Racial legacies -- Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

Author: Klein, Donald; Amin, Hisham M. Source: African American Review v28n4 (Winter 1994): 659-663 Copyright Indiana State University.

Toni Morrison. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. 112 pp. $14.95.

In "Blueprint for Black Studies and Multiculturalism," Manning Marable declares that "African American Studies is at the edge of a second Renaissance, a new level of growth, institutionalization and theoretical advancement"(30). We find it difficult to imagine a more fitting testament to this proclamation than Toni Morrison's latest work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The title of this book alone speaks to the creative and highly provocative quality of the author's work. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison's lofty objective is to expand the study of American literature to include a critical perspective that is at once African American, unique, and modernistic: "to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World--without the mandate for conquest"(3).

Playing in the Dark focuses primarily on the literary imagination of European Americans and how it has been impacted by the
coexistence of Africans and Europeans in this country. In particular, Morrison examines the kind of roles African American
characters have been given in novels and other works not written by them, and what ends these roles have served, whether artistic or societal. To this task Morrison brings a unique set of critical tools and concepts which we discuss below. We then explore the possibility of applying her methodology to works outside of her general subject area, since Morrison's approach, we find, works equally well with characters whose identities are also heavily racialized, but who are not necessarily African American.

Morrison believes that the impact of Africans, and later African Americans, on the literature of this country has been so pervasive that it needs to be recognized as a continuous history unto its own, a history which she labels an "American Africanist presence"(6) or, more frequently, an "Africanist presence." In spite of the paucity of work in support of this contention, Morrison argues that American literature--as well as the body politic, the church, and other definitive elements of American society--have been shaped significantly by the dynamics of this coexistence. Boldly, the author raises the question of whether "the major and championed characteristics of our national literature--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--are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence"(5).

The types of black characters Morrison examines include not only the more individuated ones of Jim in Twain's Huckleberry Finn or Nancy in Cather's Sapphira and the Slave Girl, but also the unnamed and anonymous figures who silently pilot the boats of Poe and Hemingway or serve tea in the drawing rooms of James and Hawthorne. Morrison contends that, no matter how ancillary such black characters might seem to the main plot, they do more than just lend their narratives a touch of racial verisimilitude or realism. They in fact function as metaphoric representations of a much larger set of societal issues that are associated with the contrasting color of their skin.

In effect, authors place such characters within their storylines as a way of referring in shorthand to a common experience shared by all their intended readers--the fear associated with the reality of a sizable, highly visible, militant black population forever in the midst of the European population and forever threatening to disrupt its enforced social order. The mere presence of a black figure will allude, without direct articulation, to a whole range of issues linked to the subjection of that minority population: from the specter of black social revolt, to the failure of the American democratic experiment, the dependency of white identity on a system of racial division.

As Morrison explains, by the time such characters enter the storyline, their race has become "metaphorical"(63). It no longer
demarcates solely ancestry or ethnic background, but instead, she contends, it becomes "a way of referring to and disguising
forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than
biological 'race' ever was"(63). Textual strategies such as stereotyping, displacement, condensation, fetishization, and
allegory(67-69) load the racial identity of Africans with various meanings and significances for the European population that biological race on its own could never hold. Eventually, a full blown social construction of race is achieved wherein, on the one hand, European peoples are seen as "non-raced," while on the other, African peoples are "raced" and thus bound in identity to the attendant meanings of their darker skin.

According to Morrison, the formation of an Africanist presence seems to have followed a roughly three-part development: "from its simplistic, though menacing, purposes of establishing hierarchic difference, to its surrogate properties as self-reflexive meditations on the loss of difference, to its lush and fully blossomed existence in the rhetoric of dread and desire"(64). The first and least complex stage, that of "hierarchic difference," established the Europeans' belief in their moral and intellectual superiority over Africans. This belief enabled the enslavement of Africans, and their status as slaves became a crucial factor in the reinforcement of that difference. Here the identity of the African is associated with ignorance, wildness, savagery--clearly something foreign and inferior.

The second fundamental stage in the construction of race in American literature is the use of the Africanist presence as surrogate for meditations on the nature of white social identity. As Morrison states in Playing in the Dark, "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." (17). When early American writers represented African people, they did not do so to discuss the historical plight of black individuals and their ungranted rights, but to mediate on the fissures and uncertainties that lurked within the construction of their own New World. The presence of an enslaved people served as the playing field for the imagination in the construction of freedom and autonomy in the new society.

