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Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

4.24  ·  Rating details ·  4,609 ratings  ·  327 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
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Hardcover, 110 pages
Published May 1st 1992 by Harvard University Press
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Paul
Jan 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a series of lectures by Toni Morrison focussing on literary criticism and American literature. Morrison discusses the “Africanist” presence in classic American literature. She analyses how the sense of whiteness, freedom, individualism and manhood depends on a black presence and population and also reacts to it; and projects fears and emotions onto it.
Morrison turns her eye onto Poe, Twain, Cather, Melville and Hemingway and does it very effectively. She looks at Jim in Huckleberry Finn
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leynes
Jun 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: black-writers
/// this is what ya'll should be reading instead ///

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a 1992 work of literary criticism by Toni Morrison.

In 1990, Morrison delivered a series of three lectures at Harvard University; she then adapted the texts to a 91-page book consisting of three essays of metacritical explorations into the operations of whiteness and blackness in the literature of white writers in the United States. Toni Morrison takes the position that the existing
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B. P. Rinehart
Oct 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: People who like literature
Jordan Elgrably: "Do you think that now blacks and whites can write about each other, honestly and convincingly?"

James Baldwin:"...I think of the impact of spokespersons like Toni Morrison and other younger writers. I believe what one has to do as a black American is to take white history, or history as written by whites, and claim it all—including Shakespeare."
- James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78


This is a short but important book that looks at how white writers in the United States wro
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Aubrey
[T]he habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body. According to this logic, every well-bred instinct argues against noticing and forecloses adult discourse. It is just this concept of literary and scholarly moeurs (which functions smoothly in literary criticism, bu
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Zachary F.
”The act of enforcing racelessness in literary discourse is itself a racial act. Pouring rhetorical acid on the fingers of a black hand may indeed destroy the prints, but not the hand. Besides, what happens in that violent, self-serving act of erasure to the hands, the fingers, the fingerprints of the one who does the pouring? Do they remain acid-free? The literature itself suggests otherwise.”

In his 1978 study Orientalism, Edward Said argues that, in the process of inventing what they calle
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Molly
Aug 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Indispensable. Morrison's case about the production of whiteness through various operations of othering and exploitation of blackness will remind readers of Said's case about the creation of 'European' in/through the production of otherness as Orientalism. The discussion of surrogacy -- the way (white, white-positioned) readers are stimulated and gratified with tales of suffering and violence and simultaneously protected from them by the author's deployment of black characters as surrogates (upo ...more
Zanna
Nov 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: to-re-read
I do not seem to be in the right mind to review this now. Re-read required.
Christy
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
Molly Labenski
Aug 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I gave up on highlighting because everything Toni Morrison says is important.
Jamie
Apr 26, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Faith
May 08, 2020 added it
Shelves: audio, overdrive
A reminder of why I avoided literature classes.
Daniel Chaikin
80. Playing in the Dark : Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison
1992, 100 page hardcover
read Dec 9-12

These essays are work but also enlightening if you can manage to fight your way through them. Morrison is so angry and yet she never tells you, never expresses it in any overt way. But she lays it in raw when one compares the balanced tone and the emotion that almost logically is underneath. She writes objectively, ”Black slavery enriched the country's creative possibilities.” -
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Karina
Nov 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2016
A very interesting and much needed approach towards analyzing American Literature. Recommend!
Jason
Jan 01, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Chad
Mar 26, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting to check out some of Toni's literary criticism, this book being a composite of several lectures she gave at Harvard in 1990. Unsurprisingly, she is eloquent, clever and considerate with an investigative eye at some of this country's most noted writers (Cather, Twain, Poe, Hemingway) and how the presence of American Africanism in fiction ends up having such a strong influence and impact on the reader and the evolution of American literature.

