Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison
(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992): 91

Reviewed by Cynthia Goldberg


Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is the result of issues addressed in three lectures given at Harvard University and the concerns approached in teaching her American literature course. In this all too brief text, Morrison shares her concerns with American language and the American literary imagination, both characteristically white. She questions the impact of this whiteness upon American writers.
In the preface Morrison states, "Living in a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression presents a singular landscape for a writer" (xiii). Morrison is referring to the duality of freedom and oppression that our culture has in the past, and still to an extent today, enforces, especially within a white dominant, therefore racially biased, language system. In evoking this language, Morrison further claims that this tension has created within the American literary canon a white audience for writers, regardless of the race of the author. In establishing her argument, Morrison asserts her challenge as a writer, and for writers, "to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains" (xi).
In chapter 1, entitled Black Matters, Morrison explains of her project "It rises from what I know about the ways writers transform aspects of their social grounding into aspects of language, and the ways they tell other stories, fight secret wars, limn out all sorts of debates blanketed in their text" (4). The societal positioning of the writer is predominant in what he/she writes. Furthermore, Morrison is concerned with the lack of true African representation within the American canon and that, instead, what is within our American literature is an "invented Africa" (7). And yet, even in literary criticism Africanism is elided and silenced. Morrison furthers her project by proposing the examination of "the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored, or altered those notions" (11) (in which her 3rd and last chapter Disturbing Nurses and the Kindness of Sharks, analyzes Hemingway's use of racial language). She becomes concerned with the effect racism has on those that perpetuate it, especially writers who dominate our literary canon. Finally, she states that because it is virtually impossible to address these issues with criticism that her alternate appeal goes to the writers themselves.
The rest of chapter 1 and chapter 2, Romancing the Shadow, Morrison then turns to close readings of Flannery O'Connor, Willa Cather, Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe. She addresses the genre of romance, in which a large amount of racial representation was "played out." She considers Romance a sphere in which exists a "head-on encounter with very real, pressing historical forces and the contradictions inherent in them as they came to be experienced by writers" (36). Thus, she is enabled to explore a more reality-based reading of these texts and their racial views in order to examine the non-white, African, "fabricated" presence and its function in American literature.
Morrison, as a race-concerned writer, confines her analysis of her argument solely to race issues. However, her argument is applicable to any language-oppressed group, be it through gender or sexuality. When she alludes to American language as a culturally hegemonic white dominant system, she barely addresses male-dominated as well. While she initially includes "white male views, genius, and power," she does not then fully implicate this bias into her argument (5). She limits herself to the racial impact, which is understandable considering her goals within this text; however, when applying her theory to women dealing with race relations, such as herself and going further back to ex-slave Harriet Jacobs, and even Harriet Beecher Stowe, one wonders the double impact of including female oppression along with an inherent racial oppression within the language. Even as a white writer Stowe had to be concerned with writing in a racially dominant language-maybe this is why she is considered a "sentimental" writer; because through our current white male dominant structure, there is no other way to define what Stowe does with the language, and even the politics, at hand.
Morrison's work here is important, very important. She echoes Feminist Criticism's call for a female language, yet opens up this claim to a higher, broader level-all suppressed groups need a "free" language with which to write and communicate without fear of subversion. And while she does open up this claim, she, unfortunately, weakens her argument by not fully considering the impact of other non-racial oppressed groups. It may be that the brevity of this text implies such a narrow focus, as at times she alludes to gender and sexuality. Yet, I can't help but think, given more time and a wider focus, that Morrison's Playing in the Dark would have been a more encompassing and substantial work.

Back to Bibliography