No matter how smart you are, Noah, things are going to be different for you as a black boy, but never let it discourage you.
I begin this meditation with no hope of ever finding a single substantive declarative statement to accompany the litany of question marks planted throughout this essay like landmines—each ready to disintegrate the circumstances under which I, a black American, interact with my nation’s foundational literary works. Stumbling upon truths discerned from reflection creates the intense light of insight while at the same time dismantles the roots of stability. Journeying through the American literary landscape with Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark as my guide, I’ve perhaps unearthed the causes for my incomplete relationality to American literature. And since the specific start and finish of this reflection is as of yet unknown to me, I will permit myself the consolation that simply the awareness of these questions’ existence is enough to capture the beautifully disguised racial nuances in American literature and their covert impressions on my psyche.
“I wonder if there were any black people in Narnia…”
It’s become clear to me that I grew up exposed only to literature that somehow missed the black experience. As a child I was aware, to some small degree, that I did not come across many, if any, non-white characters in the books I was reading in class. Perhaps, my naive rationalization skills informed me, only white people are written into texts because representationally there aren’t enough black people to write about. Looking around the classroom to find two other black faces confirmed my hunch—the experience of blackness is negligible. Pragmatically, it only makes sense that we are not represented.
Black people must’ve just been slaves when he wrote this…
And I, like any young reader, began to identify with each novel’s protagonist as a way to immerse myself in the imaginative world of the author. (How could I possibly read The Great Gatsby without identifying with Nick Carraway, or even Gatsby himself, The Catcher in the Rye without feeling connected to Holden Caulfied?) The joy of reading as a child is the escapism from the mundane predictability of an eight o’clock to three o’clock schedule, and the transportation into the uncertain excitement of imagination—Poe’s haunted mansions, Hawthorne’s scientific laboratories, Hemingway’s open seas. But, at some point in almost every story I was subjected to a decisive fissure that forcefully ejected me from the realm of the author’s created world: the realization that I could never actually be the protagonist, or a character of even remote consequence. This usually resulted from some specific visual descriptor of whiteness the author embedded in the text, whether it was central or not to the plot: Hawthorne, for example, insists on the lightness of every character’s complexion in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” describing the “pale visages of the worldly throng,” “the circle of pale spectators,” and the “pale-faced congregation.” The brilliance of this story is its ability to draw the reader in, to make him or her feel the dreadfully shocking chill of the minister’s countenance in order to call attention to the universality of original sin—thus prompting introspection and self-awareness with the reader. But the image is undeniable—this is a representation of white America only, and only white America is to interact with the text. The moral imperative implicit in the allegory is not relevant for those who do not have the facility to drain the color from their faces.
I must be other-worldly, alien to this universe.
Imagine calmly and intently looking in a mirror, seeing yourself: your brown-yellow skin, your deep brown eyes, your curly golden-brown hair, and your thickly defined mahogany lips, until suddenly—instantaneously, actually—the visage of pale pinkish skin, bright blue eyes, thin rose lips, and straight blonde hair appears in the reflection just before the mirror shatters into a million sharp little shards right before your big round eyes.
This is the sensation of being cut out of a novel.
So now what: Do I gloss over the white descriptors and try to continue reading myself into the narration? Can I unread the imagery that undoes my plausible insertion into the story? Should I bend over backwards to circumvent the obstacles to full engagement with the text—the completeness of imaginative assimilation my white peers enjoy?
Is this involuntary self-exclusion? Why am I subjected to the futility of identification?
This dilemma was only exacerbated when I came across blackness as it is portrayed in our American literature: how unlikely it is to find a representation of blackness treated with the same fullness of expression, complexity of character, and eloquence of speech that white characters so often enjoy (for if they did not, there would be no literature to begin with)! Morrison refers to these instances of blackness as economically stereotyped, metonymically displaced, metaphysically condensed, fetishized, dehistoricized, and explosively, disjointedly, and repetitively verbalized. These facile constructions of blackness, in my experience, serve to make the black character palatable and amenable to the easy digestion of the intended white audience, for I quickly discovered that American literature was not written for me, the African-American. Permit me to quickly deviate to this subject: I came to a cataclysmic and initially devastating realization that American literature was not made for me, and was never intended for my eyes to glaze, my mind to analyze, my soul to enjoy. American literature was written for the real (white) American, not us hyphenated, other-worldly people. Perhaps this is why my introduction in college to the works of Toni Morrison resulted in a marked turn towards literature that wants to be read by me and encourages a situation where I can fully participate in the imaginative act—however hurtful doing so may be.
Why has American literature created a paradigm in which putting myself into the shoes of a slave makes more sense that those of a scientist?
