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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.

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