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In Black and White

To illustrate the point of textual conversations in American literature, I had students read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In addition, I had them read some of the novels that Morrison writes at length about, namely, Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. They understood Morrison’s idea about an Africanist presence lying at the heart of the canon, a presence that has disturbed many celebrated white writers. Furthermore, they understood her logic---though they said it better because they were not worried yet about lecturing at Harvard University---that white writers locked in their white identity cannot grant full humanity to Black characters and therefore produce some unwieldy and improbable texts. The writers just can’t help it.

Sapphira and the Slave Girl

Students mostly went along with Morrison’s reading of the novel. In the story of the elderly and wheelchair-bound slaveowner Sapphira Colbert, who attempts to orchestrate the rape of the enslaved Nancy because she falsely assumes that Nancy is sexually involved with Henry Colbert, her husband, Morrison feels that Cather is trying to resolve several conflicts. There is mother-daughter tension, which seems to have been a career-long concern for Cather. This is captured in the relationship between slaveholder Sapphira and her abolitionist daughter, Rachel. Then there is Cather’s attempt to reconcile her heritage of slaveowners with more enlightened views. But the class consensus was that she doesn’t pull it off, the prevailing view being that Cather’s sentiments lie with plantation life and that Black characters exist merely so that Sapphira’s power and thwarted sexual desire can be projected onto Black bodies. None discuss slavery directly or exhibit any wish to challenge the system. Even Nancy, facing prospects of “ruin,” has to be practically forced into freedom by Rachel. In addition, students focused on the fact of the numerous anti-Black epithets in the narrative. They understood the need for such language in the dialogue for it to be realistic. They found it telling that such language is used by the narrator as well. In “The Art of Conflict: Willa Cather’s Last Three Novels,” Patrick W. Shaw describes Sapphira as possessing “psychological disingenuousness.” The class saw no reason to disagree.

Gordon Pym

As commentator Maureen Corrigan noted, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym keeps hallucinating about race: a black crew member heads the mutiny; Pym and some survivors of the shipwreck drift to an island near the glacial whiteness of the South Pole where, lo and behold, all of the inhabitants are black. Even their teeth are black, and these folks are terrified of whiteness. At the abrupt end of Poe's novel, a giant white-shrouded figure rises up out of a frozen chasm and ... well, that's all he wrote.” Students, not aware of Corrigan’s remarks but spurred on instead by Morrison’s observation that Poe was central to the study of race in American literature, quickly grasped all the racial symbolism. They appreciated Poe’s craft---the religious allegory, biographical allusions, and deft foreshadowing we talked about. But they didn’t miss that the Black cook remains nameless, that the movement in the novel is ever southward into the land of savages, that a ledge is described as a bale of cotton, and that “whiteness” signals the restoration of order after encounter with treacherous “Black savages.” It’s as if, as more than one critic has pointed out, Poe had great anxiety about the fact of slavery and something to say about rebellions like the then-recent one led by Nat Turner in Poe’s childhood Virginia. Morrison plays it close to the vest, not calling anyone racist, settling for explanations of her idea of American Africanism. My students went a little further.

To Have and Have Not

My students were clearest about Hemingway. No one thought To Have and Have Not much of a novel craft wise. The renowned plain style seemed unimpressive, almost amateurish in the eyes of some students. The plotting and pacing problems have been well documented. The project was originally conceived not as a novel but as an interconnected group of stories---and it shows. Therefore, the students were in good company with their criticism of style. They didn’t care about company when addressing Hemingway’s depictions of Blacks and Chinese. No matter the report from other quarters, they believed the portrayals to be racist beyond the degree necessary for plot or character development. Using the n-word 80 times in the first half of the novel seemed excessive and appeared to have little to do with the demands of storytelling and everything to do with the author’s real attitude. The animalistic and stereotypical descriptions, particularly of Wesley and Mr. Sing, were damning evidence for the students. The anti-Black and anti-Asian racism was not simply Harry Morgan’s or his wife Marie’s but was Ernest Hemingway’s as well.

The Overall Consensus

As scholar Seymour Gross noted in the mid-1960s regarding American literature, “the Negro has always been more of a formula than a human being.” Toni Morrison’s take, then, is within an established critical framework but is also highly skilled and innovative. To a person, my students are fans of hers as she assumes the role of critic.

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