How easy it is to read the docile (dare I say emasculated), subservient (dare I say spineless), ignorant (dare I say stupid) Negro (dare I say Nigger) in fiction! He confirms what society already thinks of him while highlighting the valor of the self-important white characters—the reader walks away appreciating the author’s ability to so accurately tap into the essence of the human condition, the truth of what it is to be an American. This confused me to no end. I knew I was none of those things. And while my mirror remained intact—for I still saw my blackness reflected—my likeness beyond the color of my skin was warped beyond recognition.
Here I will quote Morrison’s analysis of the Africanist presence in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not extensively, as this particular vignette provoked much of my subsequent reflection:
Harry Morgan, the central figure, seems to represent the classic American hero: a solitary man battling a government that would limit his freedom and his individuality. He is…competent, street-wise, knowing, and impatient with those who are not. He is virile, risk-taking, risk-loving, and so righteous and guiltless in his evaluation of himself that it seems a shame to question or challenge it…
Only ten pages into the novel we encounter the Africanist presence. Harry includes a “nigger” in his crew, a man who, throughout all of part one, has no name. His appearance is signaled by the sentence, “Just then this nigger we had getting bait comes down the dock.” The black man is not only nameless for five chapters, he is not even hired, just someone “we had getting bait”—a kind of trained response, not an agent possessing a job…
Something very curious happens to this namelessness when, in part two, the author shifts voices. Part one is told in the first person, and whenever Harry thinks about this black man he thinks “nigger.” In part two, where Hemingway uses the third-person point of view in narrating and representing Harry’s speech, two formulations of the black man occur: he both remains nameless and stereotyped and becomes named and personalized.
Harry says “Wesley” when speaking to the black man in direct dialogue; Hemingway writes “nigger” when as narrator he refers to him. Needless to report, this black man is never identified as one (except in his own mind). Part two reserves and repeats the word “man” for Harry. The spatial and conceptual difference is marked by the shortcut that the term “nigger” allows, with all of its color and caste implications. The term occupies a territory between man and animal and thus withholds specificity even while marking it. This black character either does not speak (as a “nigger” he is silent) or speaks in very legislated and manipulated ways (as a “Wesley” his speech serves Harry’s needs). Enforcing the silence of the “nigger” proves problematic in this action-narrative and requires of Hemingway some strenuous measures.
In part one, at a crucial moment during the fishing expedition…the boat moves into promising waters. Harry is coaching Johnson; the black man is at the wheel…But Hemingway realizes that Harry cannot be in two critical places at the same time, instructing the incompetent Johnson and guiding the vessel…Now, with Harry taking care of his customer and Eddy [a useless white alcoholic who Hemingway still nonetheless gives a name, manhood, and speech] in a pleasant stupor, there is only the black man to tend the wheel.
When the sign heralding the promising waters arrives—the sighting of flying fish beyond the prow of the boat—the crewman facing forward ought to be the first to see them. In fact he is. The problem is how to acknowledge that first sighting and continue the muzzling of this “nigger” who, so far, has not said one word. The solution is a strangely awkward, oddly constructed sentence: “The nigger was still taking her out and I looked and saw he had seen a patch of flying fish burst out ahead.” “Saw he had seen” is improbable in syntax, sense and tense but, like other choices available to Hemingway, it is risked to avoid a speaking black. The problem this writer gives himself, then, is to say how one sees that someone else has already seen.
…It is the powerful one, the authoritative one, who sees. The power of looking is Harry’s; the passive powerlessness is the black man’s, though he himself does not speak of it…What would have been the cost, I wonder, of humanizing, genderizing, this character at the opening of the novel? …Harry would lack the juxtaposition and association with a vague presence suggesting sexual excitement, a possible threat to his virility and competence, violence under wraps. He would, finally, lack the complementarity of a figure who can be assumed to be in some way bound, fixed, unfree, and serviceable.
 Morrison 70-73, emphases mine
What is so different about me? Perhaps I need to adjust to better fit with Fitzgerald’s image of me. After all, he did write out the quintessence of the American Dream…and I am American. Do I dare, mere student that I am, challenge what Hemingway says that I am? Do I trust the constant affirmations of my mother who is convinced of my superior intellect and my mature facility to verbally communicate myself? Nobody’s saying she’s the arbiter of literary intellect…
The conundrum is clear: if only a black female (my mother, at that) could validate me while nationally respected white men (whose works were taught by white women) have a different story, if any, to tell about my worth to society, who was I to really trust? I couldn’t relate to either situation because the white characters blocked me and the black characters did not truly represent me. limbo. unidentified. nobody.
I wonder why black people are always so stupid in these books…I want to be like the white characters—everyone likes them. I don’t know any slaves or butlers…is my family black? My grandma keeps reminding me that we are…but we do all the things white people do…don’t we?
