Toni Morrison: Playing in the Dark

Morrison-PlayingThis title does say it all.  Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination focuses on the construction of whiteness in American literature, one of the central places America tries to establish itself as new, white, and male. What’s the basis of this construction?  White writers playing in the dark—that is, using, or reacting to, or trying to erase a black presence. “Black slavery,” she contends, “enriched the country’s creative possibilities,” creating “a playground for the imagination,” a place “to ally internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation” through an American Africanism, “a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire….”

In 1983, at a friend’s suggestion, Toni Morrison began reading Marie Cardinal’s memoir The Words to Say It, a description of her descent into “madness,” her therapy, and the process of her healing.  Morrison had been fascinated for a while in, as she says, “the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them.”  Sure enough, Marie Cardinal first realizes she’s losing her grip when she’s at a Louis Armstrong concert, and pinpoints the moment her sickness—which she calls the Thing—took full root in her when she, a white Frenchwoman raised in Algeria, “understood that we were to assassinate Algeria,” which she considered her black mother. Morrison’s reaction to Cardinal impelled her to put together her thoughts, which first took their form as the William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures in the History of American Civilization she delivered at Harvard.

Morrison-Race2As she thought about iconic American writers, “What became transparent,” she writes, “were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.”  This choking, this attempt to evade race within the literature itself and in the literary criticism purporting to illuminate it is itself an act of racism. The African presence informs American literature, often as a shadow even when the piece in question is not even about race issues.  Hemingway, for example, is often thought to be a fairly race-free writer, but as she pointedly proves in her reading of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not he most certainly is not free of race, but depends on it to construct his famous versions of manhood, the rules of male/female relationships, virtually his entire aesthetics. Before him, she considers the likes of Cather, Poe, Twain, and Hawthorne.  She proposes, as a list of topics needing critical investigation, first how the Africanist character is a surrogate and enabler allowing white writers to think about themselves.  “Note, for instance,” she writes, “the way Africanism is used to conduct a dialogue concerning American space in Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, where Poe “meditates on place as a means of containing the fear of borderlessness and trespass, but also as a means of releasing and exploring the desire for a limitless frontier.”  In general, for white American writers their version of an Africanism, a black presence, “serves as a vehicle for regulating love and the imagination as defenses against the psychic costs of guilt and despair.  Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”

Morrison-TimeI have often said that Americans would rather talk about anything—literally anything—but race, but that’s not exactly true.  For in shunning an open discussion in all the deep, clever ways they do, Americans really condemn themselves to thinking, or feeling, even speaking race all the time, inside. It’s some nagging thing you wish would go away, but you realize is also something absolutely central to your identity.  As James Baldwin once wrote—and, once again, I find many of his thoughts central to Morrison’s argument, as they are to most black writing after the 1950′s—“As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphs.” Playing in the Dark is a brilliant decoding of those symbols, signs, hieroglyphs in the work of white writers.  It’s a major statement from one of our greatest writers, laying out a major challenge to re-think American literature.  Morrison’s language is creative and lyrically gorgeous, fully like you’d imagine a Nobel Prize winner would write—she won the Prize in 1993—but also so critically precise and penetrating you think you’ll never go back to reading normal literary criticism again, a criticism that—as it ignores or slights blackness—too closely reflects the actions of American culture in general.

Go to a list of Black Writers on this site.  Most of them, though not Morrison, are from my book Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It?

  Go to a list of Reviews on this site.

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The Neighbor Project Challenge: BE the Neighbor

TNP-Logo1May 11, 2019.  Just a year after Emmanuel House and The Joseph Corporation merged to become The Neighbor Project, the new organization held its very first Gala fund raiser in one of Aurora’s newest premium venues: Bureau Gravity, just across the street from Emmanuel House’s first headquarters.  The VIDEO below shows a few minutes from this wonderful evening, complete with—in addition to a great dinner—live art, live music, a live auction…and a unique challenge.

On the Emmanuel House page on this site, I spoke of helping 20-30 families a year, but of being poised to triple that number.  The merger made that tripling a reality, creating an organization that went far beyond what the two could do separately.  In its first year The Neighbor Project saw nearly 100 families start on the path to home ownership, plus dozens more saved from being foreclosed on in the house they already lived in.  It was truly something to celebrate.

TNPgala1Catherine Tilley Design did live art.  Coming into the venue’s main third-floor space, you saw her and an assistant busy painting a mural containing some answers gala attendees gave to the question, Who is my neighbor?  Then near the end of the evening, the two painters began peeling away what they had just created!  What was going on?  As Rick Guzman, The Neighbor Project’s executive director, spoke of The Neighbor Project’s birth, its goal of giving hope to families, and how unleashing their potential made not just them but all of us better people, the two painters peeled away what we thought was a finished work to reveal a mural reflecting the evening’s major challenge.  “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi famously said.  So we must go beyond even “Love thy neighbor” to actually “Be the neighbor,” a much more complex, transformative challenge.

You can see them painting, then revealing “Be the Neighbor” in the VIDEO below and catch a glimpse of Rick’s message, too, a message where he echoed some words he spoke when he first introduced The Neighbor Project a year ago—especially: “We ignore our neighbor’s promise and potential at our own peril.”

