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

4.08 of 5 stars 4.08  ·  rating details  ·  2,147 ratings  ·  114 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...more
Paperback, 112 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
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...more
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.
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...more
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...more
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
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
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:)
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...more
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.
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...more
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...more
In this volume Morrison writes 'I intend to outline an attractive, fruitful, and provocative crtical project.' Well, she does outline her project--examining the role of whiteness in literature through white authors' depictions of the Africanist Other. (Africanism = kind of like Said's Orientalism.) The critical project is an interesting one because, as Morrison points out, the white writer unconsciously presumes him or herself to be race-free and universal while all others are raced. Her concise...more
I really wanted to love this book, and I was excited to read it, but ultimately I found it to be not so great. I think Morrison's thesis is a good one, and ideally a discussion of what she calls "Africanism" (a term I dislike, even though I see it's her version of Orientalism, because Orientalism works because the original term isn't really used anymore) would be great followup for students who have read excerpts of Said's work, because it does bring it closer to home, at least for Americans. Th...more
Jordan Cofer
This is a really interesting exploration of race in literature. Like Marilynne Robinson, Morrison proves to be not just a great fiction writer, but a very insightful critic. In the book, Morrison makes the case for studying the Africanist presence within American lit that has often been overlooked (a move from racial objects to racial subjects). The study examines works from Cather, Poe and Hemingway (in depth) as well as discussions of several other major American writers.
Heba Helmy
My kind of literary criticism, it's difficult to argue with Morrison's arguments. Her thoughts are fair and I applaud the goal she puts forth when she states that she:
" ...want[s] to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography
and use that 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."
It's an intriguing thesis, but I'm afraid she doesn't delve deep into any of the texts she discusses. I feel like this is more of an outline, and a group of ideas that would make for wonderful expanded research. Looking at what academia has developed into, though, this was a great jumping-off point.

I would have liked to have seen her talk about her own work and how she tried to address the issue of Africanism in it; I would have liked to have seen her address non-white, non-African people in Am...more
As a professor of American literature, Morrison present three lectures on the role of the "Africanist" presence in the American literary tradition in this thought-provoking monograph.

"For reasons that should not need explanation here, until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all American fiction have been positioned as white. I am interested to know what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination."

"Living in a nation of people who decided...more
I reread this due to the Huck Finn reading I've been doing, and I got more than I bargained for (in a good way). Morrison looks at not racism or the effects of slavery on African/African-Americans represented in early American fiction; rather she looks at the way blackness affects the typical American (white male, female sometimes) in these novels, the way blackness creates 'other', an idea of innocence or freedom. A good way to defamiliarise yourself with some of these classic texts. And it rem...more
JSA Lowe
A strange book, by my reading of it. Semi-scholarly, revised lectures that hint at the presence of what Morrison calls the "Africanist" in American literature, particularly 19th- and early 20th-century. It's odd—I completely buy her thesis, which seems self-evident, even—but she offers not much evidence for it, and her prose is oddly laborious. There are two Morrisons, and fortunately this is the work of the first—the book editor for whom Song of Solomon and Sula were her entries in American fic...more
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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...more
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“Writers are among the most sensitive, the most
intellectually anarchic, most representative, most
probing of artists. The ability of writers to imagine
what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and
mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.
The languages they use and the social and historical
context in which these languages signify are indirect
and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.”
“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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