Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
The facts are simple and brutal, you can read them any day in the newspapers. If you read them and if you feel they are published for you. The suggestion that news in America is often just white news, or news for whites, occurs again and again in Toni Morrison’s work, nowhere more strongly than in her novel Beloved (1987), where a former slave knows that the mere presence of a black face in a paper is the sign not only of disaster but of more than customary horror:
A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. Nor was it there because the person had been killed, or maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated, since that could hardly qualify as news in a newspaper. It would have to be something out of the ordinary …
Of course, this man’s reaction belongs to Cincinnati in 1873, and the news itself is eighteen years older; but it is a theme both of Morrison’s new novel, Jazz, and of her lectures given at Harvard in 1990 and published as Playing in the Dark, that things may not have changed as fast or as much as we think or hope.
“A newspaper can turn your mind,” the narrator of Jazz says, but Alice Manfred, the character she is worried about, seems to have her mind fairly straight. Alice reads about the violence of the world, and also, between the lines, finds an angry resistance to it.
Every week…a paper laid bare the bones of some broken woman. Man kills wife. Eight accused of rape dismissed. Woman and girl victims of. Woman commits suicide. White attackers indicted. Five women caught. Woman says man beat. In jealous rage man.
Are these broken women mere victims? “Natural prey? Easy pickings?” “I don’t think so,” Alice repeats. Some are, no doubt, and the novel tells us the story of one of them, Alice’s niece Dorcas, a girl who likes to push people into “something scary,” and who, when shot by a man she has driven too far, allows herself to die. But other black women in Jazz are arming themselves, physically and mentally, and in this they have caught a current of the times, a not always visible indignation that says enough is enough. It is an indignation that is glimpsed in new forms of protest and political organization and heard in the freedom and sadness and hunger of jazz. There are extended flashbacks in the novel, but its main “times” are the 1920s, or rather a period which Morrison dates from 1917, the year of major riots in East Saint Louis and a commemorative march in New York. The novel’s most intimate, violent events occur in January 1926. There was a jazz age behind the Jazz Age.
The simplest of public incidents, of the kind that make it into the newspapers, arise from complicated private stories, and such stories, connecting blunt or bitter fact with its riddling context or history, have always been Morrison’s business as a novelist. And not only as a novelist. In her introduction to an interesting volume of essays on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas affair,1 Morrison distinguishes between “what took place” and “what happened,” where the former is what can be briefly stated in a newspaper, say, and the latter is what we might, after patient thought and considerable investigation, actually understand. We live in a world of what the narrator of Jazz calls “a crooked kind of mourning,”—crooked as a path may be crooked, unavoidably indirect—and the phrase takes us a good way into Morrison’s moral landscape.
The mourning is often for a factual event or the fictional version of a factual event, for what suddenly and undeniably took place: a shooting, a rape, the killing of a child. Its “crookedness” comes from its also being part of what happened and keeps happening, and it is one of the special provinces of the imaginative writer. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison speaks of “places where the imagination sabotages itself, locks its own gates, pollutes its vision,” and her fiction is largely concerned with the geography and (possible) redemption of such places. The mind, for Morrison, could be a friend but is often an enemy, as we learn in Beloved, for instance, where an escaped slave, the woman whose face is in the newspapers, is imprisoned in the horrors of memory:
She shook her head from side to side, resigned to her rebellious brain. Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything.
Even the physical beauty of the real world compounds the problem, disguising the pain and disgrace of the remembered slave farm: “It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.”
It is horrifying, of course, that history should show such quantities of material cruelty; no less horrifying, perhaps, that the long legacy of such a history is an imagination too often dedicated to self-sabotage, unable even to mourn except in “crooked” ways that displace or deny the full horror of the death and injury being mourned.
Morrison’s lucid and eloquent first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), portrays a poor black family who live in a rundown storefront in Lorain, Ohio. There is an important difference, Morrison’s narrator insists, between living there and staying there.
They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly. Although their poverty was traditional and stultifying, it was not unique. But their ugliness was unique…. You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.
Each member of the family interprets and acts out his or her ugliness differently, but none of them understands that the all-knowing master is not God but only history and habit; the projection of their own benumbed collusion with the mythology of beauty and ugliness that oppresses them beyond their already grim social oppression. Throughout Morrison’s novels—those already mentioned, but also Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981)—variously trapped and bewildered characters fight against similar mythologies, alluring versions of what it means to be black or female or poor or free or respectable or Southern. They fight with energy and dignity but usually without much success. The best they get is release from pain or haunting, or an understanding of the life they are about to lose.
The strongest moments in the novels represent what we might call the paradoxes of crookedness: rape, as a form of love in extremis; infanticide as the deepest expression of a mother’s care. The ugly father of the ugly family in The Bluest Eye rapes his daughter but at least, the narrator bleakly says, he “loved her enough to touch her.” For the chief character in Beloved the killing of her baby in order to save her from a return to slavery is both simple and unforgivable, what she had to do and what she cannot forget, the direct result of a deformed history. “If I hadn’t killed her,” she says, “she would have died”: and the tangle of the thought is the exact image of the tangle of her heart and mind.
In sharply evoked crookedness of this kind, tender, horrifying, passionate, and violent, Morrison resolves the dilemma which David Brion Davis identified in these pages earlier this year: How can one register the effects of oppression without making the victims seem merely “dehumanized and incapable,” precisely the passive, inferior beings their oppressors like to think they are?2
In Jazz, for the first time in Morrison’s fiction, there is a genuine escape from crookedness and sabotage, a defeat of mythology, and Morrison herself seems at a loss to describe what has happened—even if she knows precisely what has taken place. Perhaps Morrison is only miming disarray, and in one sense she must be. She has her narrator declare her surprise at her characters’ behavior, as if they just got away from her, as if they managed to end up happy without her permission. “I was so sure, and they danced and walked all over me. Busy, they were, busy being original, complicated, changeable—human, I guess you’d say….” I guess we’d rather not say, and of course we can’t linger too long over this tired trope. When writers (or their surrogates) say their characters have a life of their own, we wonder both what they are actually up to and why they think this faded metaphor still works.
But while Morrison’s narrator is sentimentalizing her characters (it is human to be original and changeable, but no less human, alas, to be blinkered and monotonous), something more interesting is also happening, and to see what it is we need to return to the “facts” of the novel, what the newspapers might have reported for January 1926 on Lenox Avenue and thereabouts.
Middle-aged man shoots and kills an eighteen-year-old girl, they might have said. Wife attempts to slash the face of the girl’s corpse. Joe and Violet Trace have been living happily enough in New York City since they came up from Virginia in 1906, more happily (at first) than they ever expected to. They had heard a lot about Baltimore and Violet at least was afraid New York might be “less lovely”:
Joe believed it would be perfect. When they arrived, carrying all of their belongings in one valise, they both knew right away that perfect was not the word. It was better than that.
The narrator, a garrulous, intelligent, unnamed Harlem local (“Sth, I know that woman,” she begins), has the same wide-eyed view of the excitements of the (always eagerly capitalized) City. “I’m crazy about this City,” she says. “I like the way the City makes people think they can do what they want and get away with it”; and she likes the way it allows people to become “not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves.”
The City is smart at this: smelling and [sic] good and looking raunchy; sending secret messages disguised as public signs: this way, open here, danger to let colored only single men on sale woman wanted private room stop dog on premises absolutely no money down fresh chicken free delivery fast.
Raceing Justice, En-gendering Power, edited and with an introduction by Morrison (Pantheon, 1992).↩
"The American Dilemma," The New York Review, July 16, 1992.↩