Essays November 21, 2017
Toni Morrison, 2008
© Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures;

Aliens and fences


In 1992, the year before she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison published a short work of non-fiction, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination, in which she argued persuasively that the seminal works of American literature were deeply informed by their authors’ determination to define themselves and their fellow white countrymen against the black “other”, and that literary scholars’ subsequent failure to recognize this pervasive practice had long impoverished not only the work of critics but American literature itself. Morrison contended that this determination on the part of the novelists in question – they include Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway – reflected the larger (white) society’s desire to construct its view of itself as normal, noble and free by placing itself in opposition to a people (blacks) who were seen as being none of those things. “The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum”, Morrison wrote. “Nothing highlighted freedom – if it did not in fact create it – like slavery.” In American literature, this self-defining took the form of both symbols of whiteness and blackness, such as the white giant that emerges at the end of Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), and human black characters whose role is to define the main (synonymous with “white”) characters. Critics’ silence with regard to this trend, Morrison maintained, made it difficult to perceive the concept of race as the all-important context for the analysis of literature that it is. It was as if, she noted, she had been looking at the contents of a fishbowl, “and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world”. Morrison urged readers to pay attention to the fishbowl.

The appropriate analogy for comparing Playing in the Dark with Morrison’s new nonfiction book, The Origin of Others, is not a fishbowl but a mirror. The respective ostensible missions of the works are identical except for being opposites. Whereas Playing in the Dark was aimed at shedding light on a phenomenon that was hidden and unacknowledged but, once seen, visible everywhere you looked, The Origin of Others examines a subject you can’t escape even if you try – racism – with the purpose of revealing the often hidden, stubbornly shadowy aspects of its beginnings. Like the earlier work, The Origin of Others began life as a series of lectures given at Harvard University. “This is a work about the creation of aliens and the creation of fences”, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in a foreword, “one that employs literary criticism, history, and memoir in an attempt to understand how and why we have come to associate those fences with pigment.” (Coates and Morrison, it might be said, wrestle with racism in tag-team fashion: Morrison’s back-cover blurb for Coates’s book, Between the World and Me (2015), announcing its author as the successor to James Baldwin, played a part in that work’s runaway success.) Coates’s description is not entirely accurate. The Origin of Others doesn’t quite trace the process by which black Americans were designated as the “other” – coming in at just over 100 pages, it could hardly be expected to – except to say that, 1) the slave-owning class practised inhumanity against blacks in an ironic and doomed attempt to underscore its own humanity and, 2) part of the process by which (light-skinned, voluntary) immigrants to the United States become American is to unite with others under the umbrella of whiteness. Neither observation is exactly news at this point. What The Origin of Others does, though, it does eloquently: investigating not so much how the Other was created as why.

Much energy, Morrison notes, has gone into the construction of the image of the stranger, in order to define the person doing the constructing – the folly being that “there are no strangers”, as she writes.

There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known – although unacknowledged – selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions it provokes – especially when those emotions are profound. It is also what makes us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other . . . we deny her personhood, the specific individuality we insist upon for ourselves . . .

Morrison notes examples of this doomed folly, as it plays out in fiction, citing some of the same works mentioned in Playing in the Dark – Hemingway’s novels figure prominently in both books – and pointing out the ways that the idea of otherness, centred on skin colour, is so codified that it becomes “the ultimate narrative shortcut”, used to “reveal character or drive narrative”.

Morrison the thinker and non-fiction writer diagnoses this trend; Morrison the novelist has set out to counter it. In The Origin of Others, she discusses her own fiction, explaining her attempts to create a body of work that breaks free of the skin-colour trap. “I became interested in the portrayal of blacks by culture rather than skin color: when color alone was their bête noire, when it was incidental, and when it was unknowable, or deliberately withheld. The latter offered me an interesting opportunity to ignore the fetish of color as well as a certain freedom accompanied by some very careful writing. In some novels I theatricalized the point by not only refusing to rest on racial signs but also alerting the reader to my strategy.” She would, in other words, not refer to her characters’ colour, denying that physical feature the very importance that others have insisted that it has. She detailed her efforts to use this approach in her later novels, Paradise (1997), A Mercy (2008) and God Help the Child (2015), even admitting that in Home (2012) she had agreed to her nervous editor’s suggestion and “layered in references that verified” the main character’s race, a decision she now sees as “a mistake that defied my purpose”. That purpose is not to say anything so simplistic as that we are all the same – it is, rather, to say that our differences are a result of culture, which, in turn, often results from enforced divisions simplistically based on colour. In focusing on her characters’ actions rather than the social construct of their race, Morrison directs her readers’ attention to who her characters are as much as, if not more than, what they are. She is “determined to de-fang cheap racism, annihilate and discredit the routine, easy, available color fetish, which is reminiscent of slavery itself”; equally, she is “eager to simultaneously de-fang and theatricalize race, signaling, I hope, how movable and hopelessly meaningless the construct [is]”. Her ultimate aim is what she attempted in her novel Beloved (1987), in which the title character, whose mother kills her in order to save her from slavery, subsequently haunts the surviving characters: “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”.

The final chapter of The Origin of Others looks at how (mostly white) writers have explored that Other that is Africa, finding most of their efforts wanting, or, rather, absent.

For those who made that literal or imaginative voyage, contact with Africa offered thrilling opportunities to experience life in its primitive, formative, inchoate state, the consequence of which was self-enlightenment – a wisdom that confirmed the benefits of European proprietorship free of the responsibility of gathering much actual intelligence about any African culture . . . . In Western novels published through the 1950s, Africa, like Albert Camus’ novel, might be called ‘The Stranger,’ offering the occasion for knowledge but keeping its unknowableness intact.

The writers Morrison faults for falling into this trap – or springing it on the rest of us – include Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, Saul Bellow, Joyce Cary and Elspeth Huxley; an exception is the Guinean writer Camara Laye, whose novel The Radiance of the King (1954) Morrison praises for its author’s honest and successful attempt at representing an understanding between the white protagonist and the African culture he initially sets out to exploit.

One wishes that Toni Morrison had extended her critique to include the contem­porary literary scene. Perhaps she will in the future. In the meantime, in this era of stark division, distrust and state-sponsored xenophobia, it is hard to imagine a more timely and laudable message than the plea for understanding, with its separation of the fact of culture from notions of racial essentialism, and its implicit faith in the importance, and transformative power, of literature.