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Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
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Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

4.1 of 5 stars 4.10  ·  rating details  ·  2,385 ratings  ·  130 reviews
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved and Jazz now gives us a learned, stylish, and immensely persuasive work of literary criticism that promises to change the way we read American literature even as it opens a new chapter in the American dialogue on race.

Toni Morrison's brilliant discussions of the "Africanist" presence in the fiction of Poe, Melville, Cather, and
Paperback, 91 pages
Published July 27th 1993 by Vintage (first published 1992)
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If only all literary criticism and theory were as well-written, clear, and concise as Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison's central argument in this book is a fairly simple one, that "the contemplation of this black presence [in American history and literature:] is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination" (5). She dedicates herself in this book to expl ...more
I should confess that Morrison will never get a flat-out criticism from this reviewer. I'm a bit of a fanatic, a would-be groupie. Read this one, my first experience with Morrison's non-fiction, for a paper I'm working on--incidentally, on "Beloved" (and tangentially, Faulkner's "Light in August"). Morrison's wry, crisp style is of course on form. The argument is, unsurprisingly, provocative and very astute. I'm particularly intrigued by her notion of the 'invisible presence' of Africanism throu ...more
This was great. Clearly articulated, important work interested in a discourse Morrison observes is left out of contemporary American literary theory. I don't have much experience with American lit, but her clear analyses were such that I had no trouble applying her theories to some of the American texts (and even Canadian ones) that I have read that she didn't directly engage with. She takes major themes in American lit to task—"individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical iso ...more
Ismael Galvan
The more I read, the more seldom my mind gets blown. Toni Morrison's Playing the Dark has changed my perspective on western literature the way Noam Chomsky opened my eyes to western power.

"My project is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served."

I thought this was going to be another book on racism and literature. Morrison treads away from that worn out subject
A great insight into the African American culture, from the point of view of a brilliant, sarcastic, Nobel Prize winner, black writer and also a better understanding of the meaning of "blackness" and "whiteness" in America.
Sian Lile-Pastore
possibly a bit too academic for bed time reading (which was when I read it) so may need to re-read this short book that packs such a punch. Particularly liked the bits on Hemingway. Nice one Toni.
Toni Morrison brings an awe inspiring literary criticism in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Her raw, yet poetic literary voice lends itself to inspire readers to consider the “Africanist” presence, and the influence it had on several themes embodied by notable characters within early American literature.

Although this book consists of less than 100 pages, it is truly a profound read. I found myself taking on a studious manner and re-reading sentences several times, to
Nov 13, 2007 El rated it 2 of 5 stars
Shelves: lit-crit
Toni Morrison's three lectures in this book deal with the polarity between white and black characters in American literature, racial insights and constructs a definition of what "whiteness" means.

What happens is Morrison spends considerable amount of space discussing how each mention of the word "white" in a novel is intentional, and how Jim in Huckleberry Finn is treated so poorly. She tries to take an interesting approach showing the white/black balance in literature, but winds up discussing s
Essential reading, elegantly written; a wonderful companion in an American lit class (esp early American). I love reading criticism written by fiction writers -- Morrison is generous and respectful to all writers, *less* generous to critics who have left serious gaps in our body of criticism. “A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only ‘universal’ but also ‘race-free’ risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist” (12); a study of literary black ...more
An insightful and important look at whiteness and the representation of the "Africanist" in literature. I only have two minor criticisms:

1. Morrison assures us early on that the examples she is discussing still exist (and I agree with her), but her discussion is limited to classic literature, most of which is over a century old. It would have been nice to see some more contemporary examples in the mix (even something from the 70s, for example).

2. It's a very short book, and I think there was roo
Cynthia Rosi
This is a short, powerful book in which Morrison puts forward her theories on the Africanist in literature. Morrison asks herself the questions: “…how is “literary whiteness” and “literary blackness” made, and what is the consequence of that construction? How do embedded assumptions of racial (not racist) language work in the literary enterprise that hopes and sometimes claims to be “humanistic”? When, in a race-conscious culture, is that lofty goal actually approximated?” (10) Through examples ...more
I rarely read literary criticism, but I've been eyeing this one for over a decade, though it was published over 20 years ago. Two words: Still true. When I saw the movie and later read, "Revolutionary Road", what struck me more than the pure quality of the storyline and the issues it successfully touched and tackled, was just how "white" it all was. How it had the feel of being universal but was really anything but. It was not the kind of movie/story - due to the time period - that could have be ...more
Thomas D.
In reading all of Toni Morrison's books, I struggle to find words that can capture her essence. There is a beauty to her writing that is unmatched. I have given it long and intense thought, pondering how to express my opinion of the greatness of her writing. In doing this, not only have I read her books, I have read many of the things that others have said about her. In this effort, the best description of her writing that I can find, is found on pages 99 through 102 of Thomas D. Rush's “Reality ...more
Izetta Autumn
Morrison, who is a stunning writer, also has a history in publishing. She combines her literary brillance with her ability to critique, and the result is a solid academic work delving into the symbols writers and society use to establish binaries of good/bad, black/white, beautiful/ugly. Certainly this book is a seminal study of race in literature.
I read this for African American Lit. in college; it's extremely laborious reading for such a thin volume, I can't remember a single point she made. Every other word sent me to the dictionary, and every word after that wasn't even IN the standard dictionary! Don't read this book unless you must:)
Maxwell Heath
This was a fascinating work of literary criticism. Morrison has some excellent ideas about the use of black people as symbols and props rather than real characters in white fiction. Her points about how a class of slaves and oppressed people heavily contribute to American literary discourses on freedom and identity were quite thought-provoking. I enjoyed her analysis of various fiction, and while I was only familiar with some of the works she discusses, I was able to follow all of her arguments. ...more
The reason this doesn't get five stars is because any critical work which addresses racial erasure, fetishism, and appropriation in American literature but fails to mention Native Americans at all is fundamentally lacking.

