"Raceless" Writing and Difference: Ann Petry's Country Place and the African-American Literary Canon
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"RACELESS" WRITING AND DIFFERENCE: ANN PETRY'S COUNTRY PLACE AND THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN LITERARY CANON Emily Bernard University of Vermont A 1998 Toni Morrison television interview begins smoothly enough, but veers onto rocky terrain when interviewer Jana Wendt lobbies Morrison with a series of questions about the status of white people in her fiction. "You have in your writing certainly marginalized whites," Wendt asserts. "Why are they of no particular interest to you?" Her question is curious for many reasons, most immediately because the occasion for the interview is the 1998 publication of Morrison's Paradise, a novel that begins with the unforgettable line: "They shoot the white girl first." Morrison makes no other direct references to race in Paradise for the purpose of demonstrating to readers that a character's race can be "the least amount of information to know about a person."1 Morrison's subtle attempts to complicate our understanding of racial difference and its relationship to writing are lost on Jana Wendt who seems concerned only with literal, quantitative representations of white bodies. Morrison responds to Wendt's inquiry with admirable patience: "I was interested in another kind of literature that was not just confrontational , black versus white. I was really interested in black readership ." She sees a connection between her literary ambitions and the achievements of black music, and she argues for a space that is not invaded by the "white gaze." Wendt persists: "You don't think you will ever change and write books that incorporate white lives into them substantially?" Morrison appears to lose some patience: "I have done." "Substantially?" Wendt asks doubtfully. What's left of Morrison's patience evaporates: "You can't understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?" The interviewer swallows. Morrison continues, "Because you could never ask a white author, 'When are you going to write about black people?' . . . Even the inquiry comes from the position of being in the center . . . and saying, 'Is it ever possible that you will enter the mainstream?' It's inconceivable that where I already am is the mainstream." An embarrassed Jana Wendt rushes to correct herself: "Oh no, that wasn't the implication of my question . . . It's the question of the subject ofyour narrative, whether you want to alter the parameters of 88EmilyBernard it, whether you see any benefit in doing that." Morrison responds, not by alerting Wendt to the fact that her novels are necessarily saturated with ideas about whiteness: white supremacy is directly responsible for the self-hatred that ravages the Breedlove family in The Bluest Eye; for the horrible choice forced upon Sethe in Beloved; it is the boundary that both delimits and enables black life in the Bottom in SuIa. Neither does Morrison enlighten Wendt to the fact that American subjectivity is always already "incontestably mulatto," to use the oft-quoted words of Albert Murray,"blackness" and "whiteness" being inherently mutually constitutive.2 Instead Morrison attempts to satisfy her interviewer by creating an analogy between her predicament as an African-American writer and that of a Russian writer, "who writes about Russia, in Russian, for Russians." The fact that Russian writing is translated and enjoyed by non-Russians is a plus, Morrison explains, but the Russian writer is not "obliged to consider writing about French people, or Americans, or anybody." Seemingly satisfied, Wendt moves on.3 This exchange between Toni Morrison and Jana Wendt is emblematic of the predicament of the African-American writer who has perennially found her subject matter, as well as her subjectivity, under scrutiny. Doubtless, the first moment of African-American creative production was followed immediately by a second moment of interrogation by critics and supporters, equally unbelieving. In Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, Robert Hemenway characterizes as arrogant the biases that have been central to white criticism of black novels, one ofthem being that a "black author must transcend race in order to write universally."4 "Black" is parochial while "white" is universal , goes the imphcit logic, Hemenway explains. Hazel Carby concurs when she argues that writing about whites has always been assumed "by many white critics, reviewers and publishers to require more literary skill, and more talent, than writing...


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