September 15, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsLiteratureReadingUncategorized

Reading Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark After Charlottesville


As someone who teaches literature post-Charlottesville (and everything else), I felt it was an important time to revisit Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). In this book, Morrison argues that white American writers employ a sort of “black surrogacy” in which African American characters function as vessels for the expression of their own forbidden feelings.

Morrison posits that these writers “were able to employ an imagined Africanist persona to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture.” She stresses that her exploration of this tendency needs to be a fearless one, “an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject.” In order to do this, Morrison maintains that she must evade the kind of cowardly criticism that fails to address the Africanist presence in American literature.

With this in mind, Morrison gives great thought to multiple American authors in her study, including Hemingway, Cather, Faulkner, Poe, and Twain, among others. In an insightful discussion of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, for instance, she describes the moment after the black character dies, wherein the boat passes through a pallid curtain and a huge white figure arises. Of this moment, she writes, “No early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe. And no image is more telling than the one just described.” She then adds that this snowy figure also surfaces at the end of multiple American classics, citing Absalom! Absalom!, To Have and Have Not, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Henderson the Rain King, and The Confessions of Nat Turner as examples.

In the end, the most striking aspect of Morrison’s work for me is her commentary on the effects of racism on those who propagate it. The chilling thing is that they’re not always aware that they’re propagating it, now are they? This is the part that really frightens me. Hence the need to read such works as Morrison’s and stay informed and aware. Morrison’s pioneering study is a lyrical, insightful contribution to the understanding of the complex beasts of American literature and culture. Needless to say, I will continue devoting my career to understanding those beasts and others.