"I feel most white when I am thrown against a sharp black background.”
This statement, an inversion of Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a sharp white background”, seems to fit Toni Morrison’s analysis in her essential work of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). In it Morrison, the Nobel prize-winning author of Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Sula and other vivid portrayals of black American experience, writes of the concluding scene of canonical white US writer Edgar Allen Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, wherein the death of a black character is followed by the apparition of a “blinding ... closed and unknowable white form”.
Morrison explains: “These images of blinding whiteness seem to function as both antidote for and meditation on the shadow that is companion to this whiteness – a dark and abiding presence that moves the hearts and texts of US literature with fear and longing.”
Hurston’s words come from a 1928 essay, How It Feels to Be Colored Me, which really could be read as an answer to WEB Du Bois’ question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Answering this enduring question has produced much black literature – oral and written – reflecting on the black condition in a white world. White literature, reflecting on the problematic condition of white people in a white world, is barely to be found. The same level of rigour and reflexivity demanded of black writers is seldom demanded of white writers.
Countering this asymmetry, Playing in the Dark is a brilliant and essential work of literary criticism in which Morrison argues that while “scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behaviour of slaves is valuable”, it is also important to dedicate “serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination and behaviour of masters”. She aims to “draw a 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”.
Notions of white conquest, individualism, innocence, masculinity and femininity surface quickly as she investigates black characters, narrative strategies and idiom in the fiction of early canonical white American writers.
Contemplating the figure of William Dunbar, a Scotsman who left civilised London to conquer the yet-to-be civilised New World by becoming a wealthy Mississippi planter, Morrison is moved to ask: “What are Americans always so insistently innocent of?” As she considers Dunbar’s sense of masculinity and heroism, she writes: “Answers to these questions lie in the potent and ego-reinforcing presence of an Africanist population ... This new white male can now persuade himself that savagery is ‘out there’.” As the heroic white male seeks to “civilise” the savage New World, he reasons that “the lashes ordered ... are not one’s own savagery; repeated and dangerous breaks for freedom are ‘puzzling’ confirmations of black irrationality ... a life of regularised violence is civilised ... These contradictions slash their way through the pages of American literature.”
Morrison also attends to the white American female identity, citing a scene from Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not where an insecure Marie Morgan, lying in bed with her husband, asks if he had ever “done it” with a “nigger wench”, to which he dutifully responds that he has, although the woman was “like a nurse shark”. Morrison explains the signification of that black woman as “the furthest thing from human, so far away as to be not even mammal, but fish”. In so doing, the white husband is able to reaffirm his wife’s sense of white female physical and moral superiority: white femininity is because black femininity isn’t.
Outlining this “sycophancy of white identity”, Morrison finds that white American writers fabricate a black persona that is a “reflexive” stand-in for white anxiety, terror, desire, deviation and evil, through which white characters can restore their sense of identity. Blackness becomes a metaphor for forces, events, social decay and economic division that threaten their world order.
Morrison faults liberal critics for their discrete neglect of “darkness”. “The habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture ... A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only ‘universal’ but also ‘race-free’ risks lobotomising that literature.” It’s a critique that can be levelled at the broader world, in its convenient neglect of the inconvenient truth that the “progress” of the “modern world” has been underwritten by slavery, colonialism, apartheid and neocolonialism.
Through Morrison’s work we come to understand that blackness is essential to whiteness: blackness at once threatens and revitalises it. Reductive reasoning blames “Trexit” on the economic insecurity of working class white voters. In Morrison’s America, Trump supporters, like the white characters of white American fiction, “feel most white when thrown against a black background”, and so they have fittingly felt the need to “make America great again”. If we are to understand this, we can move beyond liberal shrieks of despair and instead face up to how it is that we have arrived at this point, or rather, face up to the fact that we have always been here.