I don’t think you understand, brother, that what you’re doing is exceptional. Other black people don’t have the same opportunities as you, and you need to be proud of what you’ve done as a black man.
Does the black character, the Africanist presence, make my peers see me in this way—as the Wesley to their Harry? Does this actual Africanist presence make me desirous of its absence as a way of gaining the agency of self-definition? yes. Does the “absence” of blackness in literature confirm my identity in as many ways as it confuses it? yes. If the absence of true blackness in American literature is actually a presence against which whiteness is defined, how does that come to bear on my experience as a present absence? with unbridled force. Can my peers, too, define themselves against me? A sort of racial différance, if you will? As I recall the formative years of my middle school education, I wonder if what I now see as my peers’ attempts to effeminize me, to question my intellectual capacity, and to discount my boy-ness were all subconscious methods that served to affirm their own identities as budding virile, intelligent (or not), white males. Do the complicated intricacies of Morrison’s theory extend beyond the pages of books—even to what these early American writers would describe as the innocence of youth? If my personal uneasiness-turned-complacency stems from the lessons of literature, then I believe that on some level the same lessons work on the minds of white students as well.
I also wonder how this stereotypical creation influenced the parental response. It seems as though my parents were always cognizant of the unspoken ways my peers could self-affirm through me. Had they too internalized Hemingway’s image of Wesley—America’s image of the black male, in turn forcing me to contradict it on every occasion?
Noah’s gay: his best friend is a girl and he sucks at whiffle ball.
You know, Noah, Loyola is a pretty difficult school to get in to… I don’t know if even my son can get in! Boy, be careful of being weak-wristed—you don’t want people getting the wrong impression.
Speak up for yourself, Noah! Don’t worry, Leonard, he likes girls. He’s just a mama’s boy.
Ms. Pattenelli, why am I in the slow math class this year? I had an A+ last year…
Noah, you’re so smart…now, which of your parents is white? Oh, and you speak so well!
So how do I, the black male reader, fit in to Morrison’s theory of the metonymic dismissal of blackness? Do I internalize and accept the act of dismissal, becoming dismissive of my own culture, of myself: implicitly complicit in my own misrepresentation? of my own figuration in American society? yes.
Momma, I wish I could just be smart…not smart for a black person.
Momma, it’s so cool people thought Maw Maw was white—I wish I could do that!
I’ll tell you something, Noah, I wouldn’t date any girl darker than your color. You’re the cut off—those dark girls are nasty!
Does Hemingway’s construction and representation of the Africanist presence negatively affect the black male reader, confusing him into thinking that his white peers alone have legitimate claim to discovery—even when the Black male logically and obviously “discovered” first? I recall a defining experience in my education where the proof of my stellar training in American literature became terribly apparent.
Ms. Harmon, Noah just answered your question the same way Elise did. I think you meant to give him a treat…
I thought it slightly odd, if only for a brief moment before my mind went to what I would eat for snack break, that when Elise, the white girl sitting across the room from me, repeated the same answer I’d just raised my hand and given, she was awarded the congratulatory treat and not me. Oh, well. It took my desk mate Sarah pointing it out in front of the entire class for me to really take notice (and I was especially surprised), even though the teacher simply moved on with the lesson. Many years later I understood why my mother’s fury rained down on this teacher, for at the time I thought I’d just lost out on a piece of candy I didn’t want. I had been implicitly educated to accept the Hemingway model of affirmation: even (if not especially) in the classroom, the careful, but strained—and eventually failed—manipulation of language explicitly deprives the black male student of agency and worth.
This is all, of course, a subconscious conflict that festered in my mind (which I am articulating in my current vocabulary)—that of the black student of literature—without ever eating away at my love of literature, without making me forever estranged from the American novel. My facility to accept a position of otherness, to accept my absence, has instilled in me a certain heretofore-unidentified comfort with being unidentifiable. My literary education has taught me, above all, to embrace my unstable, foundationless positionality as a black man in a white tradition—a lesson that informs many of my personal quandaries and life decisions.
Momma, why do people keep asking me why I would rush the house where I would be the only black person? It’s not something I really even thought about…I mean, what else would I do?
We, like every other black member of campus, are still tasked with acknowledging our identities as black, at least in part, and accepting the different set of circumstances that are prescribed to us. It is a burden that our white brothers do not have to bear.
Dear Adam, “Tradition” has disintegrated into a way for unimpressive people to hide their insecurities and inadequacies from themselves…it’s all but lost on me.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to exist a group as a black person instead of the black person. I’m sure Wesley thought the same thing…he just couldn’t say it.