Thursday, September 10, 2009

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison: a review by Cole [50BPT]

Today's entry comes from a friend from school, Cole, who previously contributed to 50BPT here. Thanks Cole!
Cole will graduate this year from Kenyon College with a degree in English/Creative Writing and Women's and Gender Studies. She focuses her energy towards issues of gender and race in rural and agricultural areas, especially in the American South.
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is known to excel at approaching issues of race and gender in her prose-poetic fiction, but her works of literary criticism are equally important (and somewhat less of an emotional roller coaster). Morrison, along with Cornel West, Ruth Frankenburg, and others, have helped shape what is now known as Critical Whiteness Studies. This field, and Morrison's book, advocates that social progress cannot be achieved only by empowering disenfranchised groups; it must also turn the tables--the critical lens, if you will-- on those in power. In other words, WWASP's have got to learn that they are just as weird and problematic as the rest of us.
Anyone who claims to love reading or writing fiction must read this book. The project is best described in her own words: "My project is an effort 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." Morrison opens with her own story (her attraction and commitment to American literature), but finally asks how it is that we have not questioned our "colorist" language-- i.e. why do we describe sin, sex, and fear using words like "black" and "dark"? Why is Moby Dick a white whale? In my favorite chapter, she examines a scene from Hemingway's To Have and Have Not: "Eddy is white, and we know he is because nobody says so." Morrison's theory is that White America's racial history, its tensions and fears, are embedded in the language of its literature-- and frankly, she's damn convincing.


  1. The sole exception would be William Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST in which Joe Christmas' color is the whole issue (he is mixed-race) and it is "discovered" using that whole modus operandi: The author lets you assume at first (using the default Morrison describes) he is white, and then lets you experience what it is like to be questioned about whiteness. Although Faulkner was racist and sexism, for me, it remains one of the best works of American literature about racism and sexism... it is like he stood outside himself and just reported on it.

    Outside of this one example, I can't think of any white literature that has actually tried to deconstruct what whiteness is.

  2. It's really true though. As I much as I don't like to admit it, the characters in my works often tend to be white within my mind and as such often operate within that paradigm.

    I've never specifically mentioned their skin color, but I don't have to. They don't face the racism that POC face (one faces a similar ism, but that's not skin color related, but a construct within the fiction).

    My being white has, unfortunately, influenced what I write. I guess the question I face is, how do I break free of that?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin