FEBRUARY 7, 2018
ROUGHLY 25 YEARS AGO, Toni Morrison’s landmark meditation on the uses of whiteness in American literature, Playing in the Dark, examined the national dialogue on race by unveiling the exorbitant presence of an American Africanism. In evocative close readings ranging variously over Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, and Willa Cather, Morrison ties the American dream of freedom to its ostensible opposite — slavery, showing how deeply formative the idea of blackness was to any conception of American identity. Even when race is not the apparent subject of fiction, Morrison reveals how Africanism makes possible notions of individualism and flight, of nature and nurture, of faith and desire. In constructing the “architecture of a new white man,” American literature dreams up allegories, conjures shadowy doubles, or lingers in agonized longings to avoid naming the blackness that everywhere consumes it. Dismantling the putative tag of universality easily accorded to white writers and withheld from black ones, Morrison changed the landscape of literary studies with this slim but explosive volume in 1992.
It may seem that such an exhortation is now unnecessary. Open displays of anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiment accompany a resurgent and weaponized whiteness in the era of Trump. If race had “become metaphorical” in the 1980s, as Morrison suggests in Playing in the Dark, it is tempting to assume that the work of metaphor or allusion, surrogacy or doubling is complete as neo-Nazis march down the streets of Charlottesville. In fact, for many on the left, focusing on the wounded psyche and dashed hopes of the white working class has become a way to chide those still invested in race-based critique as advocating an outdated form of identity politics. In a series of lectures given at Harvard in 2016, here collected as The Origin of Others, Morrison turns again to the mechanisms of racial identification and disavowal to expand her provocations on the nature of belonging. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observes in his foreword to the book, the Trump election seemed to indicate that the “moral universe’s long arc […] got longer,” as the triumph of white racism undercut progressive narratives about achieving racial justice. For Coates, accordingly, it makes sense to read Morrison’s reflections on literature, identity, and belonging with specific reference to this national scene of negotiation or reckoning. And certainly, Morrison has much to say about events that are not only on the American mind, but the global one, as she ranges over nostalgic returns to slavery, the pervasive use of racial epithets by white writers, and the forced migration of an unprecedented number of displaced people.
The distance traveled between the two books is instructive both for the scholarly study of race and for gleaning the place of African Americans in US history. For the former, on the one hand, the call Morrison issued in Playing in the Dark may be seen as fully answered, as black literature and questions of race (including the study of whiteness) have an assured place now in any definition of an American literary canon and indeed of world literature writ large. However, the greater discipline of literary studies — including publishers, editors, professors, and critics — remains far less representative. It is worth recalling that among the 92 years of the Charles Eliot Norton lecture series at Harvard, Morrison was only the fourth woman and second African American invited to speak. Moreover, I can easily imagine a scholar of 19th-century literature bristling at Morrison’s treatment of Harriet Beecher Stowe as a romancer of slavery, and have frequently found this the case in my classes on African-American literature at UCLA. When teaching Ishmael Reed’s riotous Flight to Canada, for example, I inevitably encounter a white student (and yes, it is always a white student) disturbed by his summary dismissal and parody of Stowe. It’s more complicated, my student insists, worrying that a climate of political correctness un-authorizes her love of Stowe. I’m happy to recall here, as well, the inevitable response from a black student who counters this complaint by underscoring the violence of reading Stowe as a black person, and the sense of freedom and joy Reed allows in his irreverence. As doctrines of white supremacy surge to the forefront of politics and culture today, I can only imagine that such conflicts will get more fraught, as the story of racialization emerges in starker and bleaker outline amid persistent anti-black violence. Morrison’s efforts to make us think more deeply and counterintuitively about collective subject formation — fantasies, projections, and denials alike — may thus be even more crucial than they were over two and a half decades ago.
In The Origin of Others, Morrison revisits ways of reading American literature, but also expands her scope to ponder the meaning of race itself, and how it lodges itself in both individual and collective imaginaries. “How does one become a racist […]?” Morrison asks. In the 21st century, the cumulative evidence of science and sociology easily disproves genetic justifications for racial difference, such as those found in Samuel Cartwright’s medical diagnosis in 1851 of two illnesses peculiar to black people: “drapetomania” (a disease causing slaves to run away) and “dysaesthesia aethiopica” (a tendency toward lethargy and “rascality”). Morrison begins with such ghastly forms of violence presented as scientific knowledge to underscore the complicity of Enlightenment rationalism with racial terror. A famous and wrenching scene in Beloved exposes a schoolteacher teaching his students to list the animal and human parts of Sethe, the enslaved woman they have just assaulted. That they could suckle at her breast at the same time that they declared her animality crystallizes the horror of slavery’s sexual regime. Thomas Thistlewood, an English planter in Jamaica, similarly logs the occurrence of his rape of enslaved women in his diary with indifference. Interspersed among accounts of buying and selling, farming and cleaning, disease and trading deals, what Morrison calls his “carnal record” appears in Latin: Sup. Lect. for “on the bed,” Sup. Terr. for “on the ground,” and so on.
Much of Morrison’s astounding fiction can be seen as an effort to counter such dehumanization and to return interiority, psychological depth, and rich cultural traditions to her African-American subjects — in short, to imbue her characters with the full spectrum of a denied humanity. In insisting that she does not write for a largely white literary establishment, but rather for an African-American audience, without fear of a white gaze to circumscribe her choices, Morrison refuses the role of educator of racists so often unconsciously prescribed for writers like her. Beloved, for instance, is inspired by the historical precedent of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave mother fleeing Kentucky for Ohio with her children, who, when caught, cut the throat of her infant child and tried to kill another. In The Origin of Others, Morrison describes coming across the newspaper clipping outlining the events, but deliberately choosing not to research further. Instead of attempting to recover a forgotten history, she extracts two observations from the article — Garner’s serenity and the refusal of her mother-in-law to judge the killing or endorse it — that help her plot a morally complex novel, making simple questions of guilt, innocence, or responsibility impossible to answer. For Morrison, the murdered child had to be the center of the story, the only judge to whom the mother would have to respond. Instead of pursuing the more straightforward task of historical reclamation, she writes a famously difficult novel, circling around the infanticide by shifting perspectives and manipulating temporalities. Even as Beloved restores slavery as the original sin of the nation, it also forecloses simple questions of historical accountability, blame, or restitution. Instead, Morrison pursues more opaque and lofty goals: “Narrative fiction provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination. In this iteration, for me the author, Beloved the girl, the haunter, is the ultimate Other.”
Refusing polarized narratives, The Origin of Others takes up this more nebulous task of understanding what it means to encounter the Other, to estrange or render familiar, to discard as foreign or to bring home. Why do human beings need to construct the stranger at all?
The figure of the stranger, the Other, the foreigner roams in Morrison’s hands — signaling at times characters like Beloved, at others the shadowy migrants and refugees of the current global order displaced by war. Morrison recalls her great-grandmother declaring on seeing her sister playing with her on the floor, “these children have been tampered with,” extending the difference in skin color across generations to portend something weightier and more damaging. Counterposing this with another scene of black children playing on the floor, Morrison explains how Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin must make this space of black domestic life safe for the white reader to enter. If this means imagining a slave mother who feeds a white child while throwing scraps on the floor for her own children to fight over, so be it. Such an estranging of the black mother is fundamental to the project of recreating slavery as a romance. In response, slave narrators emphasize the excessive violence of slavery: the spectacle of whippings, the sadism of sexual assault, the unspeakable tortures that aren’t meant simply to ensure profit from a laboring body but something much more. Morrison argues that such narratives elucidate the logic of slavery as an epistemology where the slave is created as a foreign species, dehumanized as a stranger to humanity so that one’s own self can become both normal and normative.
