Playing in the Dark

by Toni Morrison

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage
Copyright: 1992
ISBN: 0-679-74542-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 91

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This short book, almost a pamphlet, holds an introduction and three essays by the Nobel-prize-winning author Toni Morrison on the role of race, and specifically Africans and blacks, in American literature. If you just started tuning out, don't quite yet; it's literary criticism, and somewhat political literary critism at that, but Morrison comes at the topic from a different angle than the standard college course. The subtitle is Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, and that's what these essays are about: whiteness, not blackness.

There are innumerable courses, essays, books, and whole areas of critical theory that look at what it meant to be black in America, in literature, and in the broader world of European colonial power. Most of us have been exposed to at least some of that analysis and it's entered the popular culture sufficiently that most of us have twitch reactions to the casual racism of older literature. But Morrison, rather than focusing on this well-trod ground, looks instead at what's placed in the center of the American literary stage: the white hero, and the construction of their world.

I have a hard time reading this sort of literary criticism, largely because I don't do so that often and I'm not familiar enough with the language and methodology to read it easily. Playing in the Dark isn't an exception; I had to re-read paragraphs a couple of times, go slowly, and pay attention. But Morrison's shift of focus is fascinating and deceptively simple. She looks at the classic virtues of the hero of American literature — self-reliance, power over their surroundings, control over their life, confidence, and independence — and shows the degree to which those virtues are built, within the story, on the ubiquitous and unremarked presence of servants, slaves, racial inferiors, and people over whom the heroes can have, gain, or exercise power. It's surprising, once pointed out, how unsubtle this undercurrent is and how much the construction of the classic virtues of the American hero require a subservient other.

I'm suspicious of the concept of independence and self-reliance as the highest virtues at the expense of community and concern for structural inequality, so I came to this book with a bias that makes me a receptive audience. I'm sure other readers will find Morrison's analysis and presentation less compelling. But I found it remarkable how much of the mythology of the American hero is explained by adding the hidden or assumed Other to the picture explicitly. In order to be powerful, one must have power over something. In order to be in control, one must have something over which to exert control. One demonstrates independence by one's ability to ignore or disregard others; one gains confidence from having power and control over one's life. It's not always that simple, of course, but in the simplification of life into stories, the hero's triumph or control over the Other is a simple way of establishing those virtues. Look at the most frequent roles of Native Americans in Westerns. Simple conflict and conquest is obvious, but Tonto's relationship to the Lone Ranger (remarked on by Morrison) is another variation of this same idea.

The idea that Morrison explores is that this concept of inequity and power of white over black heavily influenced the way that whites imagined their roles in the world, and that imagination is reflected in literature. Slavery didn't only affect the enslaved. It also distorted the self-image of the enslavers, intensified the focus on being on top and in control of social hierarchies, and created a need to exert power in order to be seen as powerful. That emphasis on personal power, which so characterizes American literature, may in part be an effect of the culture of slavery and racial dominance.

Morrison puts this much better than I have, of course, and in a more nuanced way. One of the things I particularly appreciated about this book was that it didn't feel like preaching or politicizing. It's impossible to avoid that entirely, but Morrison goes out of her way to not criticize either works or authors who she uses as an example but instead bring an anthropological perspective and look at how white Americans constructed their sense of identity. She treats literature not as itself right or wrong but as a valuable reflection of culture and social constructions that may not be talked about openly or directly.

Appreciation of literary criticism is probably still necessary to enjoy this book, but as literary criticism goes, it's not a difficult read. It's short, to the point, and goes over key ideas from several different angles. Even though I read primarily for the story, not for deep analysis, I find books like this open my eyes to resonance and ideas in subsequent novels that I wouldn't have seen without the additional perspective. I don't follow the field or African-American criticism, so this may be old news to people who do, but it was an angle on slavery and literature that I'd never thought about before.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-02-20

Last modified and spun 2015-10-22