.
White can only exist if there is the opposing black. And freedom can only exist if there are the not free.
“The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery.
Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that 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. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American”(PID 38).
In Playing in the Dark, Morrison explores this issue through the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Nathanial Hawthorne, and more. She reveals the ways in which the Africanist presence shows up in the text as well as the idea of whiteness.
She uses the term “Africanist,”
“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…..Through the simple expedient of demonizing and reifying the range of color on a palette, American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless. It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom”(PID 6-7).
Morrison examines how the particular identification of what is an American developed out of this split in the white American psyche: their own identity borne of this particular othering, and mirroring. It is there in our early literature, in the glaring presence of this absence.
Read our other posts about Toni Morrison:
In her musings about Herman Melville and his novel Moby Dick, Morrison writes about the unspeakable subtext of that novel as being Melville’s repulsion around the arising idea of white supremacy. “That Melville’s ‘truth’ was his recognition of the moment in America when whiteness became ideology”(SSR 177). He was writing Moby Dick at a time of raging conflict over slavery and “conceived the final confrontation between Ahab and white whale sometime in the first half of 1851” when his father-in-law “Judge Shaw . . . decided the case that made the Fugitive Slave Law”(SSR 176).
There could not have been a place that Melville went where these ideas were not discussed in heated debate or a paper that did not have it on its front page. This was the world Melville was living in.
Melville, like other writers in the young nation did not address these issues directly or overtly. Rather, they wrestled with them metaphorically or again, used the presence of the enslaved Africans as a backdrop to act out moral and ethical issues through their characters.
Morrison posits that in Moby Dick, Melville uses the text to address this idea of white superiority which was arising.
Morrison believes that Melville was questioning “the very notion of white progress, the very idea of racial superiority, of whiteness as privileged place in the evolutionary ladder of humankind”(SSR 180).
“I would not like to be understood to argue that Melville was engaged in some simple and simpleminded black/white didacticism, or that he was satanizing white people. Nothing like that. What I am suggesting is that he was overwhelmed by the philosophical and metaphysical inconsistencies of an extraordinary and unprecedented idea that had its fullest manifestation in his own time in his own country, and that the idea was the successful assertion of whiteness as ideology”(SSR 178).
The place where white America became raced. Where we said yes to that.
Ishmael, the narrator of the book, is haunted by a “nameless horror” so “mystical and well nigh ineffable” that he could hardly express, reveals: It was “the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me” (Melville 178).
Morrison’s Playing in the Dark is a chilling, intellectually challenging, and eye-opening read, the above discussion being only but one small component culled from it. But the analysis of the disappearance and outright denial of the truth of what was going on in Early America at the same time that the treasured and lofty ideals we have all come to believe is our history arose, is essential. The continued lack of self-confrontation around this from white Americans causes us to continue to deny what life is like for black Americans today and moan and whimper when they try to tell us the impact of this continued denial on their daily lives.
It’s right there in our early literature, still very much a part of high school and college curricula. The absolute looking away and yet present and almost incessant infatuation at the same time. And it needs to stop.
We are living under a false myth in the United States that keeps getting in our way. We need a deep rewrite. How do we own the true story of how this country was created, what was really happening when the “founding fathers” spoke of freedom and equality?
How do we acknowledge that we are “Living in a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression”(PID xii-xiii)?
Can we understand that THIS is how America was formed, with this gaping and glaring contradiction?
And knowing this, can we now endeavor to fix it?
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. MacMillan Collector’s Library, 1851, 2016.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Vintage Books, 1992.
Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations. Vintage International, 2019.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Documentary Film. Magnolia Pictures 2019 https://www.tonimorrisonfilm.com/