OurPerilThe live music from Violetta and Lucas featured a range of songs, and I was heartened that the young duo did many songs from the Great American Songbook: “How High the Moon,” “The Nearness of You,” etc.  The music’s safe in these young hands, I thought.  It was a thought doubly reinforced when we heard from Joseph and Angeline, two young people whose growth and future took off when their parents were able to buy a home with Emmanuel House and The Joseph Corporation, who were long-time partners before they merged.  Joseph is now a college grad with a finance degree and property of his own, while Angeline got her CNA even before graduating from high school and is now off to college for her full nursing degree.

Then the live auction, always entertaining, especially because of our auctioneer, the fabulous Peter Burchard!  There’s a few seconds of him extracting the highest bid of the evening, but what’s not shown in the VIDEO below is perhaps the most moving moment of fund raising that evening.  Just as he did in early April last year when Emmanuel House held its own gala, the final event it held as Emmanuel House, Peter simply asked people to give more. “Rick, how much does it cost to put a family through The Neighbor Project program?” “$5000,” Rick answers.  “How many people would pledge $5000 to put a family through the program?” Peter says.  Three people raise their hands.  More raise their hands at $2500, more at $1500, even more at $1000.  They’re not bidding on anything, not going to get anything but the joy of giving.  Peter Burchard is touched, on the verge of tears.  Perhaps it’s a sign that these, and many others there that night are actually on their way to Being The Neighbor.

Go to The Neighbor Project website, and to the Emmanuel House website for more information, and (on TNP’s site) to watch an intro video.

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Robert S. Abbott: Champion of “The Race”

Robert S. Abbott

Robert S. Abbott

In 1905 Robert Abbott began one of the biggest return-on-investment acts of his day: he invested 25 cents to issue 300 copies of his newspaper The Chicago Defender.  Eventually this two-cent weekly paper—which he heralded as “The World’s Greatest Weekly”—made Abbott one of the first self-made Black millionaires.  It became the most widely circulated Black newspaper in American history.  At its height in the 1930’s the paper—bought, passed hand-to-hand, smuggled into the South—is estimated to have had a weekly readership of over 500,000. It was as major a vehicle as our country has ever had for a radical, heads-on attack against the evils of racism.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1868-1940) was born on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, attended Hampton Institute in Virginia, and Chicago’s Kent College of Law, from which he graduated in 1899.  Unable to practice law because of race prejudice, he turned to the newspaper trade which he had learned at Hampton and from his step-father.  In 1940 Abbott’s nephew John H. Sengstacke took over the paper and continued its championing of full equality. It became the Chicago Defender Daily in 1956, and though its circulation has dwindled and the company has experienced some hard times, its history and influence Abbott-Defenderremains vital.  In fact, it is perhaps impossible to exaggerate the Defender’s influence. Running editorials, cartoons, and train schedules, for example, the Defender helped fuel the Great Northern Migration, which brought over a million Blacks north, over 100,000 of them to Chicago.  And though it practiced its own kind of yellow journalism it was a major outlet for some of the most influential Black writers and thinkers in America, including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.E.B. DuBois, Arna Bontemps, Walter White, and many others.  Reading a collection of letters between Hughes and Bontemps, it was easy to notice the Defender being mentioned more often than any other site of publishing   Its success eclipsed The Broad Ax, The Conservator, and The Illinois Idea, though these other important black Chicago papers deserve mention as well.

In a major review of my book Black Writing from Chicago for Time Out Chicago, Jonathan Messinger spent considerable time on my Chicago Defender selections. He wrote that I had “…included pieces that would otherwise now be inaccessible to contemporary readers.”

“Take, for example,” he continued, “two selections published in the Chicago Defender during the newspaper’s early years.  In an editorial from 1917 headlined ‘Keep Your Mouth Shut, Please!’ the editors exhort new residents to keep their voices down on city buses and trains.  The editorial reads: ‘Cut this out, dear reader, and whenever you see one talking loudly hand it to them.’  It’s a tasty bit of old-school newspaper belly-aching, but it’s also an extension of the Defender’s leading role as a voice of the ‘Great Black Migration,’ when the paper circulated nationwide and printed train schedules to facilitate the movement of blacks from the South to the North.  A few pages later, though separated by nearly 30 years in the paper’s history, Langston Hughes satirizes a similar social problem in one of his popular ‘Simple Stories’ columns, featuring the comic character Jesse B. Semple.  Jesse is perturbed at the amount of grease people put in their hair: ‘…there ought to be a law against people with greasy heads going around leaning them up against people’s walls and spotting them all up.’  It’s to Guzman’s credit that he included both of these.  Though they seem to address frivolous topics, they also encapsulate the different ways literature can speak to social concerns in the space of the same newspaper.”

The major theme running through Black Writing from Chicago is expressed in the book’s subtitle.  It’s a question, “In the World, Not of It?”—pointing to a historic, long-running debate among black writers and intellectuals: given our nation’s deep, persistent racism, how much could blacks really hope to be a fully integral part of the wider American world?  And how much should they want this in the first place?  Complex stances and opinions about these questions flowed across a wide, contested spectrum during the Defender’s heyday, and they continue to flow perhaps even more intensely today. The Chicago Defender manifested this complexity and intensity as much as any publication ever has.  On the one hand it expressed a radicalism that demanded full equality and, perhaps, integration.  Yet its habit of referring to African Americans not as “Blacks” or “Negroes” but as “The Race” maintained a strong separatism.

In 2017, Robert Sengstacke Abbott was elected to the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Defender-Hansberry case  Go to the article “Lorraine Hansberry: The Battle for Fair Housing,” and to a list of Black Writers on this site.


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