In the last decade or so, "critical whiteness studies" scholars have produced articles and books virtually without number on the supposedly unexamined center of American racial formations. Unsurprisingly, most of these scholars have been white, but as African American philosopher George Yancy writes in his introduction to a collection of essays on "the whiteness question," while whiteness studies has produced valuable, potentially liberating insight, "it must remain open to those nonwhite voices that continue to reveal the extent to which they actually suffer and feel terrorized by whiteness" (17). As recent work in the field has begun to acknowledge, African American voices have been observing and writing about whiteness for centuries—out of necessity, but also with largely ignored acuity. In terms of literary scholarship and pedagogy, the rise of multiculturalism has greatly elevated the status of some minority authors and their works, but there has also been the disadvantage of pigeonholing, a delimiting insistence on a matched correspondence between an author's racial identity and that of his or her characters. Nearly every minority writer's work accorded significant attention features central characters from his or her racialized group, and works that do otherwise, such as the "white-life" stories and novels by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or Ann Petry have been until just recently either continually overlooked or pointedly dismissed.
Thanks in part to the rise of critical whiteness studies, and especially to the great deal of such work in literary studies, several African American white-life novels are receiving their due, both in scholarship and in the classroom. This overdue interest credits the writers with perceptive and instructive insight into the ways of white folks, insight that whites tend to lack about their own racialized selves and communities. While such literary commentary commonly arises from the studied observation of white people themselves, I want to highlight African American thought that illuminates the workings of whiteness at a broader hegemonic level, particularly the ways in which whiteness now works as a veiled and insidious set of social processes that affect the lives of all Americans.
Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is one novel that has already received widespread credit for this sort of insight. By depicting white hegemony's powerful ability to infiltrate and degrade black identity, The Bluest Eye demonstrates that twentieth-century whiteness functions as a veiled, unspoken process that partially organizes the consciousness of all Americans. In another sense, Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills also examines the subtle workings of whiteness, and again without the use of significant "white" characters. Published a decade or so before the coalescence of academic whiteness studies, Naylor's novel anticipates several of its key insights and hermeneutics regarding the workings of whiteness. Both The Bluest Eye and Linden Hills deal with more abstract and insidious workings of whiteness as a set of forces that shape black lives. However, while Morrison delineates in painful detail the internalized effects of its relational denigration of seemingly indelible black subjectivity, Naylor reveals its broader workings as a social process that encourages the opposite—the deracination of seemingly transcendable black subjectivity. While Morrison depicts a desire to shed blackness and become white, Naylor dramatizes a desire to shed blackness and become rich. While the latter seems more a matter of class than of race, it nevertheless entails a "whitening" process that parallels the workings of white racialization.
Naylor offers a prescriptive statement on the corrosive, "whitening" effects of materialism by openly adopting the narrative structure and didactic thrust of Dante's moral allegory, The Inferno. In addition to creating a space that replicates in many ways the multi-leveled Hell posited by Dante, Naylor adopts her model's general thematic emphasis on the individual's responsibility for exerting his or her will in order to resist worldly temptation and to make better choices in life (thus the suggestively similar names of the novel's dual protagonists, Willa Nedeed and Willie Mason). Naylor enriches her schematic framework with an intricate symbolic network of color motifs, with various figurations of whiteness primary among them. In portraying the troubles and foibles of the residents of a wealthy, entirely black neighborhood, Naylor...