Morrison extends the figure of the stranger still further by turning the lens of examination onto herself — judging her own fantasies about a woman she meets in her neighbor’s yard who promises friendship but also patronage — the guarantee of “a personal shaman.” When the woman fails to reappear, Morrison is dismayed by the intensity of her own bereavement. She concludes that she had fashioned a romance about the strange woman because of unresolved longings of her own, imagining opportunities where she could be generous and protective. Doing so constituted an appropriation, a denial of another’s personhood. Instead, Morrison advocates letting go of fantasies about one’s own self and recognizing that there are, in fact, no strangers. To search for intimacy with the Other is also to recognize one’s own foreignness.
Such a blurring — across the stark violence of slavery, the literary racism of Stowe or Hemingway, the ghostly figure of Beloved, the demanding presence of the mixed-race person in an all-black town, the material predicament of the contemporary refugee — may seem puzzling. To me, at least, Morrison’s sentimental fantasy about the woman she sees in a neighbor’s yard seems far removed from the brutal xenophobia of current anti-immigrant discourse. Moreover, the deep and expansive humanism advanced here is difficult to square with the vexed polarities of current political landscapes. In some ways, the most striking aspect of The Origin of Others is a catalog of 20th-century lynchings Morrison includes — with names, dates, and bare facts about the accusation of a crime, and the form of the attack (including beating, hanging, burning, and mutilation). Such spare prose requires no further exegesis, just the facts. Summoning up a similar list of 21st-century names of people killed by the police is chillingly too easy.
And yet, despite such resonance, and pace Coates’s preface, it may be better to dwell with Morrison’s thoughts on belonging outside of such concerns about timeliness or explanation. Rather than a specific meditation on the current political marshland, her work encourages a longer historical span, less polemical wanderings through literature and culture. What Morrison is after in these lectures is a theory of subject formation, both individual and collective, based in both ontology and epistemology. Reminiscent of such previous efforts as Edward Said’s Orientalism, Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa,” and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, she pulls back the flesh of the racist and the racialized alike to try to unearth some common humanity without discarding realities of power and privilege.
In an evocative essay, titled simply “Home,” Morrison had memorably described fiction as a racial house that she had to domesticate to make it home: “[H]ow to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet non-racist home?” In her examination of Othering, if there is any comfort Morrison clings to, it is again literature and the power of language to bridge differences, to travel across gulfs, to even become the Other. Literature can be “revelatory” in helping us see the ways in which a self takes shape or breaks down. In particular, writing by Africans and African Americans has long confronted issues of not being at home in their own homelands, of being in exile even when at home. To truly belong, to be at home, but also make that home genuinely hospitable to the Other, reader and writer both have to un-learn ways of seeing. For Morrison, this means making the effort to make language color-blind.
In what she terms the “color fetish,” everything from single words or phrases, the placement of proper names, the shape of a sentence, the movement of plot, can not only hinge on race but also make up an exclusionary world. Showing how Hemingway withholds or grants a proper name to his black characters or how Flannery O’Connor reveals the education of a young white boy in how to read a black body outside of age, clothing, or demeanor, but simply as black, Morrison underscores the need to search for the freedom gained when a writer refuses such fetishes, and tries to free language from the prison-house of race. In Paradise, for example, Morrison begins with the haunting sentence — “They shoot the white girl first.” She never specifies who the white girl is, and confesses that of all the readers who have approached her since the publication of the novel, only one ever guessed the race correctly. Disturbing such urges to classification, Morrison aims to dismantle the master’s house, to make it habitable for all. She is aware that her efforts to erase racial specificity in such works as “Recitatif” or Home might come across as instances of “literary white-washing,” disappointing readers expecting powerful portraits of black interiority and sociality. But she insists that to reveal its essential meaninglessness, she must “de-fang and theatricalize race” by making it impossible for the reader to differentiate a white character from a black one. Perhaps this is why, instead of continuing her powerful complication of blackness, her current novel-in-progress focuses on the education of a racist, promising a meticulous evisceration of the meaning of whiteness today.