Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.

Encounter with Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark


Reading Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark triggered deep and complicated reactions in me.  This is one of the best critical studies I have ever encountered; she explores new ground, opens up possibilities that didn’t exist prior to her structured expression.  Original, in a word.

She looks past the traditional approach black American writers and social commentators normally take on racism in the US; the injustice, violence, discrimination and separateness historically suffered by black Americans.  She digs deeper, and exposes the impact slavery and the subsequent racially-mixed society has upon everyone, and in particular, male white novelists (me, for instance).

She is right when she says Black Americans permeate white fiction, and by extension, the consciousness (both individual and social) of all white Americans.  As Americans, we possess streaks of blackness within all of us, in ways that the Japanese, Argentinians and Ugandans (the impact is cultural, not racial) simply don’t.  These streaks (they are multiple) consist of music (jazz, early rock ‘n roll), black humor, athletic dominance, strains of social degradation suffered by such a visible and vibrant minority, and the residual guilt that goes along with it.  Black American culture is deeply American, and informs every American whether they appreciate any of it, or not.

Black America dominates my fiction.  The central character of my first novel is black (Algeciras).  The character that develops into the most powerful character is black (Kili).  The most physically beautiful characters are both black (Kili, Sahara).  The most dignified, and arguably the most admirable character is black (Zaragoza).  The prominent story-teller is black (Jinja).  The man who wreaks the most terrible destruction is black (Crete).  None of this is accidental, and reflects the dominance of black America in my creative consciousness.

While I toned down racial confrontations in later re-writes, major historical incidents like the murder of Emmett Till and Sagon Penn feature prominently in my stories.

So you can see, Morrison’s theme hit very close to home.

She also had me think clearly about who I considered my audience.  She contends that American novelists write primarily with white males in mind.  I found upon reflection this wasn’t the case, with me.  For better or worse, I always wrote what I cared about, what I might like to read, so in a sense, I was always my target reader.  And given that I am a white male, perhaps she is right after all.

Her description of William Dunbar left me chilled, and not for the reasons she intended.  Male human violent aggression forms the core of my literary concern, and she lays out a perfect example of what a man will do, given the power and opportunity.  Even a ‘good’ man, an educated and moral one, like Dunbar.

She struck another major nerve with her discussion of Huckleberry Finn, the novel I consider one of the two best in 19th century American fiction (Moby Dick the other).  She pin points the novel’s appeal to me in the following:

On this young but street-smart innocent, Huck, who is virginally uncorrupted by bourgeois yearnings, fury, and helplessness, Mark Twain inscribes a critique of slavery and the pretensions of the would-be middle class, a resistance to the loss of Eden and the difficulty of becoming a social individual.

Part of that appeal later appears in one of my novels in the following passage:

The one difference between them two and the rest of the world: we are free, Jack remembers, like Tarzan living in the African jungle, doing whatever he wants, whenever, and never worrying about a thing.  Or like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, their true heroes, taking off and living on an island in the middle of the massive Mississippi, digging for turtle eggs when hungry, telling ghost stories to spook each other up.  Nobody serious would do such things, live as unshackled as all that. 

It’s easy for me, and safer, here in the early 21st century, to rail against racism and to depict the historical injustice; a rare accomplishment to do so when Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn. 

As far as Hemingway goes, I have read all his fiction, much of his non-fiction, several biographies, his letters, and several critical studies.  He is of special interest to me as a writer, in terms of his development and character; I think less of his fiction than most, and found Morrison’s study devastating and ‘true’ (a good Hemingway word).  The invisibility of black Americans in white fiction is pervasive.  I think we discussed the Great Gatsby example (they go to Harlem in the twenties and as far as we can tell, everyone encountered is white).  But this is more traditional racial criticism, and doesn’t match Morrison’s originality, in particular when she calls out how Hemingway has to distort his prose to keep his black character from speaking. 

There is a connection between her discussion of Huckleberry Finn and Hemingway she doesn’t mention.  The following from Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa:

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

This is ironic, in that Morrison dwells on how Tom and Huck treat Jim’s escape.  I think the entire episode funny as hell, reflecting more on Tom’s vision of romance than anything Huck or Jim think important, but Morrison sees it as important while Hemingway thinks otherwise.

I could go on and on.  I almost went back and mapped out my encounter with black America, but didn’t.  The only example I will provide takes place in Jamaica.  As you may remember, I was one of two white guys in our division of over 300; the only one after my boss left.  What is so different about Jamaica is that racial sensitivity doesn’t exist; the people there never went through post-slavery repression.  Black Jamaicans have always ruled (albeit with a distinct British social hierarchy) so they haven’t experienced a history of racial distress.  They found “Black History month” odd.  Anyway, one night after being there several months, and after having a few drinks, I found myself terribly home-sick (if that’s the way to put it) – for black Americans!  It was a very odd and unexpected reaction to the society in which I lived and worked, and telling, as it was such a spontaneous and thoughtless emotional reaction. 

I despise the racial history of this country.  Outside of its bloody wars, I consider the practice of slavery, and after 1865, the structural repression of black Americans the most appalling aspect of American society.  Great strides have been made, and I am grateful; it is no longer socially acceptable to express racist attitudes; black athletes routinely QB NFL teams; a black president sits in the Whitehouse.  But none of these things erase the past, or completely counter the occasional racist acts or the common racist thoughts that sometimes get expressed.  Sure, there are probably fewer out-and-out racists in your generation than mine, but trust me, they still exist.

Thanks for sharing this book.  I obviously took away infinitely more than from Lorde.