Morrison finds this process of surrogacy most clearly in the Romance genre. While Romance as a whole, she agrees, was an
exploration of the contending forces and issues that were born in the encounter with the New World, it was the black population that became the element upon which these fears and questions were projected and played out:

The slave population, it could be and was assumed, offered itself up as surrogate selves for meditation on problems of human
freedom, its lure and its elusiveness. This black population was available for meditations on terror--the terror of European outcasts, their dread of failure, powerlessness, Nature without limits, natal loneliness, internal aggression, evil, sin, greed. In other words, this slave population was understood to have offered itself up for reflections on human freedom in terms other than abstractions of human potential and the rights of man.(38)

Throughout these meditations, black people were used to signify the "darker" side of the American Dream, the side that consisted of failure, powerlessness, and exploitation.

The final stage in the construction of race is also highly metaphorical; here blackness becomes a "fully blossomed rhetoric of dread and desire"(64). African American characters or other configurations of blackness are used to articulate a polarized phenomenology of experience (purity vs. sin, evil vs. good, moral vs. immoral, etc.) whereby they are representative of either extreme. As Morrison states, "...images of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious and forgiving, fearful and desirable"(59). Africans can be shadowy, recalcitrant slaves on the verge of revolt or they can be smiling, self-mocking servants enabling the objectives of their white masters.

Morrison then uses her concepts of presence and surrogacy in very probing analyses of such works as The Narrative of Arthur
Gordon Pym, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Huckleberry Finn, and To Have and Have Not. Through her interpretations of the racial dynamics of these works, she offers explanations to such enigmatic questions as why Twain chose to end Huckleberry Finn as he did, and why Cather's Slave Girl has been considered an artistic failure for so long. But one interesting avenue she does not pursue in her work is whether her methodology can be applied to other works which also rely heavily on racial dynamics, but which are not necessarily broken down along black-white lines. One such example is Hemingway's "Fathers and Sons," the concluding and culminating short story of Hemingway's collection Winner Take Nothing.

Hemingway unfolds his narrative in three short sections. The first opens with Nick, now 38, driving through the countryside of his native Pacific Northwest with his young son on the seat next to him. He begins to reminisce about his early life with his father, the hunting trips they used to take together, and what his father taught him about life. Nick's thoughts then lead him back to the young "Ojibway" (Ojibwa) woman Trudy Gilby, with whom he had his first sexual encounters. The second section moves back in time and finds Nick, Trudy, and Trudy's brother Billy hunting squirrels together, and then, later, Trudy and Nick making love while Billy continues hunting. Nick now remembers the feelings of shame and inadequacy he felt during these days because of his relationship with Trudy, particularly the moments when this shame led him to fits of violent anger. In the final section, we return to the car, where Nick's son asks a series of questions about Nick's father and then proclaims that he would always like to live near the old man's grave.

The thematics of the story are complicated and hard reduce to a single theme. But one way to approach the work is to view it as a racial portrait of the West--as it existed sometime between the wars. From the outset, the story makes every effort to delineate for us two separate ethnic groups. Trudy and her brother are on one side, while Nick's father and his family are on the other. The father, we learn, has the eyes of an eagle and is able to see the American flag flying above their house at remarkable distances. Nick, when he looks at the same house, sees repeatedly the "white of their cottage," the "white of the beach," and the "whitish patch of sheep" on the hill above. Such references, and others like them, point to two competing populations. And with all the talk of hunting, marksmanship, "scalping," and general acts of violence, the brutal and war-torn history of the West looms as a not-to-distant background to the storyline.

Caught in the middle of it all is Nick. His relationship with his family is as dysfunctional as it is with Trudy and Billy. He dreads
wearing a suit of long underwear his father had worn before him, to the point of taking the underwear off and hiding it under a rock because of its associations with intimacy. He is drawn to Trudy as someone outside of his father's world of repressed sexuality and dour work ethic, but he is equally bothered by the casualness of her sexual relations and lifestyle. The contradictions prove to be formidable. In one burst of anger he imagines shooting and killing Billy's half-brother for his romantic interest in Nick's sister. In another, he imagines shooting his own father in the back while he reads the paper.

The story, ultimately, leaves us with the feeling that the sword of conquest is double-edged. The ideology and social relations that have led to the preeminence of Nick's family over the local Indians have also taken their toll on the lives of his family. Nick grows up in an emotionally devastated family and ends up spending most of his adult life in France. The father, we are enigmatically told, dies "in a trap that he had helped only a little to set"(370).

