Thoughts: Playing in the Dark

“Marking the moment of awakening is like marking the moment one fell in love,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in We Were Eight Years in Power.

Funny because I mark the moment of reading Coates’s The Case for Reparations as an awakening. At the time I thought it was a singular thing, to have woken up from ignorance. I did not realize this would be a continuous waking up.

It would occur again after I moved to Harlem and after Eric Garner’s death, and all the deaths that followed, and again, with the rise of Trump.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark was another kind of awakening. A new friend recommended it to me while we stood in a used bookshop in Soho. I had picked up a Jane Austen book perhaps, or something similarly classic, and asked him which authors of the American educational canon he liked most. He said, didn’t you know that most of those writers were racist?

I stumbled my answer, and conceded that yes perhaps they were, but in my mind I did not agree to dismiss all the canonical greats with a single amoral labeling. He said, you should read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark.

I downloaded it to my Kindle and left it unread for a week, or more. Now, it should be noted that I did not grow up reading the American canon. I am fairly ignorant of Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Faulkner; I hated Jane Austen and never read Charles Dickens. And nevertheless, I was afraid to read Morrison’s book. I was ignorant of Morrison too, and was afraid it would be a diatribe against everything white and past, that it would confuse the craft of writing with the morals of its craftsmen, that it would erase the art for the politics.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Morrison’s book is by far one of the most careful and insightful deliberation of how to interrogate a past without moral declarations. “My project rises from delight, not disappointment,” she writes. She uses the term curiosity, rather than analysis, investigation or judgement. Her project is to find out where blackness, what she refers to as ‘Aficanism,’ has influenced the canonical writers, and by extension our cultural blueprint of ourselves.

All of it is instructive, writes Morrison: the absence of black people and their caricature, the kindness and cruelty of the default actors, the descriptions and interactions between those in power and those without. It all leads to the understanding that the white man is not possible without the black man, because whiteness understands itself as the negative of blackness. It experiences power, conquest, righteousness, superiority, and freedom only because there are black and indigenous people available to be compared to.

I have heard the argument over and over that America would not be America without black people, and that white is not white without black, and I never fully accepted it. Functionally, yes. Without slave labor we could not have built the country we did. I did not not accept the argument, partially because it had never crystallized for me that I disagreed, and partially because it was not socially acceptable to do so.

But in the 100 or so pages of Playing in the Dark, I was immediately convinced. Morrison walks through several examples: Poe, Twain, Hemingway, Cather, and with deft literary analysis lays everything out bare. And she does it without recrimination, without denouncing Poe or Twain or Hemingway or Cather, because as she herself says, that is not the purpose of the book. It is not to discover if they are racist, it is to discover how blackness shaped the way they saw the world, even in the absence of black people as believable, acceptable, characters.

I felt chastised for my defensiveness, and I realize that there’s an argument that might denounce this analysis as a silencing of black recrimination and anger; as if, if Morrison had denounced the great writers, thereby wounding my whiteness, I would no longer be able to accept what she had to say.

I would engage with that argument, but I think it’s a piece of the kind of approach that Morrison avoids. Her work shows that this type of discussion about race, and writing, and how the past was made is crucial and important and tough and fascinating. A slash-and-burn treatment of history, or the present actually, where anything that is immoral is unacceptable and therefore unspeakable, is remarkably simplistic and destructive.

It can’t be that the only lens through which to confront our culture is to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, even with the admirable goal of eradicating racism, recognizing our genocidal roots, and generally repudiating the past.

Morrison’s book gave me language and permission to question the collection of things we call our culture out of curiosity rather than judgement; to practice curiosity in a way that opens doors to more understanding, rather than shuts any doors we wish didn’t exist.

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