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Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination Paperback – July 27, 1993

32 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0679745426 ISBN-10: 0679745424 Edition: Reprint

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Novelist Morrison takes a turn as a literary critic, examining the American literary imagination and finding it obsessed with the white/black polarity.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Morrison ( Jazz , LJ 4/15/92) believes that an African American presence, largely ignored by critics, has always permeated white American literature. She opens by carefully setting her parameters and defining her terms--e.g., Africanism: "the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people." The first few pages feature densely packed language whose meaning becomes clearer when Morrison examines such specific works as Willa Cather's Sapphira and the Slave Girl . This brief, highly provocative book, which considers "the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it," is highly recommended not only for Morrison's many admirers but for all those interested in American literature.
-Louis J. Parascandola, Long Island Univ., Brooklyn Campus , New York
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 91 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (July 27, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679745424
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679745426
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #18,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She is the author of several novels, including The Bluest Eye, Beloved (made into a major film), and Love. She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. She is the Robert F. Goheen Professor at Princeton University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Maurice Williams on October 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Playing in the Dark is without a doubt, the most informative critique of the use of the African American presence in American literature. Morrison critiques the work of some of the most famous American novelist and points out how their work is influenced by blackness. Her critique is sharp and forthright. She challenges writers and critics alike to reevaluate their use of language, coding, and imagery as it relates to characters or situations of an "Africanist" nature. The critique identifies specific instances where negative imagery and characterizations are used by writers to help solidify whatever point being made, or image being created. Playing in the Dark should be required reading for any literature curriculum and any critic or writer who dare place pen to paper in an effort to inform or enlighten the reading public.
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22 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Ragan Fox on February 20, 2001
Format: Paperback
When I first read this amazing criticism on American literary history, I finally got it. A huge cloud of misunderstanding and empty justifications lifted from above my head, and I, for the first time, learned how to critically analyze a text. Much more, I learned how to engage with a history of texts. Playing in the Dark effectively chronicles the absence or misconstruction of African-Americans in the fiction of Poe, Melville, Cather, and Hemmingway. Morrison's illuminations on how the presence of black is often conflated with evil and lurking metaphores, while white is typically reduced to all that is pure is truly brought to life through the literary examples she utilizes. Further, her argument concerning how Africanism was/is used as a distancing mechanism to ensure hegemony retains its power is most likely the most well developed argument of its kind.
All of Morrison's thoughts are hopefully (and I stress hopefully with utopian blinders on) already flying through the psyches of Americans, but Playing in the Dark gives concrete words to abstract thoughts. This book is an absolute must read for anyone who plans to critically engage in literature.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By angecan on December 30, 2014
Format: Paperback
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 discoveries. I would add that a psychoanalytic lens is also in play making for many “arching-of-brow-while-nodding-deliberately” moments.

Morrison wants to establish the “American brand of Africanism” reified in canonical texts, and so relies mostly on giants such as Cather, Poe, Melville, Twain and Hemingway. (Styron is as contemporary as she gets.) The text braids three lectures making for a powerful but not overpowering exposure to her ideas, meant to be understood on the first hearing and now reading. Considering the density of the material, I appreciated this lighter treatment, though I would have welcomed more examples.

The following passage summarizes many of her inquiries:

"How does literary utterance arrange itself when it tries to imagine an Africanist other? What are the signs, the codes, the literary strategies designed to accommodate this encounter? What does the inclusion of Africans or African Americans to do and for the work? As a reader my assumption had always been that nothing “happens”: Africans and their descendants were not, in any sense that matters, *there*; and when they were there, they were decorative—displays of the agile writer’s technical expertise.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 25, 1998
Format: Paperback
In a language that yields great insight after struggle, Morrison does a terrific job of providing scholars a reason to discuss race, color, and nationality as central factors in "American" literature. The fact that nonwhite characters (not to mention nonwhite writers) have been so ignored is because questions of personal and national identity have been considered too particular, too political for discussions based upon (solipsistic) universality. The implication, then, is that black people have no personhood, because their very individuality particularizes them out of academic, though not physical, existence. Morrison shows how crucial the acceptance and reproduction of pathological reactions to racial difference are to the formation of American literature and the attainment of American citizenship. She shows that figures and symbols of racial difference affect internal textual issues of plot, setting, theme, character, and point of view and attendant issues of a character's authority and the appearance of a text's "realism." From her springboard, one may also look for configurations of racial difference in everything from philosophy to crimonology. Her account seeks not to censor but to enlarge the debate about America's "great" texts.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 19, 1999
Format: Paperback
The vital importance of "Africanism" to the construction of "whiteness" in America has for too long gone ackowledged. Fortunately, Toni Morrison has taken the first step towards the erasure of this disgusting continuation of "sidelining" a black presence that, as Morrison clearly points out in in this illuminating monograph, has served as the building block in the long self-definition process of Americas and its literature. A brilliantly titled, written, and executed ninety pages, "Playing in the dark" demands reading from anyone remotely interested in the formation of America's founding literature and cultural ideologies. If anyone can tackle this subject, it is Toni Morrison, and she does so with a lucidity neccesassy when "playing in the dark."
Daniel A. Jacome Tufts University
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