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  • The Daughters’ Arrival: The Earliest Black Women’s Writing Community
  • Katherine Clay Bassard (bio)

My project rises from delight, not disappointment. It rises from what I know about the ways writers transform aspects of their social grounding into aspects of language, and the ways they tell other stories, fight secret wars, limn out all sorts of debates blanketed in their text. And rises from my certainty that writers always know, at some level, that they do this.

—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

[P]eople of color have always theorized—but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic.

—Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory”

Toni Morrison’s recent critical work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, might seem an unlikely text with which to open a discussion of African-American women writers. After all, Morrison’s project, which she describes as “unencumbered by dreams of subversion or rallying gestures at fortress walls” (3), materializes through her readings of white American writers’ construction and use of “a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked Africanist presence” (17), a psychical/discursive process Morrison refers to as “American Africanism.” Yet at the very outset of Playing in the Dark, Morrison defines her critical project as one which (she tells us three times) “rises” from overlapping concerns of subjectivity (“aspects of . . . social grounding”), utterance (“aspects of . . . language”) and epistemology (“what I know”; “my certainty that writers always know. . . . “). Such a project does not hold itself to binaries of American/African-American or, indeed, even writer/critic, and I turn to Morrison precisely because her project enables a theorizing positionality that renders meaningless these conventional battle lines. As Morrison writes: “I want to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World—without the mandate for conquest” (3).

Similarly, Barbara Christian’s brilliant if often misunderstood observation that “people of color have always theorized—but in forms quite different from the [End Page 508] Western form of abstract logic” (“The Race for Theory”) raises precisely this issue of epistemology and culture. Using the verbal formation “theorize” instead of the abstract nominative “theory,” Christian locates the culture-specific theorizing of African Americans in narrative, stories, riddles, and proverbs. Often misinterpreted as “anti-theory,” Christian’s theorizing understands African-American thought as a radically Other (and other-ed, dismissed, discredited) epistemology. Like Morrison, she deconstructs the opposition between praxis/theory, writer/critic, performer/thinker. It is thus that a discourse that I will call “African Americanism” rises out of the shadows of Eurocentric epistemologies. Both Christian’s understanding of an alternative theorizing cultural presence and Morrison’s writerly “certainty” signal a discourse that shadows, contours, if you will, the discourse of American Africanism.

Given Morrison’s premise that “literary blackness” and “literary whiteness” are mutually dependent and mutually constituting, her title could well read: “Playing in the Dark (/Light): Whiteness (/Blackness) and the Literary Imagination.” Such a deconstruction, however, does not render meaningless the notion of a discourse of African Americanism which is distinct from yet related to American Africanism. Morrison points to the presence of African Americanism as a discourse (albeit unnamed) when she writes that

The principal reason these matters loom large for me is that I do not have quite the same access to these traditionally useful constructs of blackness. Neither blackness nor “people of color” stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread. I cannot rely on these metaphorical shortcuts because I am a black writer struggling with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive “othering” of people and language which are by no means marginal or already and completely known and knowable in my work. My vulnerability would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it.


African Americanism as a discourse derives its power from its self-reflexivity, its self-consciousness about both the possibilities and the risks in written language. This self-reflexivity derives...

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pp. 508-518
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