That said, when viewed through the deliberately narrow perspective which is explored, this is a desperately necessary and exquisitely unflinching work. It is very American - although as a white British reader viewing from a colonialist perspective it has relevancy to me too - a
Kristin Boldon
As part of my research after reading Beloved. Provocative. Written in high "academ-ese" so not a fun read, but a rewarding one that demanded the careful attention of this reader.
Matt Miles
Like her novels, Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination adds a necessary voice and perspective that was missing before it was published. While the absence of beauty and poetry typical to her fiction is necessary but a shame, Toni Morrison's knowledge of history and American literature make the necessary argument that in order for white authors to contemplate their own freedom and its implications, the "other" needed to be unfree in literature as well as in li ...more
Ron Nie
American Lit's answer to Said's Orientalism. Super interesting, important, clearly written stuff.
Only criticism: gets a bit repetitive in the 2nd chapter.
Heid E.
OK, what I don't like about Morrison's critical work is that it ignores the reality of First Peoples and our presence in literature.
Matthew Baskerville
Morrison’s slim work of non-fiction is a profound, dense, and in-depth study of the influence of what Morrison refers to as the Africanist presence in American literature and what this presence says about how white culture in America perceives itself in the historical context of a country whose history is deeply entrenched in the slavery and subjugation of an entire race of people. Morrison intelligently and authoritatively grapples with such basic American concepts of individualism and freedom ...more
I've never read literary criticism before, but it seems that a writer develops a thesis and then picks samples of writing to support that argument. This is very different from hypothesis testing in science, but seems reasonable because of the practical limitations that would come with systematically reading and analyzing hundreds of books in an unbiased way to find evidence for and against the proposed thesis.

I think Morrison's primary thesis is that books considered to be Great American novels
I will definitely be writing a longer review of this. Suffice it for now to say that it's a masterful and paradigm-changing exploration of what it means for literature to be "American." Specifically, what does it mean that the vast majority of literary criticism has ignored or overlooked the centrality of Blackness - Black characters, the imagery and vocabulary of Blackness in texts, and silences and erasures around Blackness - in American literature, from its earliest examples. Morrison convinc ...more
I finished this book nearly a month ago and since then I've been intending to review it, preferably with something more respectable than "This book is badass. Read it." I should preface my review by saying that I am not "one of those people" who love and admire anything and everything written by Ms. Morrison. At times I find her style irritatingly grandiose (Love) and frustratingly obscure (Beloved). This book right here, however, is neither of those things. At her best, as in Song of Solomon, J ...more
Moses Kilolo
My memory of Beloved, a novel I read over a year or so ago, is a fond one. It was the first Pulitzer winning book I read, hence the enthusiasm. It was only natural that I would love anything else by Toni Morrison, even though I haven't gotten round to reading some of her other books, which I have wanted to, for so long. Something else is always in the list, and I keep forgetting. However much, oh yes, however much I love this American writer. In my heart she ranks with Angelou, because both have ...more
What I found so compelling was how well Morrison articulates the idea of experiences and specific moments only being played out or felt by African Americans – what does that do to the people forced and written into these moments over and over? But Morrison also asks a question that is ignored so often (and I had not considered before) – what happens to the people scripted out of those roles? What disconnect does this create, not only from another people, but from something within themselves?

Here, unfortunately, Morrison is relegated (or resigned) to "playing" Jim to Huck Finn's "white literary imagination." In the grand ol' African-American tradition, Playing in the Dark' is yet another appeal to white intellect for black humanity. Yes; Morrison briefly and plainly mocks the alleged universality of white literature; and yes, she as briefly and plainly notes the parasitic nature of white humanity upon black, but the reader is wise to remember the title, that she is, above all, still ...more
Morrison's illuminating and profound inquiry searches for the intrusive and often disquieting presence, usually concealed, of blacks within early and 20th Century American literature. She exposes the struggle of said literature to wrestle with this presence while at times attempting to silence it, and how it contributed to the shaping of a 'new white man', (by within the American context) as the settlers who fled Europe sought to create and distinguish themselves from European ideals of what it ...more
The first few pages are tough going, if like me, it's been ages since you picked up critical theory.

Once Morrison fleshes out her key assertions, among them “the parasitic nature of white identity” in American literature, the book begins to enthrall. I can’t speak to how much she adds to this critical lens of race because I’m not well read in this area (though she clearly owes a lot to James Snead whom she quotes at length), but I can speak to the accessibility of her ideas and fascinating disco
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Toni Morrison (born Chloe Anthony Wofford), is an American author, editor, and professor who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature for being an author "who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed African American characters; among the best k
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“Der Afrikanismus ist das Vehikel, durch das sich das amerikanische Ich als nicht versklavt, sondern frei erfährt, als nicht abstoßend, sondern begehrenswert, nicht hilflos, sondern priviligiert und mächtig, nicht geschichtslos sondern geschichtlich, nicht verdammt, sondern unschuldig, nicht ein blinder Zufall der Evolution, sondern fortschrittliche Erfüllung eines Schicksal.” 1 likes
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