Like many, I have been greatly impacted by the work of Toni Morrison, whose recent death got me thinking about not only her work’s meaning for marginalized groups, including African Americans and/or women, but also what her works teach whites about race.
In college, as I was beginning to explore and shift my own ideas about race, I was assigned to read The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, and especially the former got me rethinking what whiteness means to many, including to African Americans. The Eurocentric beauty standards that many take for granted are especially harmful to young African Americans, including girls like Pecola, the novel’s protagonist.
However, for me, it was Morrison’s nonfiction that spoke most directly to assumptions that many, especially whites, take for granted. In her 1992 book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison names and describes what she calls the Africanist presence in American literature, arguing that many of American literature’s key themes were formed in response to the presence of African Americans in the U.S., beginning with racial slavery.
Morrison writes, “Deep within the word ‘American’ is its association with race. To identify someone as a South African is to say very little; we need the adjective ‘white’ or ‘black’ or ‘colored’ to make our meaning clear. In this country it is quite reverse. American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.”
This strongly resonates with me in the face of all the calls to “Make America Great Again” and the talk of Americans and Americanness that take the white side of America as the whole of what America represents. America was never only white, but yet, we take whiteness for granted so that we never use the term “European-American” like we might say “African-American” or “Asian-American.”
In short, Toni Morrison made me see many things that I can take for granted, but that people of color cannot. I intend to write more about what whiteness and white privilege mean as definitions, but for now, suffice it to say, if her death makes more people read her work and that work gives them a new feeling of humanity while recognizing the unequal and inequitable distribution of power in U.S. society and in the world at large, that is one hell of an accomplishment.
By Angela Radulescu – Toni_Morrison_2008.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5526016