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  • Speaking the Unspeakable:On Toni Morrison, African American Intellectuals and the Uses of Essentialist Rhetoric1

Now that Afro-American artistic presence has been "discovered" actually to exist, now that serious scholarship has moved from silencing the witnesses and erasing their meaningful place in and contribution to American culture, it is no longer acceptable merely to imagine us and imagine for us. We have always been imagining ourselves. We are not Isak Dinesen's "aspects of nature," nor Conrad's unspeaking. We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, "other." We are choices. And to read imaginative literature by and about us is to choose to examine centers of the self and to have the opportunity to [End Page 755] compare these centers with the "raceless" one with which we are. all of us, most familiar.

—Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature"

To be a subject means to activate the network of discourse from where one stands. Discourse is not a circle with one center, but more like a mycelium with many mushrooms. To be a subject also means to take nourishment from more than one source, to construct a new synthesis, a new discursive ragout.

—Barbara Johnson, "Response"

In the wake of deconstruction and poststructuralism's move into the American academy, our fundamental understanding of the role of language in mediating our "reality" has come to the fore. The advent of poststructuralism, then, has also meant a basic shift in the debate around such categories as race and experience. No longer are race and experience assumed to be stable categories of critical discourse, but rather "race" and "experience" themselves become sites of critical contestation. To use Jacques Derrida's language, as "transcendental signifieds" race and experience are "under erasure." The political and rhetorical impact this move has had on African American critical discourse requires some comment. What has this critical shift meant for the authority of African American scholars doing work in African American Studies in often racist institutions? If not on racial experience, on what grounds do they address the study of African American culture? How do they negotiate the relationship between the discourse of multiculturalism, which argues the need for a culturally diversified academy, and poststructuralist discourse, which makes the sign "experience" a site of contestation? Indeed, what, if not some understanding of their cultural experience, do African Americans uniquely bring to critical inquiry?

These opening observations are what I bring to this reading of Toni Morrison's "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." The reason I begin my investigation of these concerns with Morrison is because she is, arguably, the most prominent artist-critic in contemporary American and African [End Page 756] American letters, a position that uniquely qualifies her to speak to the variety of impacts that poststructuralist discussions of "race" and "experience" have had for African American artists and intellectuals. It may be precisely this dual role Morrison plays as African American intellectual and artist that allows her to see so clearly the impact of contemporary discussions of race on both imaginative work and critical work. (And this may explain some of the reasons Morrison took the turn into critical work to begin with.) Let me say up front that I believe Morrison's essay implicitly outlines a critique of poststructuralism's treatment of the category of "race." I hope to demonstrate that the essay also enacts a rhetorical strategy African American intellectuals often use to reclaim a racial essentialism based on experience that authorizes or legitimizes their speech in some very politically important ways.

What is simultaneously interesting and difficult about Morrison's "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" is that while the essay is careful to issue an anti-essentialist disclaimer,2 it does finally argue for, and depend upon, a variety of racial essentialism (grounded in racial experience) that has significant bearing on contemporary debates surrounding the question of essentialism in critical discourse. An example of this, which I will...


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