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Reading Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison thoughtfully explores the importance of African Americans in the American literary imagination. Morrison shares her concerns with American language and the American literary imagination being both characteristically white, and questions the impact of this whiteness upon American writers.
In chapter 1, entitled Black Matters, Morrison centers on Willa Cather’s virtually ignored novel, ‘Saphira and the Slave Girl’, claiming that the books critical point and power originates from the way that Cather describes a white mistress who exercises control over her black slave girl’s body and ultimately defines herself against and within the ‘Africanist’ presence around her. Saphira convinces herself that her husband is having an affair with Nancy, daughter of one of her slaves, and attempted to kill her, however, Saphira failed, then later on decided to send off her nephew to rape and eradicate Nancy.
Neither of Saphira’s plans worked primarily because Rachel, Saphira’s daughter, took Nancy under her wing and managed Nancy’s escape from her horrible master. In this chapter, Morrison goes on to parallel the metaphor of the white slave mistress who uses the black female body with Cather herself as a white author who exploits the vehicle of blackness in her fiction to define her beliefs of whiteness and femininity. Morrison’s second section, Romancing the Shadow, deals principally with Edgar Allen Poe and the logic between American Romantic sentiments of egalitarian liberty and black slavery, in which a large number of racial portrayals were played out.
Morrison contends here that as nineteenth-century Americans battled with inquiries of human freedom, the social hierarchy, and individual will, the black body became the focus for meditation on these issues of human freedom, its lure and elusiveness. She considers Romance as a sphere in which exists a head-on experience with real, pressing historical forces and the logical inconsistencies inherent in them as they came to be experienced by writers. Thus, enabling Morrison to investigate a greater reality-based reading of these writings and their racial perspectives with a specific end goal to look at the non-white, African, “fabricated” presence and its function in American literature.
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