To Hemingway's credit, there is a good deal of historical drama and cultural self-reflection packed into this brief ethnic portrait of the West. But if we employ Morrison's critical perspective to this story, we find some surprising results.

Hemingway dramatizes Nick's incapacity to overcome the polarized relations of his world through his troubled sexual relations. Nick begins the story by recalling how he and his father discussed the forbidden topic only twice in their whole early life together: once when his father explained "buggery" to him, and another when he made a reference to "mashing." But Hemingway develops this theme in a very specific way: not by having Nick sleep around, or sleep with women he doesn't care about--familiar tropes of adolescence--but by having him sleep with an "Indian" woman. Trudy's differing racial background metaphorically represents Nick's sexual troubles. We as the audience are meant to understand that he doesn't have control over his emotions because he has stooped to secret rendezvous with a local outcast. She is the kind of woman who treats sex casually, who doesn't mind if her brother watches, who makes jokes in broken English about having babies--in other words, the stereotype of the oversexualized "Indian squaw" seen in countless Western novels and movies.

As Morrison would say, Trudy thus becomes the "surrogate" on which Nick's troubles are played out. Her sexual promiscuity soon embodies the social contradictions Nick cannot reconcile. She is more than just a lover from the other side of the tracks; she is the source of his distress. Logically, the blame may rest with Nick's father, for he is the one, the story tells us, who did not teach his son the same kind of control and self-discipline in sex as he did in hunting and fishing. But it is ultimately the figure of Trudy onto whom the breakdown of Nick's family's ideal world is condensed. Her "presence," not the father's, signifies to us that something has gone terribly wrong in Nick's life.

Trudy performs exactly the same role Morrison finds African American characters playing in so many other contexts. The parallels are numerous: The presence of Trudy in Nick's mind serves as the initial catalyst for Nick's memories; Trudy and Billy are clearly marked as "Other" as soon as they enter the text, and are thus easily associated with whatever disruption the white characters are experiencing; though Trudy is a central character, we never learn about her family experiences, her feelings toward Nick, or even her opinions on all the troubles Nick seems to be going though; and though she is central to the plot, she is never allowed to say anything more than casual talk about lovemaking. All these representational simplifications add up to a character whose depth as a person is limited to the color of her skin. With no personal history available to us, she fits easily into the stereotype she is supposed to fill.

One more parallel needs to be remarked on. Hemingway derives much of the artistic power of the piece through his very particular use of racial stereotypes. The sinister tone of the work, that special tone of corruption and deceit that carries the reader through until the depths of Nick's sins are revealed, relies heavily on the sexual perversity surrounding Trudy. Hemingway achieves this tone by making an implicit connection between the initial talk of "buggery" and "mashing" that opens the story and the subsequent portrayal of Nick and Trudy's relations. Something evil, something shameful is in the air when we begin reading, and when Trudy enters the storyline, we make the necessary thematic associations.

Our point is simple. Hemingway uses a character of Native American background in much the same way Morrison finds other
authors, including Hemingway, using characters of African American background. Thus, many of Morrison's concepts can be applied as easily to stories of conquest in the West as they can to stories of slavery in the South, or wherever bodies of literature repeatedly employ "racially informed and determined chains"(xi).

One point Morrison makes clear is that, for her, the excavation of a racially informed language and literature is not necessarily to designate that writing as a cultural component of a political system. Rather, it is often to understand how writers have worked within and responded to the pressures of a racialized society, to know which writers challenged these pressures and which ones did not, to reveal "how stunning is the achievement of those who have searched for and mined a shareable language"(xiii).

Whether aspects of Hemingway's work can be considered "shareable language" or not may be debated. But he has drawn a vivid portrait of the West, and one that captures to a compelling degree what the historian Patricia Limerick summarizes as "The Legacy of Conquest"--the fractured and mutually destructive social relations resulting from Western expansion and settlement. To label Hemingway a racist and cast him aside would be to lose something, but not to understand how he is implicated in societal structures of domination would be to lose something even greater. With Morrison, we take a large step toward a more fully informed critical perspective.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. "Fathers and Sons." 1933. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Finca Vigia Edition. New York: Scribner's, 1987. 369-77.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest. New York: Norton, 1987.

Marable, Manning. "Blueprint for Black Studies and Multiculturalism." Black Scholar 22.3 (1990): 30.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Random, 1992.

Reviewed by

Donald Klein Stanford University
Hisham M. Amin Yale University