I particularly got a kick out of her evisce
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Jessie
Oct 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Guillermo Galvan
Sep 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
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Steph S.
Nov 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This short, thrilling, and brilliant compilation of three lectures Morrison gave at Princeton in the 90s could not be more relevant. It cuts open to the bone the interplay of metaphor, allegory, racist thinking, and the minting of American character in literature and propaganda since the founding of the republic.

You may think that you understand these issues well or well enough, but if you haven't read this book yet or reread it lately, you don't.
Caitlin
Feb 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Really fascinating, even though navigating Morrison's brief arguments proved pretty challenging for me. The book is only 91 pages and began life as a lecture series, but I hadn't read most of the works she uses as her reference points, and it's been a long time since I've tackled anything written in such an academic style. Nonetheless, her analysis will stay with me, and make me think about what I read in a more multi-faceted way. That is an entirely good thing.
Tanita
Jun 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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.
Heid
Sep 05, 2007 rated it it was ok
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.
Christy Lenzi
Feb 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Thought provoking, eye-opening. The look at Africanist properties in Hemingway's work was the most interesting to me.
Will Ejzak
Aug 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
As good as people say it is. A little embarrassed I've made it 26 years without reading this ridiculously famous book (though I can probably be forgiven for the first 18 or so). Morrison's main arguments don't feel particularly radical in 2019, but that might be because she helped popularize them by writing this book in 1992.

It probably won't do the book justice to summarize her arguments, but I'm going to anyway for the sake of articulating them. Morrison argues that American "white" identity,
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James F
Feb 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
The printed version of the 1990 William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization, possibly somewhat expanded or revised, this short book argues that the most important works of American literature, whether or not they have Black characters, are positioned in a space defined by the experience of an America with Blacks, that the existence of the Black population in effect determined the character of white Americans as it was seen in the literature and ideology of "Americanism ...more
tortoise dreams
Feb 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
A collection of three essays based on "The William E. Massey, Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization" that Toni Morrison delivered in 1990.

Book Review: Playing in the Dark, subtitled "Whiteness and the Literary Imagination," finds Toni Morrison ably fulfilling her role as Ivy League academic. Here she promotes the need for a deeper and more nuanced critical analysis of the portrayal and use of black characters in American literature. Presenting her thesis as questions she asks, "Ho
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Babydoll
Aug 08, 2011 rated it liked it
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
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Bogi Takács
This was a short but very incisive read. Hard to believe it's from 1992, it still comes across as current. Very important points, very well put. I am sad that her argument about how oppression is investigated heavily asymmetrically, focusing on the oppressed and not the oppressor, still does not read as dated. I mean now there are whiteness studies, etc. but I personally feel there's not as much investigation as there should be, and also the results often do not make it into public consciousness ...more
Mia
Jul 31, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-i-own
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
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Shelley
This book is short but succinct in analyzing the black characters and black imagery used in writing by white Americans.

The three essays were originally delivered as lectures. Having them in written form is wonderful because there is such thick description that it takes more than one review to fully digest the material. She draws inferences to relevant racial issues in real life today...

I especially liked Morrison's insightful analysis of writing by Poe, Twain, Cather, and Hemingway. I wish thos
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Judith
Morrison's observations get to the heart of racism in American culture and society.
I had never thought of some of the aspects she brings up, and I was astonished by how it all fit into the bigger picture. Her argument is strong and comprehensible due to the examples she uses.
One phrase stuck with me: "Race has become metaphorical - a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic devision far more threatening to the body politic than bi
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Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford) was 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
“These remarks should not be interpreted as simply an effort to move the gaze of African-American studies to a different site. I do not want to alter one hierarchy in order to institute another. It is true that I do not want to encourage those totalizing approaches to African-American scholarship which have no drive other than the exchange of dominations—dominant Eurocentric scholarship replaced by dominant Afrocentric scholarship. More interesting is what makes intellectual domination possible; how knowledge is transformed from invasion and conquest to revelation and choice; what ignites and informs the literary imagination, and what forces help establish the parameters of criticism.” 1 likes
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